Yitro: Reading the Bible Backwards
We’re used to religion being something that is given to us from “out there” and put upon us like a yoke. Certainly, that is what is meant by the word “commandment.” Most religions see God or gods floating in from another realm to tell us what is what. For thousands of years, that has been the basic logic of biblical religion. God says “do this, don’t that,” and that is what we, as Jews anyway, do or don’t do. That’s been the way we do religion. If you read the Torah forwards, it certainly seems that it begins with God and ends with us. It begins with God’s actions and ends with our own.
But something has happened in the modern period. The onus for existence has shifted from God to us. Each of us has a sovereign soul that directs our thoughts and actions. We are our own commander. We are in touch with our souls, our spirits, and we feel elevated when we unify our habits of hands with the habits of our hearts. For many, this is the essence of feeling “spiritual but not religious.” At its heart, this new form of internal focus is skeptical of anything that comes from “out there” rather than what wells up from “in here.”
To understand this better, let’s take this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in which we find the “Ten Commandments.” The first of which is “I am the LORD your God.”(Ex 20:2) For many modern readers, the theology is right up front and can be a little heavy handed. It might because of the God-first language. To many of us, including me at times, theological notions of “one-ness” or “I am the LORD” seem distant from my personal experience of everyday life. Yet these are precisely how the Ten Commandments begin. The modern spiritualist finds it difficult because to start with God is too jarring, too big an idea that seems plopped down on them from someplace else, from “out there.”
In a world that prides itself on sovereign of the individual, getting a command from “The Sovereign” seems a little much.
Judaism has a natural response to the theological redirection at the heart of this spiritual moment. The great teacher Rashi states that “There is no early or late in the Torah” (On Ex. 31:18) That is, you don’t need to read the Torah strictly chronologically. I suggest using the rabbi’s idea to read the important texts of Judaism not forwards, but backwards.
By reading the bible backwards, we create the opportunity for God to emerge from each of us. We begin with what we know and then delve into the mystery and beyond. So if we were to read the Ten Commandments backwards, we start the final commandment. It says, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house, etc.” (Ex. 20:14) The idea here is that spirituality begins with the self, centering ourselves on the idea that we should not obsess over another person’s things or experiences. It is a remarkable statement that our spiritual lives begins by overcoming FOMO. We should focus instead on our own lives and journeys. Then, if we are true to ourselves, it is easy to avoid lying, cheating, stealing, and especially killing another person. (Commandments 9-6), because we won’t experience the murderous jealousy that comes along with acts of violence.
Moving up the list farther, once we clear a spiritual space for ourselves, we can look to our most sacred familial relationships and treat our parents with honor (Commandment 5). Our spiritual practices that ritualize our behaviors and draw us into sacred community (Commandment 4). We can then take the veracity with which we have dedicated our lives and apply them in all that we do including making oaths without vain (Commandment 3), and allowing nothing but the spirit to guide us into being holy people (Commandment 2). Finally after all that doing Torah we can know what it means be in relationship with the universe with a Torah-identity, a Jewish identity. We can come to know the One that spoke and brought all of this glorious life into being. (Commandment 1).
If the Torah is confusing or difficult for you, act as the Israelites did when they said, “We will do and we will hear.” (Ex. 24:7) First do Jewish, then become Jewish. You can take a page of out of the rabbinic book. Read it backwards. Then you will find the words of the Torah close to you. In your heart, in your mind, and in your soul.