My two-year-old daughter Hannah developed an annoying habit recently. Whatever she wants, she asks be done “all the way.” To simply put on her socks is insufficient; she wants them pulled up all the way to her knees. If she asks for milk, she wants it poured all the way to the top of the cup (so it almost spills over). To put her shoes on, she insists that I first unbuckle the strap and then fasten it so that it covers the Velcro completely — with none left showing. She frequently says: “All the way, mama, all the way.”
This week’s Torah portion contains a similar refrain. The word col which means “all” appears 34 times in the three chapters of the parsha, which recount two events. First, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, heard of “all that God had done for Moses” and the people and so he came to visit (where Moses explained to him all that had happened.) Jethro then advised Moses about setting up a system of judges for the people so that he would not have to carry the full burden of leadership alone. The Torah recounts that Moses listened to his father-in-law “and did all that that he had said.”
The second major event of the portion is when the people arrived at Mount Sinai. God offered the people a special covenant and Moses gathered the elders and told them “all the words that God had commanded. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Then God spoke the Ten Commandments directly: the text recounts, “God spoke all these words …”
This parallel, repetitive language is instructive. Just as Moses accepted Jethro’s advice and did “all that he had said,” the people agreed to do “all that God had said.” The rabbis teach that there are two main realms of action — bein adam l’chavero (between people) and bein adam lamakom (between a person and God). This parallel demonstrates that whether in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God, we should try to give our all.
Sometimes, when we embark on a large project, we may lose steam in the middle and not want to see it through. The Israelites certainly had that problem as they often lost hope during their forty-year desert trek and pined to return to Egypt. Also, we may try to do too much so that we don’t accomplish any of our tasks fully and end up doing our many activities half-heartedly. This week’s portion implicitly warns against these spiritual dangers.
The parsha reinforces the spiritual lesson that my daughter was trying to impart. When you do something, do it “all the way.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.