Philo's Commandments (Yitro)

ten-commandments-heartThe purpose of Torah, says first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, is to teach that the essence of a human being is their soul. Soul animates our bodies, and expresses our God-like nature. Through the eyes of the soul, we see the subtle world of spiritual truth, where the values of justice and goodness live.

We live well when we use our bodies to cultivate our souls. When material cravings fill us with greed and envy, we diminish the power of our souls. From Philo’s perspective, we live an impoverished life.

Torah’s deepest messages about justice and truth live in its soul. To discover the messages, Philo says, we must read beyond the Torah’s body, i.e., beyond its most literal meaning. Intellectually, the task is easy: we need only have a sense of what we are looking for. The real challenge is living into what we discern.

Earlier this week, I asked my ALEPH ordination students to discover the soul of the Ten Commandments as Philo might. Here is a sample of their insight, focusing on the first, second, and tenth commandments.

I am the LORD your God, who can liberate you from your enslavement to materialism. Turn towards me, and you will learn not to worship goods fashioned from the yield of the earth. If you follow the guidelines I present, you will free yourself from all envy and greed.

American friends, Philo has a message for us today. Our country seems broken; politicians motivated by greed and ambition cannot fix it. Each of us must develop our souls through spiritual study. We must discern as deeply as we can how and where justice lives. And we must learn how to extend its reach.

For more reflections on Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), click here.

2 Comments
  1. At what point does greed become greed. When is enough? Where do necessity, need and want intersect. When there is a drug out there that costs thousands of dollars and one person lives yet many can have hundreds of food stamps … Is that life-saving drug greed, necsessity, want, or a luxury in our society? What do we mean by greed?
    Good Shabbos … Going to light up the world!

    1. Fantastic questions, Mary! I do think it is over the line when a person or corporation sells the drug for way more money than they need to earn.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *