Yitro 5753 -- The Experience of Sinai
Imagine, if you please, what it was like for our ancestors to stand at mount Sinai, as they did in the portion of the Torah we read today. Think of them all, more than a million men, women and children, at the foot of that great mountain, in the heart of the Sinai desert, at the end of Waddi Phiran, a dry river-bed that was known to have flush floods once in a while, with the mountain, that granite monolith, trembling from the presence of God.
Think, open your mind to that image. See the people, a rabble of former slaves, some newly emboldened by the experience of the Red sea, having seen their enemies drown into the deep, others still not used to make up their own mind, still clinging to the old "slave mentality," standing there before the mountain, thinking that here they have a new oppressor, a new Pharaoh, only possibly a hundred times more powerful, a hundred times more demanding -- He took them out of a steady home environment and put their lives at risk, day after day.
Sometimes there was no bread, other times there was no water, always there was the desert heat, the desert sand getting into their eyes, into cracks and crevasses, getting into their food, their drink... And now they were here, at the mountain, and that man, Moses, asked them to prepare to meet God.
For three days they had to groom themselves, they had to wash (who ever heard of washing, even by the Nile river, let alone in the desert); they had to avoid the temptation of the flesh -- one of the only temptations that they could succumb to without having to face a consequence in the immediate future (you see, to them, if the woman became "with child" it was a blessing!) -- all for this great day, the day that had now dawned, as they stood there before the mountain. Listen to the words of Torah describe the event:
"...And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice..."
I was there! That's right, I was there! Back in 1968, Leah and I joined a group of people who took a trip up that dry river bed to the foot of Mount Moses, as it is called, though it is believed to be mount Sinai. Indeed, we climbed the mountain itself, and we stood at its height, where only Moshe stood at the time of the revelation, and looked all around, surveying the land, far beyond the foot of the mountain, to the mouth of the river, at the gulf of Suez, the sea of Egypt, and on across the water, to the land of the Pharaoh, yellow-bleached in the scorching sun.
I closed my eyes, and I was transported to that other time at the same place, and I felt the earth rumbling and shaking beneath my feet - and I smelled the smoke. I am quite sure I heard Moses speak, andconceivably I even heard God answer... It is a trip we Jews take again and again, it is our birth experience, and it is the high point of our life.
The people Israel were exceedingly afrighted by the experience, and when the Lord began to speak the words, the whole Torah came pouring forth, and the people just knew that they would surely die. They could not bear the weight of Gods words, they did not understand the significance of the fact that he was talking to them, teaching them, loving them -- and they cried out to Moses, saying, Go up to God on the mountain, and hear His words, and bring them down to us and teach us, for no one can hear the voice of God and live.
But they had heard it, and it was in them, forever it shall stay in them. Maybe that is why we are different, maybe that is why we are what we are: Jews! At once blessed and cursed, at once strong and weak, always seeking, never finding, always going, never quite arriving. In our minds eyes is seared that image of Sinai, and whatever we see, we see through a veil of that vision. Let us, thirty five hundred years after the fact, come to terms with what we have seen and what we have heard. Let us realize that we have been made His bride on that occasion -- and let us live a life worthy of Him, worthy of His love and His redemption.
Last Week I concentrated my comments on Tu Bishvat, and our relationship to the world and the universe that God created. I pointed out to you how important in the scheme of things is even a single blade of grass. Everything exists in balance in this world that God created. I did not mentioned to you that the Torah reading contained the Song of the Sea, that wonderful epic poem that speaks of the miraculous manner in which God made sure that Egypt shall not continue to pursue Israel and try and bring them back into the old bondage. This week the epic continues, and great emotions are stirred in the hearts of the people Israel as they stand in Gods presence at Sinai. God speaks to them out of the smoky cloud, and the people are greatly moved. God gives the people of Israel, and through them all of humanity, the "ten basic steps of achieving holiness" -- in the ten statements He made. The great sages of antiquity have decreed that we not concentrate on these statements. The "tablets" and their content are not a common display in our synagogue -- even thought they are the doors of our own temple's Aron Kodesh. Why this seeming lack of respect to "the spoken word of God?" It is explained to us that it is just too easy to zero in on these statements -- to the exclusion of all the other teachings of this great source book of ours, the Torah.
So our great teachers have looked at the text and stated, "Vaydaber Adona'y et hadvarim ha'ele le'mor. . ." -- Then God spoke all these words saying..." What is the meaning of such an opening phrase? It is a clue to the real content of His presentation at Sinai. They point out that the same words, hadevarim ha'ele, are used in the text in Deuteronomy -- the one we are most familiar with being the Shma, "And you shall keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart." But this is not the only reference, indeed! We read in Deuteronomy 12:28, "Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God." Again, in chapter 30, verse one, "When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you." We see this theme of "these words" repeated again and again -- why?
To stress the importance of the entire text.
This concept continues even beyond the word of Moshe, in the establishment of Israel in their own land, at the time of Jushua, in the book that carries his name, chapter 24, verse 21, "Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, "See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that He spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God." So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances." Note that Joshua sets a stone -- a different stone, not the one of the Tablets from Sinai, as the sign and witness for "albl the words of the Lord that He spoke to us."
So that is the point of all of this dissertation on "these words" as against "the Ten Statements?" It is that we cannot, that we must not, streamline and simplify God's mystery and His word to a set number, be it ten or a hundred, or even 613 "dictums" -- which is laws. It is not mitzvot.
What is Mitzvot? It is the essence of the Goodness of God, it is the power that emanates from His presence, and it is the force that keeps creation going.
After all, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. God spoke et kol hadvarim ha'ele all these words, telling the Children of Israel that He was their Father, and that as a good father he must teach them how to swim in the current of life. Follow the mitzvot, He said, love one another and treat each other and this world which I have created for you with respect and with great care. Avoid anything that will dispoil this world, and avoid the kind of behavior that will set you one against another. As the Deuteronomy text instructs us, ve'ahavta et adona'y you shall love the Lord your God, and because you love Him -- you shall also love all of His creation, flora and fauna and your fellow human beings. Aseret Hadibrot is a ladder of human growth -- a goal for us to strive for. We must never lose sight of the forest just because we look at ten tall and magnificent trees. God loves the sapling, and the blade of grass every bit as much as He loves the big sequoia trees. Even after Tu Bishvat -- we can do nothing less.
This week we read one of the most pivotal portions in the Torah -- certainly one that contains material that is known by more people than any other passage in the Torah. I am talking of the twentieth chapter of the book of Shemot, verses one to fourteen. For those of you who are not as familiar with "chapter and verse," I am sure you, too, will immediately recognize the entire passage from the first couple of verses, " And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
Of course, we are looking at the first words of the words uttered by God at Sinai -- the ones that we call in Hebrew "Aseret Hadibrot [the ten pronouncements]." Most people call them "the Decalogue" or "the Ten Commandments." These well known and easily recognized names conjure in our minds a series of pictures a-la Cecil B. De-Mill, in "Glorious technicolor, Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound," which echo across the millennia with the "Ultimate Law..." I know people who state with sincerity and conviction that "they are not religious in the formal sense -- but they live by the Ten Commandments..." Ask such people what the "ten" are, and they giggle in embarrassment as they try to recall: "Well, there's 'love thy neighbor... And honor your father and mother... And thou shalt not kill -- of course..." Well, dear sincere friends, 'love thy neighbor' is NOT in Exodus 20, and 'thou shalt not kill' is a mistranslation, and should not read 'kill' -- but rather 'commit murder.'
We should think twice. We should examine the entire parsha, this week's reading in the Torah. It begins in the eighteenth chapter, with Moshe's father in law's arrival at the camp of the Israelites. Some of our sages suggest that he was a convert to Judaism, practicing that faith long before Moshe arrived at his door. Others suggest that he was convinced by the miracles that God had wrought for Israel in Egypt and on the way to Sinai -- and came to Moshe for the purpose of conversion. Is this important? Yes and no! If he was not a Jew, how could he have such an important role in the formation of the Jewish way of life? It was he who told Moshe to establish a judicial system of graduated levels, to judge cases based on their complexity -- and yet, who says that only Jews can establish a worthwhile judicial system.
Here is the crux of the matter: Before there is a Torah, before the "law" (which, in our minds, is manifest first and most in the "Ten Commandments") is given to Israel -- what do we read in the text? "And it came to pass on the next day, that Moshe sat to judge the people, and the people stood by Moshe from the morning to the evening." [Ex. 18:13] If Moshe did this, did the people accept his rulings? What did he use for guidelines? The answer, which is obvious from the verse, is that yes, the people did accept whatever he ruled -- and that he must have used a system that was fair and just, as did his ancestors, Abraham, Yitzkhak and Ya'akov. We are taught, 'Reshit Khokhma yir'at hashem' -- the beginning of wisdom is the reverence of God. Once this is part of our life, we become inspired to do mitzvot and to lead a life of 'tzedek' -- doing that which is correct, in any situation.
The people who hang their faith on Exodus 20:1-14 remind me of "specialists": They know everything there is to know about their specialty -- and nothing else! Looking at the dots on the "eyes" and insuring that all the "tees" are crossed, they lose sight of the fact that Israel is standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and that the Lord is speaking to them. Here they are... Here they stand, the motley group of ex-slaves and camp followers, hardly used to thinking for themselves, afraid of enemies, real or imagined, complaining about water that is not pure and the lack of meat in their diet -- and there He is, the One who humiliated Egypt, the one who caused the lion to give up its prey. The Lord God, creator of the universe, the infinite, most complete, ever present and all knowing God -- presenting His Torah, in person, uniquely and mysteriously to each and every member of the camp of Israel! Can we even begin to imagine what it was like? And yes, we need to -- because the very text tells us, "And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; but with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;" [Deu. 29:13,14] So we were all at Sinai, and we must understand that the Torah which Moshe instructed us came from the Sinai experience, all of it -- not just ten statements. Further, we must study the entire content of the book -- 'ki hem kha'yeynu ve'orekh yameynu' for it is our life and the length of our days.
The issue is not one of nomenclature, of what we call a particular passage or a particular book. The issue is much more fundamental -- it is the question of what is important and what is peripheral. Some people love to worship God's sanctuary. We teach that it is important to worship God -- either in his sanctuary or anywhere else where He may be found. Some love to study God's law -- we are taught to LIVE by His law, which necessitates studying the law, but also requires going into the mainstream of life and living by that law. Proverbs gives us this message, "Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and its gain than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies; and all the things you can desire are not to be compared to her. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her; and happy is every one who holds her fast. The Lord by wisdom has founded the earth; by understanding has he established the heavens." [3:13-19] Wisdom is the essence of Torah. It is much more than commandments, it is the balance of nature, it is the path of God, it is the secrete of a good life, of a real life. May we gain wisdom, may we tend it with understanding, and may we always follow its direction toward a life in God's grace.
This week we read in the Torah what many call the most significant words in the entire Scriptural text. The name of this week's portion is Yitro, and it begins with the arrival of Moshe's father in law together with hs wife and kids, at the Israelite camp. Yitro, a former priest of Midyan, observes Moshe at his work, and asks, "What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit by yourself alone, and all the people stand by you from morning to evening?" [Ex. 18:14] Moshe explains that he is the only one who knows God and is able to speak for Him and judge between the people.
Yitro is appalled, and he responds with these words, "The thing that you do is not good. You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone. Listen now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God shall be with you; Represent the people before God, that you may bring the causes to God; And you shall teach them ordinances and laws, and shall show them the way where they must walk, and the work that they must do. And you shall choose out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens;" [Ex. 18:17-21] These words of Yitro make good sense to Moshe, and we read the conclusion, "So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said." [Ex. 18:24]
The sages asked, 'how did Moshe judge Yisrael? After all, there was no Torah, no Hallakha -- no God-given law by which Yisrael would live.' Further, they asked, 'why do we have a portion in the Torah named after a non-Jew, and how does Yitro merit to be the father in law of Moshe and the originator of Israel's judicial system?' They answer all their questions in good time and in a manner that always makes sense. Torah existed from the dawn of creation -- it was with God until the time of Sinai, and was given by revelation to men such as our patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzkhak and Ya'acov, to Yoseph -- and to Moshe. The wisdom of Torah was also imparted to wise men among the 'goyim,' the nations of the world. Those who heeded that wisdom are 'khasidey umot ha'olam' -- the righteous of the nations of the world. Yitro was one of these 'righteous.' That is how he came to be named in the Torah, that is how he merited to be Moshe's father in law -- and the proof of his virtue is his adroit advice to Moshe concerning the system of judges that was established at Sinai and remained in effect for as long as the Jews lived in their land and ran their lives autonomously.
It is only after this matter that the Torah tells us -- first about the preparations and next about the happening -- of the greatest event in the history of religion, of the Jews, and of the human experience -- as more than six hundred thousand men, their women and their children, had a mass revelation. The Torah tells us, " And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount. And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled greatly." [Ex. 19:16-18] Can you imagine what it was like, seeing the mountain on fire, hearing in the mist and the smoke the words of the living God. Was this an experience that shook the world? You bet! Was this an experience that those present would remember and cherish for the rest of their lives? Without a doubt! Was this an experience that the people would like to repeat? Not on your life! Just as no one in his right mind wishes to spend another night in London during the famous 'battle for Britain;' just as no Italian wants to spend a day in Pompey when mount Vesuvius erupts; just as no Los Angeleno wants to be near the buildings of downtown L.A. when an earthquake measuring seven or higher on the Richter scale hits their town... So also, and much more so, in the case of Yisrael at God's mountain -- for at Sinai the awesome event of nature was eclipsed by the presence and manifestation of The Lord God, creator and master of the universe.
Would God have come down to speak to the people only to give them a simple, almost simplistic code of behavior made up of less than ten rules? Oh, sure -- I know, they are called 'the Ten' and you wish to correct me... But really, is "I am the Lord your God..." A rule? "Remember the Sabbath day..." Can anybody legislate memory? What are we going to do, take a test every other month to see what we remember and what we we have forgotten? Not very likely! No, my friends, 'Aseret Hadibrot' -- the Ten Statements at Sinai were most assuredly not a "decalogue" -- a Law of Ten. Our sages interpreted the opening verse of chapter 20, which reads, "Vaydaber adona'y et kol hadvarim ha'ele le'mor -- And God spoke all these words, saying..." "All these things means the entire Torah. God spoke in a way that is a total mystery, and he transmitted the essence of all His teaching. 'Aseret Hadibrot' -- the Ten Statements at Sinai is, at best, a distillation of all the teachings of the Torah.
Who received the Torah at Sinai? The first answer is Yisrael, the People God redeemed -- but in a sense, following the text of Torah, just before the text of the "ten Statements," which speaks to Yisrael and tells them, "Va'atem tihyu li mamlekhet kohanim ve'am kadosh -- And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a consecrated peope." [Ex. 19:6] Who are the teachers of the word of God among Israel? The Kohanim and Leviim. Then what is the role of a mamlekhet kohanim ve'am kadosh -- a kingdom of priests, and a consecrated peope -- obviously it is to minister to the rest of humanity -- to the Goyim.
Now we begin to understand the great purpose of God. God wished for all mankind to benefit from His teaching. It is a difficult, if not impossible, to reach out and touch all of humanity at once. Therefore did God create Yisrael, to be His messengers upon this earth -- to go from land to land, from generation to generation, from people to people and proclaim "Adona'y ekhad -- the Lord is One." Come to Him, bask in His glory, know His wisdom and partake of His grace, His goodness, His qualities of love, mercy, and equity -- true justice for all.
His words still ring, still echo from Sinai, through Torah, and through the People Yisrael. May His sovereignty arrive soon, and may humanity finally discover the peace and brotherhood that He intended for us all to share -- in His Glory!
This week's portion of the Torah is called Yitro, Shmot 18 - 20:23. This segment includes the passage that is known by more people than any other excerpt of the Torah. I am speaking of the twentieth chapter of the book of Shmot, verses one to fourteen. For those of you who are not as familiar with "chapter and verse" in the Torah I am sure you, too, will immediately recognize the entire passage from the first couple of verses, " And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." [Ex. 20:1,2]
Of course, we are looking at the message uttered by God at Sinai the one that we call in Hebrew "Aseret Hadibrot the ten pronouncements, words, or statements." Most people, Jews as well as non-Jews, call them "the Decalogue" or "the Ten Commandments." These two names conjure, at least in my mind, and I would imagine in your minds too, a series of pictures a-la Cecil B. De-Mill, in Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound, which echo across the millennia with the "ultimate law..." I know people who state with sincerity and conviction that "they are not religious in the formal sense but they live by the Ten Commandments..." Ask such people what these "ten" are, and they giggle in embarrassment as they try to recall: "Well, theres love thy neighbor... And honor your father and mother... And thou shalt not kill and, of course, the one forbidding sexual hanky-panky, thou shalt not commit adultery..."
Well, dear, sincere friends, love thy neighbor is NOT in Exodus 20, thou shalt not kill is a mistranslation, and should not read kill but rather commit murder; as for adultery, well, does it really deal specifically with sex? Think of adulterated wine and adulterated weights... There is nothing sexy about those, right?
When we inaugurate our day, when we wake up and arouse ourselves from sleep each and every day, weekday and yom tov, Shabbat and Shabbat Shabbaton (yom Kippur) we give thanks to God for allowing us to sleep and to wake up, to begin the new day, and to learn Torah. We say, "Barukh ata... asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu laasok bedivrey Torah Bless Are you... who sanctified us with your percepts and enjoined us to concern ourselves in matters of Torah." We then continue with the blessing which we recite when we are called to the Torah: "Barukh ata... asher bakhar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et Torato, Barukh ata... noten haTorah Blessed are you... who has chosen us of all peoples and gave us the Torah. Blessed are you... who gives the Torah." This teaches us two different principles that are actually one: the purpose and the meaning of the experience at Sinai.
Here we are, the people who stood at Sinai, and yet we do not recite the words of Sinai, except for this Shabbat in the reading of the Torah, because we have arrived at this point in the reading of the Torah one verse after another, one chapter followed by the next, and on Shavuot, the time of year of the Sinaic experience. Why is that? Precisely because we do not wish to place the wrong emphasis on the words spoken at Sinai but rather teach the importance of the entire Torah, which we see embodied in the Statements. "And God spoke all these words, saying," according to our tradition these words means the entire Torah.
There are not "ten commandments," ten laws that we can follow and finish our obligation to God and to His creation. There are 613 mitzvot but even with these 613 we will not complete our task! We must remember daily that we were chosen to be given the Torah, as the blessing says, "Barukh ata... asher bakhar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et Torato Blessed are you... who has chosen us of all peoples and gave us the Torah." The purpose of Gods choosing of Yisrael was not to remove them from Egypt, nor to teach the world to avoid slavery and allow all people to be free. The purpose was to bring us to Sinai and give us the Torah. Notice that the end of the blessing, "Barukh ata...noten haTorah Blessed are you... who gives the Torah." The first part of the blessing said has chosen and gave but the end is not in the past, who gives to teach us that the Torah is constantly given, whenever we are there to listen, God speaks to us, and His speech is Torah!
The presence at Sinai... Imagine it for a moment. There they stood, that unruly group of ex-slaves and camp followers, hardly used to thinking for themselves, afraid of enemies, real or imagined, complaining about water that is not pure or sweet and the lack of meat in their diet and there He is, the One who humiliated Egypt, the One who caused the lion to give up its prey. The Lord God, creator of the universe, the infinite, most complete, ever present and all knowing God presenting His Torah, in person, uniquely and mysteriously to each and every member of the camp of Israel! Were they worth His bother? Well, we know what happened on the morrow of Matan Torah the giving of the Torah the people lost faith as soon as Moshe tarried on the mountain. The did not deserve to be at Sinai, and their experience is negated by what they did consequently! But, a little later in the text we read, "And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; but with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;" [Deu. 29:13,14] So we were/are all at Sinai, and we must understand that the Torah which Moshe instructed us came from the Sinai experience, all of it not just ten statements. Further, we must return there, for God is still there, "noten haTorah" giving the Torah, and we must study the entire content of the book ki hem khayeynu veorekh yameynu for it is our life and the length of our days.
This week we read in the Torah the fifth portion in the book of Shemot, called Yitro. It begins with chapter 18 and goes on to 20:23. This portion contains what must be the most famous and yet least known or understood words ever written down in all of literature the words known as "the Ten Commandments."
You see, even as I stopped to take a breath before continuing with my dissertation, you already reviewed in your mind, thinking to yourself, "Ah, yes, the Decalogue! Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not thrill (as in adultery)..." Or, your thoughts may have gone a different route altogether, keeping a visual context and you saw Charlston Heston come down the mountain, his hair and beard long, white, and flowing, his hands holding the two stone tablets... Either way, you have now been distracted by my words, and hopefully you are back with me on solid ground, ready to face reality. We begin, not with God, nor even with the Great Moshe Rabenu, but with Yitro, the namesake of our portion. The sages of Israel asked, who is this priest of Midian that he should have the honor of being related to Moshe Ish haElohim - the man of God? They answered and said, he is the perfect example of a man who rises above his origin and becomes a tzadik - a righteous man. The very name, Yitro, comes from the root yeter which means remnant. He is the ember that remains from a great and consuming fire. It is the flame of hatred and bigotry, which somehow he was able to overcome.
The Midrash says, "NOW JETHRO... HEARD (18:1). It is written, Thine own friend, and thy father's friend forsake not; neither go into thy brother's house in the day of thy calamity; better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off (Prov. 27:10). Thine own friend is the Holy One, blessed be He, for it says, For my brethren and friends sakes (Ps. 122:8). (According to the Midrash the speaker is God who refers to Israel as His friends, and so conversely God is Israel's Friend.) And thy father's friend is Abraham, for it says, The seed of Abraham My friend (Isa. 41:8). Forsake not, but if thou hast forsaken, then see that thou dost not go Into thy brother's house in the day of thy calamity; this refers to Ishmael and Esau. (This probably means: even if Israel forsake God by sinning, they must still strive not to be absorbed by Esau and Ishmael. Or perhaps one should translate as E.J.: and if thou hast forsaken (Him), note well that thou canst not enter thy brother's house, etc.-i.e. do not think that you will be accepted open-armed by Ishmael and Esau (the Gentiles) and that apostasy will finally solve all your troubles.) R. Joshua b. Levi said: When Nebuchadnezzar exiled Israel to Babylon, [their hands] were tied behind them (as we find written in the Midrash to Lamentations(Lam. R. II, 4, on the verse The Lord hath swallowed up unsparingly (Lam. II, 2)) until the verse For they fed away from the swords (Isa. 21:15)). (It is there related how the Israelites, dying of thirst, appealed to the Ishmaelites who gave them empty gourds filled with air - a proof that they need have no hope in their brother... in the day of their calamity. The comment that follows is likewise based on this experience.) For your father who was cast away in the wilderness I opened a well of water(Gen. 21:19), and yet you do this?
Hence, Better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off.(Neighbor is now applied to God, who is always near to those who call upon Him (v. Ps. 145:18); He is better than Ishmael, who though a brother proved himself so cruel (E.J.)). Another explanation: Better is a neighbor that is near refers to Jethro, who was far from Israel, [yet was better] than Esau the brother of Jacob.(By a transposition of the words the verse is now translated: Better is a neighbor near (in spirit) though far (in relationship) than a brother (like Esau)).
For what does it say of Jethro? And Saul said unto the Kenites... for ye showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came out of Egypt (I Sam. 15:6), and of Esau it is written, Remember what Amalek did unto thee (Deut. 25:17). You will find many things written of Esau to his discredit, but of Jethro in praise. In reference to Esau it is written, They have ravished the women in Zion (Lam. 5:11), but of Jethro it says, And he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter (Ex. 2:21). Of Esau it says, Who eat up My people as they eat bread (Ps. 14: 4), but of Jethro it says, Call him, that he may eat bread (Ex. 2:20). Of Esau it says, And he feared not God (Deut. 25:18), but of Jethro it is written, And God commanded thee so (Ex. 18:23). Esau put a stop to the sacrifices, (By destroying the Temple, Esau being identified with Rome.) but of Jethro it says, And Jethro, Moses father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God (ib. 12). When Esau heard of Israel's departure, he came to do battle with them, for it says, Then came Amalek (ib. 17:8), but when Jethro heard Israel's praises sung, he joined them, as it says, NOW JETHRO... HEARD, etc." [Midrash Rabah Ex. 22:1]
All this before we even get to the preparations for our rendez vous with God!
Then, in the most exciting and wondrous event of our history as a people or even as a part of humanity, the Children of Israel came face to face with God, to hear his pronouncement, "Anokhi Adonay Eloheykha asher hotzetikha meeretz mitzrayim mibeyt avadim - I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." [Ex. 20:1,2] The sages ask, how could human beings hear "the voice of God?" And they respond and say that they did not! All they heard was the first word, after which they were so awestruck that they asked Moshe to hear Gods words and transmit His teaching to them. That one word, then, "Anokhi," is the key to their relation with God. In the English it reads, "I am." Yet I am is ani so why does our text use this other word? The word "Anokhi" combines ani with the word ki which means because. Because is a word that answers the question "why?" That means that it gives a reason for whatever we question. We explain that ki is the giver of purpose. Therefore "Anokhi" can be said to mean "I am for a purpose." God did not go down to Egypt casually, and coincidentally removed Israel. Nor was it by accident that He brought them to Sinai to meet with them and speak to them. From the very beginning of His relationship with Israel, when He befriended Abraham, He stated that the families of mankind shall be blessed by Abrahams seed. God had a purpose for Israel, and the experience at Sinai was an important element in making that purpose come true. "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles wings, and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the people of Israel." [Ex. 19:4-6]
I have been to Sinai we have all been. We read in the Torah, "And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;" [Deu. 29:13,14] I remember the mountain smoking and the earth trembling, the sound intensifying and the mystery increasing. I am not sure what I actually saw and heard, and what I just felt and knew to be Godly truth. I do know that I was changed, that through His "Anokhi" I also gained purpose, that through His wisdom I became more knowledgeable, and through His compassion I became more caring, more accepting and more forgiving. I know that through His eternity I learned to treasure each day and fill it with a reflection of His love. Through His spirit I was infused with a spirit of humanity and humility. I hope you have had a similar experience and if not, I invite you to undertake the journey to Sinai. It begins right here, in our synagogue; it begins right here, in your heart, in your prayer, in your ever expanding spirit, which is His gift to you.
The portion read
in the Torah this Shabbat throughout the Jewish world is from Shmot, chapter
18 to 20, verse 23, and is called Yitro. It tells the story of the Revelation
at Sinai. Now, everyone knows that Israel received the Word of God at Sinai.
Most people, non-Jews and all too many Jews as well, think that this "word"
was the "Ten Commandments," first pronounced by the voice of God,
and then immortalized in the stone Tablets. To us Jews, though, the "word"
spoken at Sinai were more that "Ten statements" - they included the
whole Torah. And yet, and still - they were more than that, too! It was the
experience of knowing God. Imagine, if you can, what it was like for our ancestors
to stand at the foot of mount Sinai. Try to see them all, more than a million
men, women and children, at the foot of that great mountain, in the heart of
the Sinai desert, at the end of long and narrow chasm, between primeval rock
walls, in a dry river-bed that was known to have flush floods once in a while,
with the tallest mountain, that granite monolith, trembling from the presence
of God in front of them.
Contemplate, if you can, open your mind to that image. See the people, a rabble of former slaves, some newly emboldened by the experience of the Red sea, having seen their enemies drown in the deeps, others still not used to making up their own minds, still clinging to that slave mentality that makes them complain before tackling any challenge. Can you see all of them standing there before the mountain, some worrying of a possible flood, others thinking that they have arrived at the presence of a new oppressor, a new Pharaoh, only possibly a hundred times more powerful, a hundred times more demanding -- He took them out of a steady and familiar home environment and put their lives at risk, day after day. Sometimes there was no bread, at times there was no meat, and still at other times there was no water. Always there was the desert heat, the desert sand getting into your eyes, into cracks and crevasses, getting into food, into drink. And now they were here, at the mountain, and that man, Moses, asked them to "prepare to meet God."
For three days they had to groom themselves, they had to wash (who ever heard of washing, even by the Nile river, let alone in the desert); they had to avoid the temptation of the flesh -- one of the only temptations that they could succumb to without having to face a consequence in the immediate future (you see, to them, if the woman became with child it was a blessing!) -- all for this great day, the day that had now dawned, as they stood there before the mountain.
Listen to the words of Torah describe the event: "...And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightening and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice..." [Ex. 19:16-19]
In case you cannot quite conjure the image in your mind's eyes, I can try and paint the picture for you. You see, I was there! That's right, I was there! No, not at the time of the revelation, except in spirit, but much more recently. Back in 1968, Leah and I joined a small group of people who took a trip up that dry river bed to the foot of what is called Mount Moses, or as it is called by the Arabs Jabel Mussa, though it is believed to be mount Sinai. Indeed, we climbed the mountain itself, and stood at its height and looked all around, surveying the land, far beyond the foot of the mountain, to the mouth of the river, at the gulf of Suez, the sea of Egypt, and on across the water, to the land of the Pharaoh, yellow-bleached in the scorching sun. Of course, the Israelites never climbed the mountain - but they stood at its foot, and we saw the area from the top, the huge "parking lot" where more than a million could have stood, and we knew that we were at that significant place. We were there at sunrise, before the heat of the day would turn the mountain into a furnace, and a thin haze bathed the distance with a pink-blue blanket that made the wilderness look almost attractive and viable.
I closed my eyes, and I was transported to that other time at the same place. I felt the earth rumbling beneath my feet, I smelled the smoke of the granite burning in God's presence, and I heard the voices. I heard the hushed voices of the people suffering the awesome experience, I heard Moses speaking, his voice breaking in his excitement, stuttering now and then - and I even heard, ever so faintly, God answering. It is a trip we Jews have taken again and again, it is our birth experience, and it is the high point of our life.
The people Israel were exceedingly affrighted by the experience, when the Lord began to speak the words. In a manner that is total mystery though it was all too real for them, for us - the whole Torah came pouring forth in his every word, every syllable, and the people knew that they would surely die. They could not bear the weight of God's words, they did not understand the significance of the fact that he was talking to them, teaching them, loving them -- and they cried out to Moses, saying, "Go up to God on the mountain, and hear His words, and bring them down to us and teach us, for no one can hear the voice of God and live." [Ex. 20:16]
But they had heard it, It was the word of God in them, and it was going to remain in them, forever and ever it was to be, and it shall be a part of them. Maybe that is why we are different, maybe that is why we are what we are: Jews! At once blessed and cursed, at once strong and weak, always seeking, never finding, always going, never quite arriving. In our mind's eyes is seared that image of Sinai, and whatever we see, we see through a veil of that vision, of that experience. Let us, thirty five hundred years after the fact, come to terms with what we have seen and what we have heard. Let us realize that we have been made His bride on that occasion -- and let us live a life worthy of Him, worthy of His love and His redemption. Let us recognize both the personal and the universal aspect of the experience. Let us be ennobled by our consecration, and let us dedicate ourselves to be His messengers, to spread His word of love and grace and harmony between man and God through harmony between man and man. Let us speak the language of peace and brotherhood, and let us complete the improvement and perfection of His world. Amen
This week we read
in the Torah the portion called Yitro, chapters 18 to 20, verse 23. This is
one of the most pivotal portions in the Torah -- certainly one that contains
material that is probably known by more people than any other passage in the
Torah - maybe in all literature! I am reffering to the twentieth chapter of
the book of Sh'mot, verses one to fourteen. For those of you who are not as
familiar with "chapter and verse," I am sure you, too, will immediately
recognize the entire passage from the first couple of verses, " And God
spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who have brought you
out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." You do know it,
don't you? Right! It is the opening words of the "Ten Commandments."
Well - I'm not going to speak about this subject at all! Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the opening words of the portion, and particularly on the name of the portion - Yitro. Our portion begins with the words, "When Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt; Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back,
And her two sons... " [Exodus 18:1-3] We first met "the priest of Midian" in the passage about Moshe fleeing Egypt and arriving at the well in Midian, which was in the Sinai desert.
"And the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that you have come so soon today?" [Exodus 2:16-18] Our sages told us that the ill-treatment of the daughters at the hands of the shepherds teaches us that the "priest of Midian" was, in fact, the ex-priest - out of office and out of favor - otherwise the daughters would have been treated with respect and deference, not with contempt and cruelty. The Midrash speaks of three advisors to Pharaoh, "Balaam, Job, and Jethro. Balaam, who gave this advice (to through the male Israelite children in the river), was killed; Job, because he kept silence, was doomed to much suffering; Jethro fled... " [Exodus Raba 1:9] He fled because he knew God, and His love for Isarael. Because he refused to counsel evil and left the Pharaoh's realm, he was found worthy to become Moshe's father in law.
You may have noticed a slight disparity between the two Torah texts above - the name of the priest in chapter 2 is "Reuel" - while in chapter 18 it is "Yitro!" Why is that?
Our sages say that his name was not the one in chapter 2 - and possibly not the one in 18, either. "Reuel" means "friend of God." It is suggested that the old priest of Midian had a revelation of the Master of the Universe - and therefore he changed his name to be "God's friend." He did not become a disciple - but he was a believer. The revelation caused him to retire from his position as heathen priest, much to the outrage, resentment and anger of the Midianites. The Midianites were not friends of the Children of Israel, and more than once in our Scriptures we read about them as enemies of our people. The old priest, however, was different - and well deserving to be Moshe Rabenu's father-in-law. As for the name used in this week's portion - "Yitro," what does it relate to?
The root of the name, "yod," "tav" and "resh" - is the same that is used in the verb "to remain" and the word "advantage." Thus, one may assume that he is called "Yitro" in our portion because he remained alone, being rejected by his people, and because he had a distinct advantage over his people, in recognizing the Lord God of the universe, and living in peace with the people He chose to carry His message. The Midianites, like the Canaanites and the Amalekites, are all gone and remembered only in connection with Israel. "Yitro," who was "Reuel" - a friend of God, lives on in the memory of a people who heard his advice before they heard the revealed word of God.
This week we read
one of the most pivotal portions in the Torah -- certainly one that contains
material that is known by more people than any other passage possibly
in all literature, certainly (if you excuse the expression) in the Bible, or
in our Torah. It is called Yitro, its text is from the book of Sh'mot - Exodus
- chapters 18 - 20:23. The segment included in the passage that is known by
more people than any other is the twentieth chapter of the book of Sh'mot, verses
one to fourteen. I am sure you, too, will immediately recognize the entire passage
from the first couple of verses, " And God spoke all these words, saying,
I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of
the house of slavery." [Ex. 20:1,2]
Ah, yes, a smile of relief and recognition covers every face, and we are content the text is familiar, identified at once with our "core knowledge," and we perceive and realize that we are on firm, well rooted grounds. However, before we get to these grounds, our portion of the week continues the epic tale of a people long enslaved and yearning for freedom, miraculously released by the God of their ancestors. Great emotions are stirred in the hearts of the readers, even as they were in the people Israel as left their habitation in Egypt, crossed the Sea of Reeds in the dry, and marched through the desert to arrive and stand in God's presence at Sinai. God spoke to them out of the smoky cloud, a most awesome and memorable moment in history, outside of time.
Still, the portion is called Yitro, and begins with the story of Moshe's father in law arriving at the Israelite encampment with his wife and children in tow. "When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt; Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back, And her two sons... And he said to Moses, I your father-in-law Jethro have come to you, and your wife, and her two sons with her. And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and did bow, and kissed him; and they asked each other about their welfare; and they came into the tent." [ibid. 18:1...7]
There is no question and no dispute about the paramount importance of the Dibrot - the Statements at Sinai. However, I would like to spend my effort today looking at the opening verses, and in particular at the two sons of Moshe.
I am sure that you are aware how little is known about Moshe outside of his labor on behalf of God and the children of Israel. Few know the name of his wife, or the events that led to her being away from him during the hard times in the struggle to liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt. Fewer yet are aware that she save Moshe from death while he was on the road to redeem Israel from the Egyptian slavery. Not are many aware that the key words of the "millah," the "covenant in the flesh" the ritual circumcision that is practiced in Judaism, come out of the mouth of "eshet Moshe," Moshe's wife, Tziporah. "Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and threw it at his feet, and said, Surely a bridegroom of blood are you to me. So he let him go; then she said, A bridegroom of blood you are, because of the circumcision." [ibid. 4:25,26]
We know that Moshe went down to Egypt with his wife and two sons. We further know that Aharon, Moshe's brother, came to meet him in the wilderness and together they came to speak to the Israelites in Egypt. "And the Lord said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him. And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel; And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people." [ibid. 4:27-30]
But what happened to Moshe's wife and children? Our great sage, Rashi, recounted: Aharon said to Moshe, "Who are these?" "My wife and children," he answered. "And where are you taking them?" Asked Aharon. "Down to Egypt with me." Replied the brother. Said Aharon with great pathos, "we are lamenting the fate of those who are already in Egypt - and we shall labor to remove them. And you wish to add these innocents to their league?" So Moshe turned around and sent his wife and sons back to stay with Yitro, "till the time is ripe."
The sages asked, "why do we not hear anything about Moshe's sons in the continuing saga of Israel's journey from Egypt to the promised land?" The Midrash tells us that Moshe raised that very issue with God, in relation to the question of the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad, which is mentioned in the book of Numbers, chapter 27. "What was his reason for asking this after declaring the order of inheritance? Just this: that when the daughters of Zelophehad inherited from their father, Moses argued: The time is opportune for me to demand my own needs. If daughters inherit, it is surely right that my sons should inherit my glory. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Whoso keepeth the fig-tree shall eat the fruit thereof; and he that waiteth on his master shall be honored .' [Prov. 27:18]. Your sons sat idly by and did not study the Torah. Joshua served you much and he showed you great honor. It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Assembly; he used to arrange the benches, and he used to spread the mats. Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward." [Midrash Raba Num. 21:14]
What does this mean, and what do we learn from it? I think the answer is clear: He who spares the rod spoils the child. This is not a call for corporal punishment, but rather a warning that sparing children an awareness of reality does not save the children - it fails to prepare them for the real world. The text is a call for proper education. He who teaches his child to swim, will insure that the child will survive a flood and not only a physical flood, at that. Conversely, a parent who creates for his child a make-believe world, where all is pink and soft and non-threatening, just handicaps the child and makes it harder for him to face reality and survive the avarice and mendacity that proliferate in every society.
Education is the craft of fashioning future society. When you read in the paper that a poet laureate in New Jersey is reading hate poems claiming that our government, the C.I.A. and the government of Israel are the REAL perpetrators of 9/11 you should ask, what kind of young adults are being raised in the Garden State; or when A Palestinian soccer tournament has been named after the suicide bomber who killed 29 people and injured 140 last year during a Passover seder, and the tournament's seven teams also have been named after "shahids," or "martyrs" "who gave their lives to redeem the homeland" what can we expect of these young soccer-playing children if not more violence, more "shahids," more death and destruction for themselves and other innocent victims?
Moshe made a tactical error in not taking his wife and children to Egypt with him. His struggle to free Israel was totally outside of their experience. When they arrived at the camp, with Yitro, they were free people, who never knew the yoke of bondage. When God revealed Himself and spoke the words, "I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" Tziporah and her sons could not relate to this statement at all! That is why the Midrash explains that Moshe had no choice but to pass on the glory and the power to his assistant, Joshua, his "spiritual" son, if not his direct descendant. The ways of the Lord are mysterious to humankind, but his teachings, his mitzvot, are simple and logical as the sun that rises in the morning in the East. God's mitzvot are fair and rewarding, as we are taught in Proverbs, "Whoso keeps the fig-tree shall eat the fruit thereof; and he that waits on his master shall be honored." Amen
This Shabbat we
read in the Torah the portion of that is called Yitro, Sh'mot 18 - 20:23. This
segment of our ancient text includes the passage that is known by more people
all over the world -- than any other excerpt of the Torah, or indeed
in any literature. Of course, I am speaking of the twentieth chapter of the
book of Sh'mot, verses one to fourteen. For those of you who are not as familiar
with "chapter and verse" in the Torah I am sure you, too, will
immediately recognize the entire passage from the first couple of verses, "
And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who have brought
you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." [Ex. 20:1,2]
Now you all know what I am speaking of, right? To be sure, we are looking at the message uttered by God at Sinai the one that we call in Hebrew "Aseret Hadibrot the ten pronouncements, words, or statements." Most people, Jews as well as non-Jews, call them "the Decalogue" or "the Ten Commandments." These words, we are told, are the foundation and root of the Judeo-Christian creed, and the "bedrock" of all faith.
But, of course, it is not! First, consider that the Catholic faith teaches that the above quote is an introduction to the "decalogue" and the "first commandment" is actually the third verse, "You shall have no other gods before me." However, this is just "nitpicking" compared to the real issue, which is that traditional Christianity really transcended our scriptures in teaching a "new covenant" that had its own literature, the New Testament, and its own concept of God - albeit the God of Avraham, Yitzkhak and Ya'akov but now made manifest in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the "Anointed One" or "Christ" in Greek.
Now, I don't mean to teach you a course in Basic Christianity this evening, nor do I wish to compare and contrast this faith with our own. I wish to bring to your attention a couple of issues that have to do with Jews and Christians, and our two faiths which are of the same roots but are certainly not the same.
A great controversy is brewing over a film about to be released: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ." The film purports to be "a historical depiction of the last days" of the God figure of Christianity. We know from experience that in the past, emotions elicited by particular depictions of "The Passion" contributed to virulent animosity towards Judaism. Jews were always aware that towards the time of Easter, which is the season of the "passion," there was always a chance of riots, expulsions, pogroms and libels against our people by the church and its followers. You see, the "Passion," a term used to describe the events consisting of the trials, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, is the central narrative of Christianity. Dramatic presentations of the Passion, known as Passion Plays, have traditionally been an important part of the celebration of Good Friday and Easter and have always been central to how Christians got to know and experience their religion. One of the earliest Passion Play events in Europe, began in 1633 in Oberammergau, Germany, and is considered part of the "indoctorination" of anti-Semites who became the architects and executors of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Problem."
We must note and understand that to Christians, telling the story of the "Passion" is as important as telling of the Exodus is to us Jews. However, over a thousand years ago the story of the passion was colored by laying blame to the suffering of Jesus upon the Jewish community in the midst of which he lived, and extending the "guilt" for all times upon "the Jews." This aspect of the passion is not conducive to good brotherly relations between Jews and Christians and will not guarantee the well-being of Jews in a society that often resorts to inhuman violence.
A number of Christian and Jewish leaders have seen pre-release versions of Gibson's "The Passion" and concurred that the version they had seen could be problematic for a variety of reasons including: the quoting of a biblical passage closely associate with the charge of decide, the nature of Jewish crowd scenes, skewed portrayals of Roman and Jewish leaders, and reliance upon extra-biblical sources that may of may not be historically accurate. It is possible, although highly unlikely, that Gibson may yet respond to earlier criticisms and edit the film. We will not know until the final version of the film is released if it contains any or all of the scenes that caused concern to those who previewed the film.
We must respect the right of artistic freedom and freedom of expression that Mel Gibson and any other movie maker has, as well as the prerogative of any faith to reflect on its own history and religious writings. We are also aware that Christianity is an evangelistic religion, meaning that it tries to inform "the world" of its message of hope and love and salvation. However, we are also aware of the two thousand years of church persecution of one particular group - namely our progenitors, and we wish to avoid a repetition of past events. Do we not have a right to warn, to sound the alarm, to suggest that history must not and will not be repeated. We will not allow it.
Strangely enough, the issue is twinned by the refusal of many Jewish organizations and leaders to meet with leaders and members of Evangelical churches, claiming that they are "soul hunters," intent on capturing Jews in their snares. I feel very strongly that we cannot and must refuse the friendship of sincere Christians of any denomination who respect our faith, recognize our ancient covenant and wish to share our common beliefs in fellowship events of different kinds. Praise of God conclaves, prayers of peace for Israel rallies, and other such events are, in my opinion, to be encouraged and participated in. Only when we form friendships and build inroads to our Christian neighbors hearts and spirits will they learn to understand that they need not over occupy themselves with attempts to convert us. We are marching on the same road towards the Kingdom of God Almighty and we shall all be in accord when the Time of His Glory is at hand.
portion of the Torah is from the book of Sh’mot, Exodus, chapter 18 to
20, verse 23. It is called Yitro, since it begins with “Va’yishma
Yitro kohen Midian, khoten Moshe – When Jethro, the priest of Midian,
Moshe’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for
Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;”
[Ex. 18:1] This week’s portion includes the passage that is known by more
people than any other in the Torah. I am sure that I’m not keeping anyone
in suspense – you all know that I am speaking of what is most commonly
known as “the Ten Commandments” or “the Decalogue.”
I ask myself, why would our sages not divide the portions in such a way that
we would have a portion begin with this “most important passage in the
entire scriptures” – and conceivably end at the end of the specific
end of the revelation at Sinai, or else continue with next week’s reading
of mishpatim – sentences or laws.
Another thing: Why should the Most seminal and outstanding event in the communal history of our people appear in a portion named for a non-Jew? More than that, what is Yitro, anyhow? What, if anything, is in a name?
Twenty four hours ago I was in the city of Jerusalem. I was going to say, “in the holy city of...” But I thought better of it, and said what I said, “in the city of Jerusalem.” You see, there is actually nothing holy in the city. Just like there is nothing holy and special in the words of the twentieth chapter of Exodus. What is holy is what WE invest in it. To me, and to millions of Jews, Jerusalem IS holy. To us, Sinai was a revelation, the words are the Spoken Statements of the Living God, and they are the foundation of existence, of holiness, the very distillation of truth and love. If this is so, and only if this is so, it makes sense to live by the words, to carry Jerusalem with us wherever we go. I may have left Jerusalem twenty four hours ago, but Jerusalem has never left me, not for as long as I have been alive, and not in all the previous eons, the time it took all my ancestors, from Abraham to Ehud Ben-Yehuda to prepare for my life and my memory of Jerusalem to take shape.
So, what about Yitro? The name is connected through its root to two concepts that seem to be opposites of one another. “Yoter” is more, and “yivater” is will be left over. We know that in the Tanakh, our Hebrew Scriptures, the characters of people often are a reflection of their personality. Jewish legends claim that Yitro was an adviser of Pharaoh who advised against increasing the burden of the Israelites, and because of that he was banished from the palace and lived in dishonor in the desert. So he was Yitro because he survived and persevered, and God rewarded him by bringing a good match for his daughter Tziporah. We also know that while he was a priest of Median, and not of the seed of Abraham, he none-the-less knew the Lord, the Almighty ruler of the universe, and he praised and revered him even before Moshe came to his tent. So he must have had a “nshama yetera – an extra large soul” that could contain the faith in a God that he was neither taught of nor had a covenant with.
The revelation experience of Sinai has happened but once, but its consequences are far reaching in time and space, and according to Torah were not meant to be a simple experience shared only by those who were at the mountain at that time. The sages taught that the Mountain of the Lord was not Sinai but Moriah, when the Temple of Solomon and the second Temple stood. The reason, they explained, was that Mount Moriah contained the sanctuary that the People Israel chose to sanctify to God, while Sinai was a mountain, a natural phenomenon, just one amongst all the mountain that He created, upon which he chose to descend and reveal Himself to Israel. If fact, Mount Sinai has been lost to man kind. There are many scholars who suggest that it is in the Sinai peninsula, while other claim that it is in the Arabian wilderness, and still others claim that it is in the central Negev, the wilderness south of Be’er Sheva.
So the drama of God’s revelation is not an event by itself. It starts with Yitro bringing Moshe his wife and sons, it continues with the establishment of a system of jurisprudence, and in its own time, after due preparation, all the generations of Israel stand before the Lord at the mountain, and hear His voice and witness His glory.
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