The double-braided rope
TorahParshat Yitro

The double-braided rope

Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

(File photo)
(File photo)

Twisted. Plaited. Braided. Hollow. There are many different types of rope, each suited to a different purpose. Twisted ropes are perfect for climbing in middle school gym class; plaited ropes are helpful when setting up a tent; braided ropes are essential to sailing; hollow ropes mark the lane divisions in the JCC pool, and so forth. The (mostly) undisputed strength and durabilityto trust with your life the next time you go rock climbing or enter into a conversation about Jewish identity.

Hear me out. There have always been differentiated strands of connection within Judaism. Peoplehood. Culture. Food. Language, be it Hebrew or Yiddish or Ladino. Ritual. Prayer. Study. We could go on, and I hope you do — the more strands of connection we can weave together, the stronger the rope connecting us to our tradition. While one could, theoretically, try to maintain Jewish identity through just a few strands or even one singular point of connection (eating a bagel and reading The New York Times on a Sunday morning, for instance, or being machmir about personal observance halakha to the exclusion of middot), it feels like a risky proposition. A strong pull or minor accumulation of stressors could sever that fragile, tenuous connection in a way one need not worry about if they have a many-stranded, double-braided rope.

The outer braid of that rope is ours to assemble as we find our way in Jewish life. The foci imparted to us by our parent/s or that we accept through study as adults, our personalities and passions, and our own life experiences help us create that top layer of things we do and take joy in as Jews. And the inner core? It can be found in this week’s Torah portion. Not only in the Aseret HaDibrot, God’s Top 10 Commandments in this week’s Torah portion — part of the 613 commandments totaled in Talmud and enumerated by Maimonides — but in the very first words of that first commandment.

“I am Adonai your God,” we read in Exodus 20:2. Jewish tradition understands this as the first commandment in the series, a perspective distinct from our Christian neighbors who lump this together with the prohibition against idolatry.

“The first mitzvah God commanded us,” Maimonides writes in Sefer HaMitzvot, “is to believe in God; that is, to believe there is a cause and motive force behind all existing things. This idea is expressed in the statement: ‘I am Adonai your God.’” Whether you believe, as Maimonides does, that God’s creative power underlies all things or you take the approach that the moral imperative or force to act beyond self-interest could be labeled as God, wrestling with — holding tight and pulling close while struggling to fully articulate — and thus affirming the first Commandment forms the inner core of the strongest possible connection to Judaism.

There are, of course, many different types of rope, each suited to different purposes. How you plan to use it largely determines whether what you have will be strong enough to succeed. For your own edification, maybe you really can get away with one singular or with fewer strands of connection. But to anchor you during inevitable hardships in life? To grasp tangibly enough to pass on to future generations? To ensure the continuity of the rope stretching back to Sinai? I’d recommend you go with the double-braid. PJC

Rabbi Aaron Meyer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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