I am honored to to reprint one of my favorite Derech Tsofeh divrei Torah, by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a highly respected scholar, teacher and community leader. Rabbi Riskin is the former Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the Chancellor Emeritus of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs.
Parasha Yitro describes the most magnificent and miraculous event to have ever occurred in world history: God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel from atop Mount Sinai. As the Bible tells it, several million Jews, recently freed from backbreaking slavery in Egypt, stood around the mountain and heard God giving a formula for good conduct which would teach people to love each other and to bring a world of peace.
The opening words are, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt the land of slavery”; clearly God is saying that he wants every person to be free. And then God goes on to command that we believe in Him, that we rest on the Sabbath day, that we respect our parents, that we do not murder, that we do not steal, and that we do not try to take away something that belongs to someone else. Indeed, if everyone lived by these simple rules, the world would be a much better place.
But there is one very strange part in this amazing story. The Promised Land of Israel, which was the eventual destination of the newly freed Hebrew slaves, was a distance away. Mount Sinai was in a wilderness, a desert. Why would God give such a precious gift as was the Ten Commandments in a no-man’s land, in an area without trees or flowers? Why didn’t He rather make the gift on Mount Moriah, the great mountain in Jerusalem where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac? Why in a desert wilderness?
The Rabbis of the Midrash suggest that if these Ten Commandments had been given in Jerusalem, the Jews would have thought that they were meant for the Jews alone. And this dare not be the case. God gave the Ten Commandments in a no-man’s land because it is also an every-man’s land. These laws of proper conduct are meant for the entire world; unless the world will accept them and live by them, there will be no free world. Unless the world understands that there is a God who loves every human being, who wants us all to live together in peace and respect for each other, who forbids one individual from harming another innocent individual, there will be no world of peace. And God chose the Jewish people, who had just felt the pain of slavery and who seemed to understand how important it was to live a proper life, to teach the Ten Commandments to the entire world.
There is also a second reason why God gave His laws in the desert. The newly freed Jews were now becoming a new nation. If they were to teach the world, they must continue to survive and live through many generations. A desert is a very difficult place to live; it is very hot by day and freezing by night. The winds are quite strong and there are no natural protecting trees where one can hide. God believed that there was no better place to teach this young nation the necessary survival skills in a difficult environment which would enable them to grow strong and numerous when they finally would reach their promised land in forty years.
I can think of no audience better equipped to understand this message than the Scouts. You all are trained in wilderness survival skills and you understand the importance of living a life of good deeds.
May the Ten Commandments continue to follow and teach you wherever you may be.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin