To Thank Before We Think
Family Edition

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icon the parsha in a nutshell

The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

The Ten Commandments are given to the Jewish people this week. This list of ten is often seen as two sets of five laws, the first set dealing with relationships between us and God, the second set focusing on the relationship between us and our fellow humans. (The first set also includes the law to honour our parents, but we can understand that this is linked to our relationship with God because our parents, like God, brought us into being.)

However, another way to look at the Ten Commandments is to see them as three groups of three. The first three (There is one God; We should have no other God; Do not take God’s name in vain) are about God, the Author and Authority of the laws. The second set (Keep Shabbat; Honour parents; Do not murder) are about creation. Shabbat reminds us of the birth of the universe. Our parents brought us into being. Murder is forbidden because we are all created in God’s image (Bereishit 9:6). The third three (Don’t commit adultery, Don’t steal, Don’t bear false witness) are about the basic foundations of society: the sanctity of marriage, laws of private property, and establishing a society of justice. Lose any of these and freedom begins to crumble.

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So that’s three sets of laws. What is the tenth command, and where does it fit into these sets?

“Do not crave your neighbour’s house. Do not crave your neighbour’s wife, his male or female servants, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s.”

At least on the surface this is different from all the other rules, which involve speech or action. Envy, desiring what someone else has, is an emotion, not a thought, a word, or a deed. We can’t help our emotions. So how can envy be forbidden at all? Surely it only makes sense to command or forbid matters that are within our control. In any case, why should the occasional spasm of envy matter as long as it is merely a feeling, and does not lead to anything harmful to other people? This law is often seen as the strangest one.

In fact, forbidding envy is not at all odd. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that the Ten Commandments teach us to understand. These ten laws do more than forbid envy; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s Presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our creation, that help us rise above envy.

Why were we created? Because God wanted us to be. Everything we have, God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we want anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, friction, and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.

The antidote to envy is gratitude. Ben Zoma teaches us that we are only rich if we rejoice in what we have.

Thanks POST

There is a beautiful Jew­ish practice that, if performed daily, is life-transforming. Reciting Modeh Ani. If the first words we say in the morning, before we do (or think) anything else, are modeh ani lefanecha, “I thank You, living and eternal King” then we learn to thank before we think.

If we can learn to appreciate what we have, we can celebrate, instead of thinking about what other people have. This allows us to be what we are, instead of wanting to be what we are not. Judaism is gratitude with attitude.

icon Around the shabbat table questions 5783 2022
  1. In your experience, is envy a natural emotion? 
  2. Is there a positive side to the existence of envy in our lives?
  3. How can letting gratitude into your life help you to avoid envy?

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A Story for Shabbat

Two Young Fish

as told by Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel

Two young fish are swimming along together, when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, kids! How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What in the world is water?”

This story was originally told by David Foster Wallace, a novelist described by Rabbi Sacks as perhaps the most gifted writer of his generation. The point of the story is that often the most important and essential aspects of our lives, the gifts that facilitate and bless our life, are literally not seen, unnoticed, and therefore often taken for granted. Acknowledging these blessings, and giving thanks for them, helps us to grasp their reality and fully enjoy the graces we are blessed with.

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The next step is understanding that there is a Source outside ourselves that is responsible for the many blessings in our lives.  When we actively practice gratitude and become fully aware of our deep thanks, a fascinating thing happens: we are freed from comparisons to others, jealousy, and the prohibition in the tenth command, given in this week’s parsha, not to crave that which belongs to others.

A gratitude not recognised is like a cheque never cashed, or a gift never opened. 

Rachelle Fraenkel

The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Rabbanit Fraenkel teaches Halacha at Nishmat, where she also serves as a Yoetzet Halacha. She is the Director of Matan’s advanced Hilkhata Program.

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A Closer Look

Rabbanit Fraenkel now shares her reflections on Rabbi Sacks and his writings on Yitro.

What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your own middot?

Of all the many teachings I learned from Rabbi Sacks, what touched me most was a very personal sentence said by the Rabbi’s brother when he described him a month after his passing. Alan Sacks said, “I never heard my brother speak Lashon Hara (slander).”

That’s an amazing statement. And I think that at its root it stems from the ideas he teaches us in this week’s parsha: in the Rabbi’s many leadership roles, there were many issues of which he was fully aware, as he worked so hard to address and rectify situations. It is clear to me that he did not dodge the facts, and avoid information or his responsibilities with the excuse that they were “Lashon Hara”. He would listen when important problems were raised by others. But because at the root of his soul, in the most basic habits of his existence, he was full of thanks and gratitude, he had a feeling of abundance, of blessing, a gratitude that freed him from the urge to speak badly of people. He envisioned us greater than we are now, giving us hope that if we work hard enough, together, we can become great.

Which quote from the Rabbi’s writings on this theme do you find most inspiring, and why?

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“Every day we begin our morning prayers with a litany of thanks, that we are here, with a world to live in, family and friends to love and be loved by, about to start a day full of possibilities, in which, by acts of loving kindness, we allow God’s Presence to flow through us into the lives of others.”

This quote is the essence of what we just learned:  the ability to see and experience beauty, to feel truly blessed, and share that gratitude with others.

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Torah Trivia

Question: There are seven instances in the Torah when one person bows to another, and by the time we reach parshat Yitro, we have now read them all. How many instances can you name?

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week’s answer

  1. Moshe bows to Yitro in this week’s parsha (see Shemot 18:7).
  2. Avraham bowed to the three angels, thinking they were human men visiting his tent (Bereishit 18:2).
  3. Avraham also bowed to the Bnei Cheit when he bought the Cave of Machpelah (Bereishit 23:7-23:12).
  4. Yaacov and his family bowed to Eisav when the two brothers reunited (Bereishit 33:6).
  5. The brothers bowed down to Yosef, just as he had dreamt they would many years earlier (Bereishit 42:6 and Bereishit 43:26).
  6. Yaacov bowed when Yosef promised to bury his father outside of Egypt, in the Cave of Machpelah (Bereishit 47:31).
  7. And Yosef bowed to Yaacov when visiting him for the final time (Bereishit 48:12).
Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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