Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Yitro 5778

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Intermediaries to God

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

I have had the following conversation more times than I care to remember.

Me- why do you think that having someone else pray for “X” instead of you is a good idea?

Other – well they have a better connection to God and they can somehow deliver the goods better than I can.

Me – did you ever consider that God wants a connection with you and that is the point of prayer, your connection to God? It follows that no one else can do that for you.

Other – inevitably says- yeah ok but it can’t hurt.

My sermon today is what I would call “reflections on that conversation.”

After the 10 commandments, after the revelation, there is an epilogue of sorts. The people can no longer bear to hear the word of God and they ask Moshe to intercede. The first thing that Moshe tells them is:

שמות פרק כ – כ) לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם

When I first looked at the verse it seemed to have two parallel halves,

לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף do not make with me Gods of silver and ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם Golden gods you shall not make for you.

The issue that all the commentators struggle with is that there is a better was to construct this verse, simply write “do not make Gods of silver or gold.” Why does the verse repeat do not make?

One might also ask- what is the difference between לא תעשון אתי  “make with me” and  לא תעשו לכם “make for you”?

The last issue that must be dealt with is – we just finished the 10 commandments, the second of which is the prohibition of idolatry, why is the first thing that Hashem tells them a repetition of the prohibition of idolatry?

Rashi suggests the following:

The way that I read the verse is not correct. Rather you should read it לא תעשון אתי  do not make any figures/images of the celestial bodies and אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם the second clause is do not make gods of silver or gold.

There are two issues with this explanation. The first is that you have to read words into the verse that are not there. Rashi assumes that “do not make with me” refers to stars/sun/moon but that is actually absent from the text.

The second issue is that Rashi does not attempt to answer our third question, why repeat the command.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, one of the last Rashei Yeshiva in Volozhin, has a tremendous piece of commentary on this verse.

He argues that this cannot be the same prohibition contained in the 10 commandments. It is impossible to explain the verse in this way he writes.

He then gives an analogy to try and explain. When you have a human king in charge of a nation very often the contact with the king himself or the queen is limited. When you want something you rarely get an audience with the king; usually there is an intermediary who presents the request to the king. And when the king wants information about his subjects he does not get it himself, instead he sends an intermediary.

Although that intermediary does not have decision making power as to the granting of the actual request, that individual does have some power regarding the decision to present the request or not and if so, how to present the request.

And that is a person that we have to be nice to, in the Netziv’s words, lehachnif, which I would loosely translate as suck up to…in order to get what we want. 

You might think that our relationship with God works in a similar manner. We don’t have access directly to God, we need an intermediary and that intermediary needs gifts etc. to properly advocate for us.

That perception, argues the Netziv, is exactly what is prohibited here. It is not a prohibition of idolatry, of believing in other Gods. It is close to idolatry however and therefore prohibited to believe in the need for an intermediary.

That is what is means when it says לא תעשון אתי  – do not make with me, literally with me and not instead of me.

And that might be what לא תעשו לכם means, do not make it for you- because you don’t need it.

He adds that this explanation fits in beautifully with the preceding verse.

יט) ויאמר יקוק אל משה כה תאמר אל בני ישראל אתם ראיתם כי מן השמים דברתי עמכם

Hashem says to Moshe- this you shall speak to the people of Israel, you have seen that from the heavens I have spoken to you.

Even if Hashem did not speak directly to us we could not worship idols. But the fact that God spoke to us directly from the heavens, the key word being directly, is proof that we don’t need an intermediary. We have the ability and the privilege of direct contact with Hashem.

He writes “there is no need for any intermediary, not for prayer and not for a request and not for God’s providence and knowledge of what is in our hearts.”

The Eben Ezra, another favorite offers a similar explanation –

After I have spoken to you face to face, without a messenger, there is no need to make with me gods of silver and gold. Many idolaters say – this shape will advocate for me and help me with God. Don’t do this says Hashem, there is no need for I have spoken to you without an intermediary between you and me.

I would add that the reason that this particular command is here can be explained by going back a few verses further. Sandwiched between the 10 commandments and this prohibition is the episode where the people tell Moshe that they can’t handle it anymore, you go to God and tell us what he said. Reluctantly Moshe agrees to be the prophet and relay God’s word. With that comes the fear that Moshe will be seen as this type of intermediary and thus the Torah comes to warn us, yes Moshe is the prophet but he is not the messenger, you still have direct access to God and that is the ideal.

Unfortunately the leap between the sun/star/moon and silver and god, to people, red strings and special places is not that great.

They are things that we use to advocate for us and to get our requests in good with God.

That seems very close to this prohibition.

In the words of the Eben Ezra and the Netziv, we don’t need intermediaries, we have God.