Parshas Yisro portrays the aftermath of Bnai Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt. For the most people, the crescendo of this Torah portion is the reading of the Ten Commandments, arguably the most well-known passages in the entire Five Books of Moses. As the Jewish people camped at Har Sinai, they were told all of these things with great fanfare.
The Aseres HaDibros begin “Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeisicha m’eretz Mitzrayim” that I am your God who took you out of Egypt. Rabbeinu Bechaye brings to light an interesting question regarding the preamble to the Ten Commandments. Why does God list Himself as “the One who brought you out of Egypt?” Isn’t He selling short His greatness and might? Why not refer to Himself as the Creator of the entire universe? Isn’t that the much more amazing achievement? Rabbeinu Bechaye points out, without using these exact words, that this is a clear case of “eino domeh shmia l’re’iya,” that merely hearing about an event that transpired does not compare to actually seeing it. The Jewish people were on the heels of witnessing unparalleled miracles. Not only were they witnesses to greatness, they lived it. It benefited them explicitly! It would have been enough for them to have merely been able to escape the hard labor forced upon them by the tyrannical regime of Paro. However, to be taken out of the clutches of their generations-long aggressors in the manner in which the ten plagues and splitting of the sea occurred was unimaginable. Over the top doesn’t even begin to cut it. Rashi explains that God is saying here that for this reason alone, the entire story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, is enough grounds for you, Bnai Yisrael to be subservient to Me. Hearkening back to the creation of the world, says Rabbeinu Bechaye, will not convey the same message being referred to as the One who brought about such tremendous miracles, that you saw and gained immensely from.
This concept of “eino domeh shmia l’re’iya” is a famous one in our heritage, and the world we live in today almost demands it. How can we make our Mesorah, the beautiful story of the Jewish people, applicable and enticing to the next generations? The children of today are at a greater danger than any generation before The apathy that permeates Jewish society is growing. What do we do? How can we make Judaism relevant to children and adults alike?
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was fond of mentioning the first Mishnah in Pirkei Avos in relation to this monumental task. The Mishnah begins “Moshe kibel Torah M’Sinai” that Moses received the Torah from Sinai. We know that Moshe received the Torah from the Almighty at Har Sinai, but the words of the Mishnah simply mention “Sinai.” Rav Shapiro explains that when we too transmit our “Torah,” it has to be a Sinaitic experience. Immediately following the Aseres HaDibros, the Torah mentions that there was fire and lightning, and the excitement among the Jewish people was palpable. That fire and excitement needs to be there for us as well.
The single greatest thing that I ever did in a classroom was try and implement a sense of tangibility to our heritage. There’s an NCSY educational activity that I was part of on a Shabbaton led by a wonderful friend and colleague of mine, and I used it in my classes. Each student in the room was given strips of paper with one sentence and a number on them. There were over 100 pieces of paper. After talking about how long ago they thought the Torah was given (with wonderful answers) we began to trace ourselves back from the very classroom we were in to Moses at Sinai. Each strip had a different person mentioned, and the teacher from whom they learned the Mesorah. Slowly but surely, we made it back to Har Sinai, and my students were wowed. When something is real, and it’s able to conjure up a sense of meaning, it’s significantly more powerful.
This is exactly why God tells the Jewish people at the beginning of the Ten Commandments that He is the God who took them out of Egypt, because they themselves were there. Nobody had to jog their memory about events they may or may not have known anything about: they were sitting front row to unbelievable nissim v’niflaos.