Parashat Yitro, in which we find the event which defines Israel as a people after their being freed from Egypt, is curiously short! In Parashat Yitro, we stand during the Torah reading to hear the Ten Commandments read. This is the parashah of Matan Torah, God’s giving the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai! So much is made of this event, so significant is this event, that it serves as at least as much a cornerstone of Judaism as the creation of the world, and as the Exodus from Egypt! We are the people of the Torah. All throughout the Exodus narrative, God tells Moshe, and Moshe in turn tells Pharaoh, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” Torah, of course, is the vehicle through which the Jewish people serve the One who creates the world, and releases us from slavery. What, then, can we make of the short time spent on describing the momentous event of Matan Torah?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his work Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations compares the two very different understandings of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva of the essence of Torah. One major difference between them is how they each understood the nature of Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Torah, or the teachings of the Rabbis. Heschel quotes Tosefta Chagigah: Release from vows simply bloom in the air, and they have no basis in written Torah. Rather, a sage releases one from one’s vow based on his own wisdom. The laws of Shabbat, of holiday sacrifices, and of misappropriation of sanctified goods- these things have very little scripture, and they have many laws, like mountains hanging from hairs, with no scriptural basis.” This reflects Rabbi Ishmael’s attitude towards Torah. The Torah speaks in human language, and so we may understand its words at face value. Rabbinic tradition is separate from scripture. It comes to support and amplify it, but the many laws of Rabbinic Judaism are not based in Biblical teachings.

Rabbi Akiva strongly disagreed. He believed that every word, letter, and crown on every letter was a source of deep meaning, both for the sake of Midrash and for the sake of halachah. Heschel quotes Rabbi Akiva’s teaching in Avot Derabbi Natan: God made the entire Torah a series of rings; a chain. Oral Torah and Written Torah are one, and every Rabbinic teaching has a scriptural basis.

The Chumash, the Biblical text that we call the Torah, is short and sparse, as is Parashat Yitro. The whole corpus of Torah tradition, including the vast and complex Talmud, the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, the many collections of Midrash, the many texts and teachings of Kabbalah, the Chassidic tradition based upon them, the discussions between students and between students and teachers, all of these are Torah. An entire mountain hangs upon a thin thread. It is a golden thread, and a precious gift.

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