You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Yitro.
Reb Sholom Brodt
The First and Second Commandments: Relating To Hashem
“Anochi Hashem Elokecha” (“I Am Hashem Who Took You Out Of the Land Of Egypt From The House Of Bondage”)
Hashem introduces Himself as the One “who took you out of slavery,” instead of introducing Himself as the One “who created the universe” or as the One “who created you.” Everyone is asking, “Why?” What is Hashem’s relationship with us? What is our relationship with Hashem?
One would imagine that being introduced to your Creator would be more gratifying and more impressive than to be informed “I Am Hashem who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” There are a number of answers to this question, the following is based on the Sfas Emes [5635/1875] :
It is wonderful to know Hashem our Creator. However, is it so great to have been created? Who knows? Maybe my life will be a life of crime or debauchery? Heaven forefend! So I thank you Hashem for creating me! But was it worth it? Is it worth being created just to be alive?
Why, Hashem, did You create me? Will I ever be able to make my life meaningful? I’ve tried so many times and I have failed just as many!
Master of the Universe, if I would be able to cry over all my mistakes, if all of us would only be able to cry, the world would be flooded by our tears. But sadly more often than not my eyes are dry. My heart is like a heart of stone. Is this what we call life?
And Hashem replies:
Anochi Hashem Elokecha! I Am your strength! I Am your talents! I Am your caring! I Am your love!
Anochi – I Am and I always will be Hashem. I will always be your God, your strength, talents, caring and love!
Asher Hotzayticha – It is I Who took you out from the land of Egypt from the house of bondage – I have liberated you! Not only did I create you, I HAVE SET YOU FREE!
I Am there in all that happens to you! Don’t ever think that I am not listening to you or loving you. Regardless of what you are living through, I Am with you always.
And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!
I need you so much – I need you to hear: I Am Hashem your God.
I need you to hear: You are no longer a slave to Pharaoh, you are no longer in the house of bondage! You are free!
As much as you listen, as much as your hear Me, that is how much I will become known in the world. You can always listen and hear Me – I whisper secrets to you – always. I Am begging you – please listen and hear My voice.
You are My people. You are My hope in this world! I promise you that you can make your life into something wonderful, for you are no longer a slave to Pharaoh, you are no longer in the house of bondage!
You are free!
I love you for all that you want to do for Me, but I need you to hear and listen, not only to do –
Please hear My voice. Listen to my voice. Know that I Am with you.
Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad
This is our response: We are ready to listen, we are ready to nullify ourselves to Hashem’s will –
Hashem is One!
Reb Shlomo’s Message About Change, Hope And Transformation
You know which kind of people I love so much? People who believe that someday the world can change. You know who are the greatest enemies of G-d and of humanity? Those who refuse to believe that things can change.
You know friends, if you or I were to believe that the world couldn’t change, then what would we be doing here in this world? Would we even belong in it? The truth is that even the worst person in the world, at the right moment, can change.
“Va’yishma YITRO,” (And Yitro heard). What did Yitro hear? Yitro heard about the miracle of the Red Sea and how Amalek attacked us after crossing it. In a nutshell, Yitro knew that the miracle of the Red Sea was an act of G-d. But why did he not come running immediately afterwards? Because he thought to himself “Oy, I’ve been an idol worshiper all my life and I’m an old man now. In reality what are the chances of me really changing?”
But then in the Torah it says “And Yitro heard,” meaning that he really heard. He heard that if water can change into dry land, then certainly “I as a human being created in G-d’s image can also change!”
When was it clear to the water that it had to change into dry land? When it became clear to the water that if it did not change, three million people would die. And so my friends, if and when it becomes clear to us that the whole world can be destroyed if we don’t change, won’t we also change right away? Then what are we waiting for?
Yitro also heard about Amalek and how they tried to destroy us after we crossed the Red sea. Why did they attack us? Because Amalek is the voice that says, “The world can never change!” At this point Yitro thought to himself, “Gevalt! Now I have no choice but to change. If I don’t change now, I too will be an Amalekite. Never!”
Like Yitro who heard the messages of change, we need to ask ourselves, “What kind of changes do we need to make?” If the walls came down in Berlin, I need to ask to ask myself, “What about my walls? What can I do to destroy the walls in my own life that are preventing me from being what I am truly meant to be in this world?”
Do you know what the most divine thing in the world is? To forgive is divine. We all know it because it’s true. But not to give up is even more divine. Not to give up on G-d is not so hard. We all trust and believe in G-d. But not to give up on people and the world, given the way life can sometimes treat us, and not to give up on ourselves; that is really hard. But it’s the most divine thing a person can do.
You see, life is the deepest blessing. But the problem is that most people have never tasted it. Not even for a second. Surely we don’t have the vessels to mammash taste it all the time. But if we can truly live, even for a second, it keeps us going for very long time. The important thing is to store and safeguard that ‘one-second’ and never lose it. Because when the time comes when we are sad and we have nothing to keep us happy, all of a sudden, we have to think, “Aah, I am beginning to remember the moment when I was truly alive!” That alone is the best medicine against sadness. Life is so strong that if I just remember it, it comes to me again and I am reborn because life is eternity.
Taken from a transcription in “What’s Next Magazine,” Winter 1995
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
WE ARE ALL CONVERTS
It is fitting that the parshah which tells of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is named after Yisro (Jethro), Moses’ father-in-law — a convert. Indeed, all those who witnessed the Giving of the Torah were “converts”. Thus (as noted in the commentary on Parshas SHEMOS) the Covenant at Sinai was accompanied by the three components of conversion: circumcision (Rashi on Ex.12:6), ritual immersion in the waters of the Mikveh (Ex. 19:10) and burned offerings (Ex. 24:5). For before G-d, we are all converts — GERIM, “dwellers” in a land and on an earth that is not ours but G-d’s. We are all here only by the grace of G-d, utterly dependent upon His kindness and compassion.
Thus no one can claim that the Torah belongs to him by right through ancestral or other merit. There is no room for pride, arrogance or the exploitation of the Torah for worldly advantage. The Torah is not the property of an exclusive caste. It “belongs” only to one who keeps it. The Torah was given in the Wilderness, no man’s land, on the lowest of all mountains — Sinai, the eternal symbol of humility. For only through humility can we “receive” and accept the Torah, which belongs to G-d alone. Receiving the Torah means having the humility to accept it as it is, the way it has come down to us, without trying to “modify” it according to our own ideas and wishes.
And when we are willing to accept and follow the Torah as it actually is — fulfilling NA’ASEH VE-NISHMAH, “we will (first) DO it and (then) HEAR (and understand) it” (Ex. 24:7) — then we can come to understand how the Torah lifts us out of our slavery to this-worldliness, with its many false gods. Then we can hear the voice of redemption that calls to us every day: “I am HASHEM your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Ex. 20:2).
Slavery to the idols of the mundane world is ignominious. Yet the Torah accords the greatest honor to those who have the courage to leave this servitude behind and “go out into the wilderness” in search of G-d — like Jethro. According to tradition, Jethro had investigated every conceivable way of interpreting and living in this world, every world-view and “lifestyle”. Only when Jethro came to HaShem and His Torah did he know he had found the truth. “Now I KNOW that HaShem is great above all the gods” (Ex. 18:11). The Zohar comments: “When Jethro came and said, ‘Now I know that HaShem is great.’ then the Supreme Name was glorified and exalted” (Zohar, Yisro 69). In other words, the revelation of G-d’s light and power is greatest precisely when it comes out of darkness and concealment. Only when we have seen evil and know its power can we understand the greatness of G-d’s saving hand. Only one who was a slave truly understands what it means to have been freed. This is “the superiority of the light that comes out of darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
Thus Jethro the Convert was accorded the honor of having the parshah narrating the Giving of the Torah named after him, and of contributing the hierarchical system of “captains of thousands, captains of hundreds, captains of fifties and captains of tens” through which the Children of Israel are governed. Jethro’s name also contains and alludes to the name of another humble convert who was accorded the greatest honor: Ruth the Moabitess, who was the great grandmother of King David, MELECH HAMASHIACH.
From Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman
Weekly Torah Portion
In this Torah portion is the description of the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, the quintessential “kernel” of all the commandments in the Torah. The idea of the ten commandments representing all the commandments can be seen in a beautiful mathematical gem. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, as well as seven universal commandments known as the seven commandments of the children of Noah. Together they equal 620, the exact number of letters in the ten commandments!
The word keter, crown, also equals 620. In many synagogues around the world the curtain hanging before the ark where the Torah is kept is decorated with a crown, as are many mantels around the Torah scroll itself. Additionally, many congregations put a silver crown on the Torah when it is taken out of the ark. Keter in Kabbalah represents the unconscious and super conscious source of intellect. This is also considered the source of music and song in the soul.
Significantly, the Torah itself is called song. After God revealed through Moses the blessing and the curse and the prophesies concerning the future of the Jewish people, God taught him the song HaAzinu, whose teachings are to be impressed upon all the people: “And now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel…” (Deuteronomy 31:19). The oral Torah explains that this verse is commanding not only the song of HaAzinu to be written down, but that each person is commanded to write the entire Torah. From this we learn that all the Torah is considered song!
When we sing we come into contact with a force much greater than ourselves. When we listen to music it resonates so well within us, because similar to prayer being something more than something we do, rather something we are, so too music is not something we merely enjoy, but on a deep level is the essence of Divine creation and the universe we live in and who we actually are. Music opens us up to the myriad of physical and spiritual forces all around us, allowing us to unify and identify with all creation and the Infinite Source of all.
The giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai was accompanied by a number of natural and metaphysical phenomenon: “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunder and lightening and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud…” (Exodus 19:16). Later it states: “And all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and the lightening and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking…” (Exodus 20:15). Rashi comments that all the people were able to see that which is heard, something which cannot ordinarily happen. This phenomenon is called synesthesia, a state where the senses are able to cross each other and one of the senses can comprehend another sense in a new way. The ability of all the people to see the sounds of the shofar, which were not man produced, represents a heightened state of consciousness, where the harmony of the spheres, the music of creation is not only heard but seen.
The word for “smoking” [mountain] in Hebrew ??? is comprised of three letters, which form an acronym for the various dimensions of reality, as taught by the Sefer Yetzirah. The letter ayin ? represents olam, world or space; the letter shin ?represents shana, year or time; the letter nun ?represents nefesh, soul, which is understood to be a moral and ethical dimension as real as the other physical dimensions. Albert Einstein was able to reveal just one hundred years ago that time is also thought of as a dimension and that space and time form one unified continuum. Science has yet to grasp soul as a “dimension.”
It is explained in Kabbalah that as God uttered the ten commandments, the quintessential essence of Torah morals and ethics, all the dimensions of physical and spiritual reality were perceived by the people as one and unified. In fact, Rashi quoting the Mechilta tells us that at first God said all the ten commandments simultaneously, and only after repeated them word by word (Rashi on Exodus 20:1).
The sentence introducing the ten commandments: “And God spoke all these things saying” consists of twenty-eight letters and seven words, the exact number of letters and words in the first sentence of the Torah, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We are taught that the giving of the Torah represents the fulfillment of the purpose of the creation and that in fact all of creation was “on condition” that the Jewish people would accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Rashi on Genesis 1:31).
The ten utterances of creation are thus transformed and revealed in a new form as the ten commandments. Just as God, as it were, “sang” the world into existence, so too were the ten commandments revealed, as it were, through Divine song. That is the symbolism of the sound of the shofar growing exceedingly louder during the experience of receiving the Torah, which as we have learned is itself called song. It is as if the shofar acted as the background music for the ten commandments.
The thread connecting the Creator and the Torah, His Divine creative instrument, with all of creation, is in essence music. God writes the musical score, the Torah, and gives it to man in order to perceive the Divine symphony all around us. It is ultimately up to us though whether we learn the notes, hear the music, and become partners with God in enriching the harmony, or go about our business deaf to the beautiful tapestry of sound we call the universe.
“The True Meaning of Leadership”
by Rabbi Stephen Robbins
AJR, CA Professor of Mystical Thought
The central event in Parshat Yitro is the giving of the Torah at Sinai. There are important preliminaries that prepare the people for this event. The first is Jethro’s (Yitro in Hebrew) conversation with Moses, regarding his judging; “Moses judged the people and they had to wait in line from morning to evening.” Jethro admonished him, “Why do you sit alone with all the people”. Moses responds that the people come to him to seek G-d, meaning that his judgments are divinely inspired. Jethro warns that he will become worn out, as will the people. There is in this interchange a deep psycho spiritual lesson for each of us who become clergy or chaplains. Jethro challenges Moses that he is doing something ‘to’ the people not ‘for’ them; therefore he is doing it for himself.
Rabbi Yitzhak Arama points out that Moses believed he was the only court that the people would accept. Moses explains his actions with the phrase “Davar Ba Eilay” (a declaration comes to me), meaning G-d speaks to me. Here we see the last state of the development of the leader who must learn to relinquish centrality in order to embrace the participation of all the community. Moses was following the example set by the other nations, like Egypt, who depended on a single individual as the source of justice. Moses was trapped by his own history. It was he, alone, upon whom G-d relied to supplant Pharoah, becoming the leader. Exodus 7:1, “See I have set you as a Elohim over Pharoah”. The word Elohim refers both to G-d and judge. So Moses replaced Pharoah. His transition from being the dominant figure, to the shared leadership with Aaron and the judges happens at this moment. Moses was used to being indispensable and so behaved as such. It is Yitro who teaches him that true authority comes in humility. Leadership is not pushing or pulling people forward, but of beckoning them onward while standing with them.
Moses could be accused of having a ‘big Ego.’ His failure is not in Ego, but, rather, in not trusting others to share the responsibility and his desire to pour out all that he knows and can do upon others. This Parshah is named after Jethro, because he is the key that makes the shift in Moses. His humility is demonstrated in his ability to listen and withdraw (Tzimtzum) like G-d, before creation. All of us, myself included, bare a responsibility for this failure of leadership and its impact. While thinking we are giving more, we are actually taking more and giving less. Our task as clergy is to learn, like Moses, to balance our outpouring to others receiving. We must listen to Jethro’s voice, “You become worn out, as well as the people that are with you. The matter is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” 18.18
Wendy’s comment: Not for clergy only.
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Five Cities of Refuge
To speak the pronoun “I” is to announce the existence of one’s self and thereby claim that all the contradictory, disjointed, cockamamie thoughts, feelings, and actions are all manifestations of one underlying self. “Yes, I know , on the surface, none of it makes sense, but it’s all I. It is who I am.
In just this way, the first word God utters to the assembled Israelites at Sinai is therefore that the universe too has a self. All the broken, stupid, hurtful, apparently senseless things that
happen in the world are likewise the manifestations of some greater Self. According to some traditions, that “I”
contains the seed of all subsequent revelation. That’s all God needs to say “I”. The universe has a Self. Indeed, since Hebrew lacks the verb “to be” in the present tense, we could read the first utterance, not as “I” am the Lord your God” but “I” is the Lord your God.” In the words of Yehuda Aryeh Lieb of Ger, “Each one of Israel beheld the root of his own soul.” We might even say that at that moment each one of them met the Self of the Universe, a Self that tolerates and sustains each individual self.
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Yitro advises Moses. The Israelites come to Mount Sinai and experience the Revelation.
THE GREAT BLESSING THAT COMES TO US this week of the portion of Yitro is the blessing of Divine Revelation. When, in our wanderings, we come to Sinai, God speaks to each of us directly. The mountain of revelation appears to us on our journey when we are ready to receive the awesome truth of our connection to the Source, to each other, and to all of Creation.
In that moment of Revelation, it becomes clear:
Obviously, God is the true reality;
bowing down to my own illusions would be silly.
Of course, I cannot hurt any other living thing
without hurting myself; we are a part of each other.
Of course, there is no need to steal;
who is there to steal from, but another member
of the larger self of which I too am a part?
In that moment of revelation it will become clear that the
desire that has created such turmoil within me is based on an
illusion of lack; connected to all of Creation,
I am rich beyond measure.
And certainly, my father and mother must be honored;
they are my own fl esh and blood and they gave me
this precious life.
And yes, in that moment of revelation
the beauty and sanctity of Shabbat becomes clear;
how else can I remember this moment of freedom that
revelation brings if not by stopping and receiving
the miracle of Creation anew each week?
THERE IS NO NEED for commandments at Sinai. The moment of revelation is a moment of clarity that informs how we live. In that moment of clarity all boundaries between self and other dissolve; all of our senses confirm the fact that consciousness can expand beyond culturally set boundaries and expectations. Living according to the commandments is a natural by-product of the Divine Revelation. Having experienced Revelation, it no longer makes sense to live any other way.
At Sinai it seems that we see the sound of thunder and hear the flash of lightning. Sound and light are revealed to us as energy. A whole new way of perceiving energy is awakened in us at that moment of revelation. With this new perception, even the thickest darkness cannot obscure the truth that we have been given.
God says, “I have carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you back to Me.” God, as mother eagle lifts us up out of our limited perceptions and shows us a perspective of the whole. When we take that view to heart, our lives are transformed.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
HOW DO WE PREPARE OURSELVES for the moment of revelation? How do we find our way to Sinai? The portion begins with a visit from Yitro, who is father-in-law to Moses and also his teacher of the mysteries of the wilderness.
Yitro comes to prepare Moses for Sinai. The old master of the wilderness watches how Moses lives, how he tries to do everything himself, and yet is never alone. Yitro says, “This is crazy. You’re wearing yourself down with this life of yours. You sit alone and yet people are around you all the time. You need to change the way you do things.”
Yitro instructs Moses in the laws of empowerment – how to see and call forth the qualities of leadership in others, and how to share in the joy and the burden of being human. If you sit alone with the burden of Truth, it will weigh you down. And if you are serving people from morning till night, you cannot become a proper vessel for Revelation.
I OFTEN SAY, “My first practice is sanity.” Sanity for me is the condition that allows for the full functioning of my body, feelings, thought and awareness, which then allows me to be present for revelation. Sanity requires just the right balance of solitude and service, spaciousness and stimulation.
If Yitro came to you in his wisdom and observed the course of your day; if he had a chance to watch how you balanced the requirements for wholeness, what might he say to you?
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.
From Rav Kook
Yitro: Blessings on Miracles
When Moses’s father-in-law Jethro heard all that God had done for the Jewish people, he rejoiced and said:
“Blessed be God, Who rescued you from hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharaoh, Who liberated the people from Egypt’s power. Now I know that God is the greatest of all deities: the very thing they plotted came on them!” [Ex. 18:10-11]
The Talmud derives from Yitro’s blessing the rule that we should recite the blessing “Who made miracles for our fathers in this place” when seeing the place where a miracle occurred for the Jewish people. [Berachot 54] Yet, this is difficult to understand. Jethro did not say his blessing when visiting the Red Sea, but when he met the Israelites in the desert. How could he serve as an example for this bracha, said specifically when viewing the location of a miracle?
Appreciating All Aspects of a Miracle
We need to analyze the concept of blessings over miracles. When we thank someone for helping us, we feel most appreciative if the helpful act was done expressly for that purpose. If, on the other hand, the kindness did not require any special effort – the benefactor was planning to undertake this action in any case – then our feelings of gratitude will naturally be less. Thus, when we bless God over a miraculous deliverance, we feel completely indebted and thankful, as the entire action occurred especially for this purpose.
In addition, when an act is caused directly by God, then not only is the overall goal for the ultimate good, but also all details and side-effects that stem from it. Thus, we should be appreciative not only of the miracle itself, but also for any accompanying details. This includes the location of the miracle, which at some point in time benefited or will benefit from the miracle.
This is what the Sages learned from Jethro. A blessing over a miracle needs to include recognition of the positive effects of its accompanying details.
[adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 243-244]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Yitro: Serving the Community
“Moses sat to judge the people. They stood around Moses from morning to evening.” [Ex. 18:13]
From the account in the Torah, it would seem that Moses spent all his time judging the people. Yet, it was clear to the Sages that this could not be the case.
The Talmud [Shabbat 10a] relates that two dedicated judges worked such long hours that they were overcome with fatigue. (It is unclear whether this was a physical weakness from overwork, or a psychological depression from time lost from Torah study.) When Rabbi Hiyya saw their exhaustion, he advised the two scholars to limit their hours in court:
“It says that Moses judged the people from morning to evening. But could it be that Moses sat and judged all day? When did he have time for Torah study?
“Rather, the Torah is teaching us that a judge who judges with complete fairness, even for a single hour, is considered to be God’s partner in creating the world. For the Torah uses a similar phrase to describe Creation, ‘It was evening and morning, one day’ [Gen. 1:5].”
Rav Hiyya’s statement requires clarification. If judging is such a wonderful occupation – one becomes a partner with God! – then why not adjudicate all day long? And in what way is the work of a judge like creating the world?
Personal Well-Being vs. Public Service
Great individuals aspire to serve the community and help others to the best of their abilities. The two judges felt that they could best serve their community by bringing social justice and order through the framework of the judicial system. Therefore, they invested all of their time and energy in judging the people. For these scholars, any other activity would be a lesser form of divine service. However, their dedication to public service was so intensive that it came at the expense of their own personal welfare, both physical and spiritual.
Rabbi Chiyya explained to the scholars that while their public service was truly a wonderful thing, it is not necessary to neglect all other aspects of life. If one only judges for a single hour, and spends the rest of his time improving his physical and spiritual well-being so that he can better serve in his public position, then his entire life is still directed towards his true goal. It is clear that personal growth will enhance one’s community service. Better an hour of productive activity in a fresh, relaxed state of mind and body, than many hours of constant toil in a tired and frenzied state.
Two Parts of the Day
What is the connection between Moses’ judging “from morning to evening” and the description of the first day of Creation, “It was evening and morning, one day”? The day is one unit, made up of two parts – daytime and night. The daytime is meant for activity and pursuing our goals, while the night is the time for rest and renewal. Together, daytime and night form a single unit, constituting a day.
The balance of these two aspects – activity and renewal – is particularly appropriate for those who labor for the public good. The hours that we devote to physical and spiritual renewal help us in our public roles; they become an integral part of our higher aspiration to serve the community.
[Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 130-132. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 4-5]
From Rabbi Rachel BarenblatEarth and whole stones (Radical Torah repost) 2006
Much energy and imagination have been devoted to the question of why the aseret dibrot, the utterances given at Sinai, are followed by the instruction to make altars out of earth or whole stone, not stone which has been cut.
In his commentary on the phrase “an altar of earth,” Rashi writes, “the altar must be attached to the ground; it should not be built on columns or some other foundation.” In other words, the altar — our mode of communication with God, according to the understanding of that time — must be rooted in the earth. God is commanding us to “ground” ourselves. And on the matter of uncut stones, the usual explanation is that metal implements suggest or imply swords, which shorten or curtail life — an action in direct opposition to the enlivening altar. (Well, enlivening for us; not so much for the animals being sacrificed. But we’ll let that go.)
The real point of Exodus 20:22 is how to approach and connect with God. And there’s much to learn here, even (or especially) in this post-sacrificial age.
“Rabbi Berakhya and Rabbi Helbo taught, in the name of Rabbi Shmuel son of Nahman: (Man) was created from the place of his atonement, as it is written (Shemot 20), “An altar of earth shall you make for Me”. The Holy One said: I shall create him from the place of his atonement; would that he will live.” (Bereshit Rabbah, 14:8)
Let’s unpack that: our place of origin, the earth which nurtures and nourishes us, is the place of our atonement. Torah instructs us to make an altar out of the very substance from which, Torah tells us, we were formed. Our ascent toward God, our locus of holiness, must be made of the same stuff as we.
What makes this injunction most powerful is that it comes on the heels of the revelation at Sinai, arguably the most transcendent experience imaginable. Thunder! Celestial fireworks! A voice from the heavens! This is the pinnacle of religious experience, a direct moment of contact with God at God’s most transcendent. Torah immediately moderates that story with a reminder that God is immanent in creation, too. And it is incumbent upon we creatures of the earth to connect with God using the earth in which we’re planted and from which we live.
One line of traditional commentary interprets the “altar of earth” to mean the land of Israel. It’s a pretty notion, but a problematic one for Diaspora Jews who value the post-exilic understanding that we can reach God from anywhere. Allow me, therefore, to offer a Diaspora-friendly alternate version of that teaching. Just as we find in every sanctified Shabbat a temporal equivalent to the spatial holiness the Temple once provided, maybe our many spaces and places of study and prayer make of the entire earth an altar.
In that case, the prohibition against wielding sword on stone becomes a powerful exhortation to relinquish the weapons we use on each other and on our planet. If we are serious about reaching out to God, then we mustn’t wield our swords on the altar-place where that connection happens…and if the whole earth is our altar-place, then it’s time to turn our weapons into plowshares. Because there is no place devoid of God’s presence, and our implements of destruction profane places that would otherwise be holy.
Today in lieu of bulls and sheep we offer words and intentions to God. The instruction to make an altar of earth or whole stones tells me that we need to bring our prayers and our mindfulness in a way that’s whole and grounded in all that we are. Today our altar of earth is everywhere we live and everywhere we go, and the whole stones that build our places of ascension are the whole and holy constructions of our hearts.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s portion is named ‘Yisro’, an outsider to the children of Israel,rather than named for the most momentous event in our history. Yisro (from the word Yeser/add)had to arrive and dispense wisdom before the Torah could be revealed.(Zohar) Upper wisdom without wisdom of the world is inaccessible.The inclusion of… all wisdom,heaven and earth,creates a spiritual reality that is encompassing & transformational
A most puzzling thing in the Talmud’s account is the fact that on the first day of Sivan–the day on which the people of Israel arrived at the place where they would receive the Torah–“Moses did not say anything at all to them, on account of their exhaustion from the journey.” For six weeks the children of Israel had been eagerly awaiting the most important event in their history–their receiving of the Torah from G-d. Our sages tell us that they literally counted the days (hence our annual practice of “counting the omer” during the weeks that connect Passover to Shavuot). Does it make sense that on the very day they arrived at Mount Sinai they would do nothing at all in preparation for the great day?
At Sinai, the divine wisdom was revealed to man. Obviously, the human mind cannot attain the divine wisdom on its own—it that must be given to it by G-d Himself. So although G-d instructed us to study His Torah, desiring that human intellect should serve as the vehicle by which we apprehend His truth, a crucial prerequisite to Torah study is the mind’s total abnegation of its ego. Only after it has voided itself of all pretension that it is capable of attaining the truth of truths on its own, can the mind become a “fit vessel” to receive it. In the words of the Sages, “An empty vessel can receive; a full vessel cannot receive.”
So the day on which “Moses did not say anything at all to them” was an integral part of their preparations for receiving the Torah. This was the day on which they undertook the most “exhausting journey” of emptying their souls of intellectual vanity and make themselves fit receptacles of the divine truth.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And they camped in the desert (19:2)
In the ownerless wilderness was the Torah given to the people of Israel. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.
Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end.
(Pesikta D’Rav Kahana
Our Sages tell us that the Patriarchs studied the Torah and fulfilled its precepts many centuries before the Torah was “officially” given at Sinai. Since no “new information” was revealed on the sixth of Sivan, what is the significance of the “giving of the Torah” on that occasion?
The answer lies in the above-quoted Midrash: at Sinai G-d abolished the decree which had consigned the physical and the spiritual to two separate domains. Thus, at Sinai was introduced a new phenomenon–the cheftza shel kedushah or “holy object.” After Sinai, when physical man takes a physical coin, earned by his physical toil and talents, and gives it to charity; or when he forms a piece of leather to a specified shape and dimensions and binds them to his head and arm as tefillin—the object with which he has performed his “mitzvah” is transformed. A finite, physical thing becomes “holy,” as its very substance and form become the actualization of a divine desire and command.
The mitzvot could be, and were, performed before the revelation at Sinai, and had the power to achieve great things within the spiritual realm (by elevating the soul of the one who performed them and effecting “unions” (yichudim) and “revelations” (giluyim) in the supernal worlds) and within the physical realm (by refining the object with which it was performed, within the limits of its natural potential). But because the mitzvot had not yet been commanded by G-d, they lacked the power to bridge the great divide between matter and spirit. Only as a command of G-d, creator and delineator of both the spiritual and the physical, could the mitzvah supersede the natural definitions of these two realms. Only after Sinai could the mitzvah actualize the spiritual and sanctify the material.
And Moses drew near to the thick darkness where G-d was (20:18)
There are three types of darkness: the “heavy darkness” of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:17); the “tangible darkness” of the ninth plague in Egypt (Exodus 10:22); and the “thick darkness” at the giving of the Torah.
Chassidic Insights for Parshah Yitro
From the Lubavitcher Rebbe
 In the third month: Specifically, the two opposites that were reconciled with the Giving of the Torah were the right and left axes of the sefirot: chochmah, chesed, and netzach on the right axis and binah, gevurah, and hod on the left axis. Until the Torah was given, it was fundamentally impossible to unite both of these axes in any particular act; an act could be either an act of chesed or an act of gevurah, but not of both. The Torah introduced the third, central, harmonizing axis—da’at, tiferet, and yesod. These sefirot enabled the sefirot of the right and left axes to unite productively.
(It is true that the patriarch Jacob personified the middle axis of the sefirot, but—as was the case with all the spirituality channeled by the patriarchs—this was but a precursor of what was to really happen with the Giving of the Torah. Jacob was able to blend the two opposite axes of the sefirot in his own life, but he was not able to bequeath this ability to his progeny or to the world at large in any permanent way.)
Similarly, the Giving of the Torah enabled the “upper” and “lower” aspects of reality, i.e., spirituality and physicality, to blend for the first time into a single continuum and influence one another. The same is true for the dynamics associated with the duality of upper and lower: ascent and descent. With the Giving of the Torah, it became possible for the first time for an ascent into the spiritual and a descent into the physical to be complementary and mutually enhancing.
The significance of the “third” is evinced in our sages statement26 that “the threefold Torah [the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings] was given in the third month [Sivan] to the threefold people [priests, Levites, and laymen].”27
3] Moses went up to God: The Name of God used in this ascent is the Name Elokim, whereas in a later ascent,40 after the Torah was given, the Name Havayah is used. This is because until the Torah was given, the “highest” any creature could ascend in the spiritual realms was to the world of Beriah. Although Beriah is a sublime, spiritual realm, it is still characterized by self-awareness, in contrast to the highest world, Atzilut, which is characterized by total absorption in Divine consciousness and the attendant loss of self-awareness. Inasmuch as relative to each other, Atzilut and the lower worlds (Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah) are distinguished by the dominance of Divine consciousness and self-awareness respectively, Atzilut is rooted in the Name Havayah, God’s “proper name” and the three lower worlds are rooted in the Name Elokim, which signifies the contraction of God’s presence and its investiture in nature. Once the Torah was given, it became possible to ascend to the consciousness of Atzilut.41
Wendy’s comment: There are much more teachings about the specific 10 Commandments from the Lubavitcher Rebbe at this site.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
Wendy’s Comment: Please see earlier post #2 for Reb Sholom’s teachings about the First and Second Commandments
Parshas Yisro 5770
A Selection of Teachings on the Ten Commandments
**The Third Commandment: Actualize Your Potential
Lo Tisa Et Shem Hashem Elokecha La-Shav**
(Do not use the Name of Hashem your G-d in vain)
The usual understanding of this mitzvah is that we may not take an oath in the Name of Hashem, on an obvious lie or an obvious truth. For example, if I were to swear in G-d’s Name that a tree is a tree, or if I were to swear that the tree is not a tree, but a car; using G-d’s Name in such a manner is using His Name in vain.
The holy Zohar interprets this verse as follows: “Do not ‘carry’ the Name of Hashem your G-d in vain.” This is actually the literal translation of the verse. How do we ‘carry’ Hashem’s Name? Hashem gave each one of us creative powers. It is in our creativity that we are most similar to the Divine. That is how we ‘carry’ Hashem’s Name. Thus according to the Zohar, Hashem is commanding us, “I have given you the gifts and talents of creativity- let it not be in vain.”
The Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Murder: Four Levels
There we were standing before Hashem at Mt. Sinai and we heard Hashem’s voice speaking to us directly; this was an unparalleled historical event. At that moment we were in such an exalted state that it is hard for us to imagine it or visualize it today. The world asks a question: Under such circumstances was it really necessary to be told; “Lo tirtzach (Do not commit murder)”?
Reb Shlomo zt”l taught us the following answer. The Zohar teaches that when Hashem said, “Do not commit murder,” the ordinary Jew heard just that. One who was on a higher-level heard Hashem saying, “Do not embarrass anyone in public.” One who was on an even higher-level heard Hashem saying, “Do not take your anger out on anyone.” And those who were on the highest-level heard Hashem saying, “Do not even ignore anyone”.
We have to be aware that it is indeed possible to commit ‘murder’ in many ways. If we embarrass someone in public or take our anger out on him or her or ignore him or her we very well may have committed a murder. We should be careful not to lightly dismiss such behavior on our part. Sometimes we slip and transgress in such ways and we must do serious tshuvah over these transgressions.
Those of us who were fortunate to know Reb Shlomo zt”l personally, know that he possessed an extremely sensitive neshamah. He went great distances out of his way to make a pained soul feel recognized and important. He always did this in his most beautiful humble and loving ways. He always made you feel that it was his biggest honor to meet you and he never allowed you to know or feel that he had gone out of his way for you.
The Relationship Between Believing In Hashem And “Thou Shalt Not Covet”
The Ten Teachings (Commandments) are to be studied, not only as far as content is concerned, but even their organization and layout are significant and should be studied.
Nechama Lebowitz z”l, one of the greatest Torah teachers of this century, points out that the Aseret Hadibrot (The Decalogue) presented on the Two Tablets of the Covenant, are in a chiastic parallel. One way of categorizing the mitzvot is according to how they are performed. Some mitzvot are performed primarily in mind and heart, some are performed primarily in speech and some in action.
The First Tablet: “Mitzvot Between Man And G-D”
The first commandment, to believe in Hashem, is done in mind and heart.
The second commandment, not to believe in other gods, is done in mind and heart.
The third commandment, not to use Hashem’s name in vain, is done in speech.
The fourth commandment, to keep the Shabbos holy and not to work on Shabbos, is primarily an action mitzvah.
The fifth commandment, to honor our parents, is also primarily an action mitzvah.
The Second Tablet: “Mitzvot Between Man And Man”
The sixth commandment, not to commit murder, is an action mitzvah.
The seventh commandment, not to commit adultery, is an action mitzvah.
The eighth commandment, not to kidnap, is an action mitzvah.
The ninth commandment, not to swear falsely, is done in speech.
The tenth commandment, not to covet, is done in mind and heart.
The first tablet contains the “mitzvot between man and G-d”. Here we move from ‘heart and mind mitzvot’ to ‘speech mitzvot’ and onto ‘action mitzvot.’ The second tablet contains the “mitzvot between man and man.” Here we move from “action mitzvot” to “speech mitzvot” and then onto “heart and mind mitzvot.”
Hence, the beginning of the first tablet parallels the end of the second tablet, the middle parallels the middle and the end of the first parallels the beginning of the second.
In our relationship with Hashem, we begin with heart and mind, and if our relationship with Hashem is real, then it must also reach into our speech and into our actions.
Between man and man, we start with not harming anyone on the action level. This alone is not enough; we also have to ensure that we don’t harm anyone via our speech. And finally, we also have to reach the level whereby we don’t have any negative feelings toward one another even in our heart and mind.
The first commandment of believing in Hashem is paralleled (in this schema) by “Thou shalt not covet.” What does this mean?
The Baal Shem Tov taught that if you want to check out how much you actually believe in Hashem, check out how much ahavat Yisrael (love of your fellow Jews) you possess. In the same vein, “Thou shalt not covet” is the inverse of, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
If you want to strengthen your love of Hashem, you can do so by doing acts of loving-kindness. When you are doing someone a favor, Hashem is giving you an opportunity to put on His face. You can do favors and acts of kindness even when you are not sure about your faith in Hashem. When someone asks you for help, help them yourself first, as much as you can, before sending them to G-d.
There are six things that we are commanded to remember continuously. These are: the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, what Amalek did to you, the sin of the golden calf, not to speak lashon hara and the Shabbos day.
For a different take on Yitro
From Rabbi Miriam Maron
THE SHAMAN OF MID’YAN
A Teaching from Rabbi Miriam Maron…
How amazing. The portion of the Torah that recounts the giving
of the Torah is called “Yit’ro.” Yit’ro, or Jethro, was the
father-in-law of Mosheh (Moses) and is described as a priest of
the Midianite nation, a wizard, a shaman. And not a Jewish one.
Yet, we name this very important section of our Torah after this
not-Jewish spiritual leader, rather than, say, Moses who is the
one bringing us the Torah. Not only that, but Mosheh greets
Yit’ro by prostrating himself before this man (Exodus 18:7),
then breaks bread with him and the two worship together (Exodus
18:12). And not only that!! But Yit’ro then observes how Mosheh
leads the people and critiques him about it, offering an
alternative suggestion of how to do it. And Mosheh listens and
follows his guidance to the letter!
Can you imagine Chief Red Cloud coming to Israel and the head
rabbi of Jerusalem bowing to him and sharing challah with him
and davening with him? And then heeding his counsel on how to
run things for the Jewish community?
Something has gotten lost across the millennia, and we need to
retrieve it. The Torah does not claim any monopoly on spirituality,
and forged a tradition which at its advent demonstrated respectfulness
toward the ways of others. In fact, the Midrash tells us that
the very staff that Mosheh possessed which later became his
miracle wand, was gifted to him by Yit’ro. It had been embedded
in the bottom of Yitro’s lake, waiting for the right person to
come along and free it. Yit’ro had his own divine revelation,
and was a man of deep spiritual awareness and practice. That
Mosheh treated him with the honors accorded a master and teacher
clearly demonstrates that he was one, that he had been Mosheh’s
mentor long before Sinai. The giving of the Torah at Sinai,
which is situated in what was once known as Mid’yan, is also
not incidental. It was in Yit’ro’s territory. There was a
connection there that we need to learn from. It was on the soil
of Yit’ro’s country that Mosheh encountered God at the burning
bush, and that he would eventually lead us to for the great
revelatory experience of the gifting of the Torah. No surprise,
then, that this section of our Torah is named after him. One more
reminder, one of many such teachings from our tradition, about
the importance of honoring and respecting those of other
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Why God Created Humans
A Teaching from Gershon…
God created humans because we are entertaining. All else is nice, sweet, cute, impressive, awesome, jaw-dropping, beyond beyond beyond…but predictable, repetitious, instinctive, expected, humdrum, and monotonous. Humans, however, are exciting, unpredictable, original, creative, impulsive, crazy, thrilling, and stimulating – for better, or for worse. The lion sings only about lions. The giraffe only tells stories about giraffes, and the mosquito is only interested in painting mosquitoes. Humans, on the other hand, unify all of creation by singing about all of it, drawing pictures and carving images of all of it, and telling stories about all of it.
The 18th-century Maggid of Mezeritch, Rav Dov Ber, likens it to a king who was in possession of a rare bird that was capable of speaking. Every time the bird would talk, the king would go wild with delirious elation, a joy he could never experience around his own family, because they talked all the time, and it was in their nature to talk. But this special bird…well, birds chirp, they don’t talk, and this bird, wow, when it actually spoke, it was marvelous, wondrous, mind-blowing, and cheered the king to no end. Likewise, the Maggid teaches us, the angels are always singing to God, and so are the animals and the trees, and the stones and the planets. But when a human sings to God – wow!! What joy it brings God, because humans are otherwise so entrenched in their own little worlds that there is little or no room at all for God to even drop by, let alone actually sing or talk to God in a direct, personal way. When we do…wow! — the heavens shake, the earth trembles, and all of Creation stops in mid-song to try and figure out what is so earth-shattering about our song (Torat HaMaggid, Sefer Vayikra [toward the end]). Little do they realize that it’s not about the songs we sing to God, but that we sing them to begin with; it is not about the words we speak to God, but that we speak to God at all.
This is very much like the teachings around the so-called Ten Commandments (actually Ten “Sayings”, or “Speakings”, in the original Hebrew). On the surface it would seem that there wasn’t anything so amazing about any of them that would make them worthy of so magnanimous and momentous a Divine Revelation to an entire people. Actually, they are mediocre at best, and quite dull and un-original compared to so many much more original lessons strewn across the length and breadth of our Torah. So, obviously it was not the content of the Decalogue that was worth sneezing at. It was the event. Not what God spoke, but that God spoke.
That God spoke directly to the people, is a far more spectacular event than what God said, or what the people heard. For the Jewish people, the significance lay in the encounter itself, not in its reading or its interpretation.
They once asked Rabbi Elimelech of Liszensk (18th century) why his brother, Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol, never ever quoted a single teaching of his master Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritsch. Rabbi Elimelech explained: “Indeed, my brother Zusia attended virtually every discourse of the great master. However, no sooner would the master begin with a quote from the Torah that started with ‘And God spoke…’ than Zusia would leap out of his chair dancing and screaming ecstatically ’And God spoke!! And God spoke!! And God spoke!!’ and of course they had to carry him out of the study hall and so he never actually got to hear anything the master taught.”
The event at Sinai was so powerful, the ancient rabbis tell us, that the souls of the people left their bodies almost instantly upon hearing the “voice” of God, and all they actually heard was the first word: ah’no’chee, “I am” (Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 88b, as is written in Song of Songs 5:6 — “My soul left me when he spoke”). Like Rabbi Zusia, what more would one hope to experience? Any ensuing revelation stands moot in relationship to the real-time in-the-moment encounter with the mystery of all mysteries, the root cause of all causes. “I am” is enough. The rest of what the Word of God wishes to elaborate becomes in that instance completely superfluous against the backdrop of the experience with the encounter.
This, the Maggid teaches, is the same on the other end of the ladder that reaches from the earth to the heavens, where God becomes ecstatic, so to speak, whenever we initiate the reaching out, the connecting. Saying Hello to God in synagogue and temple is nice, but it’s predictable. It’s like sending someone their annual birthday card. It’s chirping. It’s not like the rare bird surprising the king by speaking. Saying Hello to God outside the context of ritual and fixed prayer, on the other hand, is like sending an unanticipated surprise package, coming home one night with a bouquet of flowers when it isn’t your anniversary, or when you’re living alone!
When we do this, for ourselves, for others, for Creator, we in those moments fulfill a very elemental purpose of our existence as Humans. Otherwise, we may just as well have been created as sparrows.
Tweet, tweet, tweet. Chirp, chirp, chirp.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
I Know Why He Came January 19th, 2011
We listened to Yitro
Yitro listened to us.
Yitro [Jethro] spoke another language entirely
Yitro began by listening
he had heard all that happened
– God and Israel and Egypt
Jethro listened to the whole story
and it moved him.
He brought Tzipporah
the wife of Moses and their two sons
to Israel’s camp.
When did he come? [Talmud, Zevachim 116a]
Did he come after he heard about the attack of Amalek?
did he come when he heard about the splitting of the Sea?
did he come when he heard about the Ten Commandments?
Did he come because of the opposition
did he come because of miracles
did he come because of wisdom –
he knew why he came.
Thus is the giving of the Torah in this parashah
yet the portion is entitled Jethro,
as if we could not receive the holy Torah
until Yitro had joined us. [Zohar]
Us and Them Problem January 18th, 2011 |
How we received Yitro is an us-and-them problem
he gave us something additional
his name was Yeter [additional]
he brought additional wisdom
something from the outside.
Once we integrated his wisdom
he became YitrO
he earned a vuv
a direct connection with the Holy One
straight up and down
the Or Yashar
the direct light.
His wisdom was from the outside
what is additional is what he taught Moses
how to bring down the wisdom from the outside
in its applications
the implications and inferences
what we will draw for ourselves.
Outside becoming inside.
From the outsider Amalek we received only nastiness –
from the outsider Yitro
wisdom beyond measure.
From Melissa Carpenter
Yitro: Not in My Face
You will not have other gods besides My presence.
You will not have gods of others in addition to My presence.
You will not have gods of others in addition to My visible side.
You will not have other gods over against Me.
You will not have other gods in My face.
(Five literal translations of Exodus/Shemot 20:3)
elohim acheirim = other gods; gods of others
al = besides, in addition to; over against; concerning; because of. (The most common meaning of al is “on, upon, over, or above”; but verse 5 explains that you must not worship anything else but God—so verse 3 cannot mean that it’s okay to serve other gods as long as they are below God. )
panai = my face, my presence, my surface, my visible side, my identity
The Ten Commandments appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which is named after Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro comes to the Israelite camp at Mount Sinai and tells Moses to govern by delegating lesser cases to intermediaries to judge. Later, the people are terrified by a direct experience of God, and ask Moses to be their intermediary, and tell them God’s orders. So God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (aseret devarim, “ten statements”). The last five are simple orders, such as Don’t steal. The first five come with at least some explanation, and the longest explanation is given following the second command-ment.
This commandment opens with the verse translated in different ways above. Next the Torah explains: Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land. Do not prostrate to them and do not serve them.
Then it gives reasons for obeying: Because I am God, your god, a jealous god, calling to account the wrongdoing of fathers upon children over the third and fourth (generations), for my enemies; but doing kindness to the thousandth (generation) for those who love me and who observe my commandments.
Despite these elaborations, over the millennia people have written reams of commentary on what that first sentence of the second commandment means. This year I noticed that various commentaries are related to various translations of the Hebrew, so I generated five valid translations of the verse.
First let’s look at the difference between “other gods” and “gods of others”, two phrases that are identical in Biblical Hebrew. If the Israelites can’t have “other gods”, they are not only forbidden to worship the gods of others, but also any gods they happen to think of or notice on their own. Therefore they must not worship any manifestations of God, such as angels or the weather or nature. Only the one God itself will do.
On the other hand, if the Israelites can’t have “gods of others”, the focus turns to the kind of gods worshiped by Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Canaanites. These peoples made idols in an effort to entice gods to come down out of the heavens or up from under the earth and inhabit their statues, the way humans inhabit their bodies. A god living in a statue is easier to communicate with, and easier to appease and honor and butter up so it will act for your benefit.
But the Torah repeatedly condemns idols, and insists that God, the god of Abraham, the god of the Israelites, is different from gods (or non-gods) that can be idolized. God may appear as a humanoid angel or as fire or cloud, but what we see is God’s choice of manifestation, not the work of our own hands. The vision may disappear at any moment; it is not solid; it cannot be set on a table or paraded through town.
That brings us to the last two words of the sentence: al-panai. If the phrase means “over against Me”, or even “in my face”, it is a warning that God would be offended if you worshiped any other gods, considering that God rescued you from slavery. (In the first commandment, God specifically identifies itself as the one “who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”.) The second commandment goes on to explain that God is a “jealous” god, i.e. passionately exclusive.
However, if al-panai is translated as “in addition to My presence” or “besides My presence”, it means simply that the Israelites must worship and serve only the one god. Some commentators who translated the word panai as “My presence” interpreted it as meaning that God is present everywhere and at all times, so don’t think you can get away with having another god without the one God noticing.
But since the next verse in Exodus begins “Do not make yourself a carved idol …”, I think panai means both “My presence” and “My visible surface”. The Torah contrasts the carved idols that are supposedly inhabited by the gods of others with the presence of the God of the Israelites, which is some-times visible as a vision of an angel or a fire, and sometimes invisible, as when God is present in the empty space above the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.
Similarly, sometimes the God of the Torah is audible to everyone, as a sound like thunder or the blowing of rams’ horns. And sometimes God is audible only to one person, who “hears” the words that God speaks inside him or her.
I bet you’ve all encountered the idea that “You will have no other gods besides Me” means we must not make a god out of wealth, or having a perfect body, or any other value exalted by our culture. And it’s a good point.
Yet the second commandment not only orders us to refrain from bowing to and serving other gods, but also asks us to bow to and serve our one God. How do we do that?
How can we bow to this God, i.e. honor it and be humble before it, when God cannot be contained in a statue, or a syna-gogue or church, or even in the Holy of Holies? What can we do when God makes its presence known unpredictably, when you never know where, when, or who will become aware of God for a moment?
And how can we serve our elusive God, when even the Ten Commandments give us only a rough idea of what we’re supposed to do? And when half of the more specific laws in the Torah were dropped as inapplicable more than 1,500 years ago in the Talmud? Does anyone today have the authority to tell us how to serve God? What actions and attitudes can we take that count as service?
I’m working on some answers to those questions. It will take me the rest of my life.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Energy of the Week: Parshas Yisro
This week Torah reading includes within it the monumental revelation of Sinai. The narrative opens with the story of Yisro/Jethro. Yisro, the father in law of Moshe/Moses joins the people of Israel as they are encamped and preparing themselves for the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The reading begins “Jethro, the chieftain of Midian…heard all that God had done for…Israel… Now… Jethro…came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped.”(18:1-5)
Yisro arrived at the encampment and noticed how overworked and overburdened Moshe was. He observed him as he “judged the people, from the morning until the evening.”
Yisro says to Moshe, “The thing you are doing is not good… You will surely wear yourself out.. you cannot do it alone…” and so he suggests establishing a judiciary hierarchy, wherein only the most difficult issues will be brought to Moshe. (18:13-23)
This new system of judgment is put into place and the next episode in the Torah is the revelation of Mount Sinai.
Everything in the Torah is carefully sequenced. Yisro needed to arrive, and as the “chieftain of Midian” offer his advice, and only then could the revealing of the Torah, the Divine Higher Wisdom, occur.
The Zohar explains that it was crucial for Yisro – (whose name is derived from the root word Yeser/adding)- to arrive and dispense wisdom before the revealing of the Torah could take place.
Divine wisdom, channeled directly without the wisdom of the world, would be inaccessible. The inclusion of all wisdom, the merging of heaven and earth, creates a spiritual reality that is all encompassing and transformational.
Yisro comes as an outsider to the children of Israel, from another land and foreign culture, and yet, the portion that speaks of the revealing of the Torah is named for him, since the revealation of higher/deeper wisdom can only be fully integrated by the inclusion of the lower/outer wisdom.
The Energy of the Week:
Welcoming WisdomThis week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy of receiving wisdom from all sources.
“Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
This week we are endowed with the power to receive wisdom and glean knowledge from every life encounter and any situation.
Every person we encounter,every situation in life we find ourselves in, is a teacher, teaching us something about ourselves and the universe.
Every human being expresses another face of the Infinite faces of our Creator. The Creator is talking to us with every encounter and every person we meet.
This week we are energized with the ability to become aware of these message and find the wisdom in every encounter.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Reb Mimi Feigelson
Can Holding Back be a Good Thing
Torah Reading for Week of February 5 – 11, 2012
“Our Decalogue Dilemma”
By Rabbi Arthur Levine, Ph.D. J.D., is a 2009 AJRCA alumnus
This Shabbat, Jews praying in synagogues will rise as the Torah reader begins Exodus chapter twenty. Even those of us who neither understand Hebrew nor follow along in English will likely feel the raw power of the Ten Commandments. For many, it will be a rare confluence of conscious, emotional, and experiential connection with G-d and Scripture.
We will feel, in a word, spiritual. How often does that happen?
We’ll then sit down and not reencounter the “Ten Utterances” (as the Torah actually refers to them) for months (or, in a triennial reading cycle, years), until reaching the nearly identical passage in Parashat Va’etchannan.
On every other day but these two, Jews praying from the siddur in the synagogue connect with many other Torah verses that the rabbis of old incorporated into our liturgy. Ironically, we likely recite them while periodically gazing upon a beautiful artistic representation of the Aseret Hadibrot on the Ark. But we won’t read, hear, or say them.
Thus, on the one hand, our tradition affords the Ten Commandments the primary place of symbolic honor. Yet, on the other hand, we have literally hidden them in plain sight. Why?
We often think of Judaism as a “historical” religion. Perhaps this is mainly because of Torah’s antiquity, its textual account, and our historical connection to Eretz Yisrael. Judaism is also “historical” because our people’s ancient political and social history continues to deeply inform our liturgy and ritual. The “Decalogue Dilemma,” as I like to call it, is a prime example of this.
During Second Temple times and perhaps earlier, the Ten Commandments were prominent, recited immediately before the Sh’ma and even included in Tefillin. After the catastrophic Destruction of the Second Temple and its Holocaust aftermath, the rabbis sought to save Judaism by establishing a society based primarily upon the oral, rather than the written, tradition. (Ironically, to do this, they wrote down the oral tradition which, with later commentary, became the Talmud, the basis for the Judaism we have known ever since).
The rabbis’ powerful critics, including the Jewish followers of Jesus who became Christians, challenged the authenticity and validity of the new Rabbinic Judaism. Engaged in a struggle for their Judaism’s survival, the rabbis decided to drastically deemphasize the Ten Commandments. They didn’t just remove them from liturgical prominence; they actually banned their public recitation, except during Torah reading! This accounts for their absence from our daily and Shabbat liturgy, even as they still live in our collective consciousness.
Honoring traditions established millennia ago by our sages remains very important. I would argue, though, that among the most important of these traditions is modifying our liturgy when necessary to promote Jewish survival.
By “Jewish survival” in our current place and circumstances, I refer to the impoverished spiritual life of so many liberal American Jews. Many of our people feel disaffected, disconnected, and even indifferent to Judaism. They look elsewhere for spirituality, including to other religions that take seriously the directive to “teach ‘These Words’ diligently to your children.”
Still, even though long-(virtually) buried, The Ten Commandments continue to resonate in the Jewish soul, perhaps as no other words. Rabbis of a former era “exiled” them for the good of our people. I now call upon rabbis of our era to redeem them.
May we restore “These Words” to their former prominence in our people’s minds, hearts, and prayers. May we renew their power, as of old, in our days!
Shabbat shalom u’mvorach.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Yitro: Gods of the Torah
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Kiss the Sky
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
THE DEAL (YITRO) 2009
Three months out
we enter the wilderness,
a new landscape of the heart.
The deal is this, Moshe says
coming down from the hilltop
luminescent like the stars:
we owe compassion
to the widow and orphan
kindness to the stranger
in return we become
a nation of priests
treasured like gemstones.
Assent rumbles through us
like an earthquake, though
no one quite understands.
Moshe instructs us
to wash our clothes, stay away
from the mountain, get ready.
Every heart beats
please let me live up
to whatever is coming.
Caring for Others, Caring for Ourselves 2012 Dvar Torah for Parashat Yitro
The Manifest Name | Chava Pinchas- Cohen
They’ve all gone to the mountain to wait
To wait and see, most quietly they wait,
Against their nature even donkeys, even camels
in this quiet a bird did not chirp
even children on their fathers’ shoulders,
the quiet too much to bear as if before a matter
so awesome and great but I still wished
to first finish hanging the laundry
to make time for myself, to refresh my aroma
and I warmed the baby’s milk, lest he be hungry,
lest he cry, perish the thought, at an improper
moment, how much longer till it ends. The expectation
that the laundry will dry and the baby, what.
No one knew
But I saw a light wind, like the breath of a person asleep, pass
Through the laundry and inflate the middle
Of my shirt and the Sabbath tablecloth
Was a white sail in the middle of the wilderness
And we went from there on azure
Far to the place where
we’ll split open pomegranates and devour their juice
to the place where
a manifest name.
Havva Pinchas-Cohen, Journey of the Doe (1994), 7. Translation based on “Creator are you listening? Israeli Poets on God and Prayer” by David C. Jacobson
From Chaya Kaplan- Lester
Sinai of the Womb
“Music is the Best”
Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Frank Zappa had a credo: “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” Whatever Zappa meant by this statement and however strongly he believed it (he was, after all, perpetually sarcastic), it does suggest a spiritual philosophy of music. Information can be wrong. Knowledge can be misapplied. Attempts to be wise don’t always lead to objective truth. The search for beauty can be fickle and shallow. Romantic love can obscure perception. Music avoids these traps and pitfalls. It is pure expression, transcending the imperfections of language, the foibles of conviction, the deceptions of the intellect.
As with any hierarchy of virtues, the Zappa formula is not bulletproof. His bias as a musician and disposition as a cynic exaggerated his distrust of mental processes and amplified his praise of the non-rational power of musical sounds. Overstatements aside, the placement of music above other modes of discernment and communication does have biblical support.
Music is mentioned in nearly every book of the Bible. It was an accompaniment to daily dealings, an aid to sacred services, a supplement to civic ceremonies, an enhancer of miraculous moments. This flourishing of vocal and instrumental music has been linked to the second commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4–5). This is the Torah’s central statement regarding artistic imagination. It did not suppress all figural representation, but it does appear to have substantially limited plastic arts to ritual objects and accessories (e.g., Exod. 25:18-20; 2 Chr. 2:6). With the minimizing of visual imagery, the Israelites focused their creative energies elsewhere. They turned to music.
This was no accidental development. Musical sound was analogous to the Israelites’ conception of G-d as incorporeal and transcendent, yet intimately knowable. Music is the least tangible and most immediate of the arts. Its invisible tones surround and envelop us—whether or not we are focused on the source—and its impact on mind and mood seems almost mystical. In a similar way, the Torah describes G-d as being heard but not seen, felt but not touched. At Sinai, the people “heard the sound of [G-d’s] words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice” (Deut. 4:12). If G-d were revealed as a vision, G-d might have been compared to an idol: a fixed image confined in time and space. But the sound of the divine disembodied voice, like the sound of music, conveyed limitlessness and immateriality.
It is here that Zappa’s hierarchy finds resonance. Music is widely portrayed as the expressive medium that is least deceptive, least prone to misunderstanding, least subject to misrepresentation. It is an emotional language that reaches us before our big brains can get in the way. To pair Zappa’s words with those of another musical ideologue, Ludwig van Beethoven: Music is a higher revelation than all information, knowledge, wisdom, truth, beauty, and love.
Shabbat Parashat Yitro
January 18, 2014 – 17 Shevat 5774
By: Rabbi Edward Feinstein,
Lecturer in Rabbinics
On One Foot?
Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1 – 20:22
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
According to a popular Talmudic tale, a stranger once approached Hillel and Shammai, the great sages of the first century, with a request: “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” First, he brought the request to Shammai. According to the Talmud, Shammai picked up a builder’s rule, smacked him alongside his head and dismissed him. So he came to Hillel. “Teach me the Torah on one foot.” Hillel taught him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil u’gemar, now, go and learn.” We all acknowledge Hillel’s answer. It is loving, accepting and kind. But Shammai was right.
The stranger comes with the request, “Teach me the Torah on one foot.” What was he asking for? He wants spiritual enlightenment without spiritual discipline. He seeks inner peace without the arduous process of facing his own darkness. He wants wisdom without the work. He is looking for a Torah presented in monaural — monolithic, doctrinal, authoritative — a simple truth to live by, void of complexity, detail and nuance – and quickly. Who has time to master all those dusty books?
Rabbis hear this every day. But we are bound to disappoint, because Judaism never comes that way. That’s not how Jews think. In our tradition, there is a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it everywhere — in Bible, Talmud, philosophy. It is never on one foot. Perhaps in God’s mind, truth is unified. But when it reaches us, it refracts into dialectics. Truth is always argument, tension, polarity. Truth is too big to fit into simple maxims, too important to set down in simple discursive rules, too unwieldy to learn on one foot. Judaism teaches us to acquire a taste for complexity and contradiction.
Rav Naftali the Ropshizer Rebbe, told his Hasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side it offered Talmud Taanit: “The learned man should be a fiery furnace.” On the left side it quoted Talmud Sanhedrin: “The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come.” On the right side from Talmud Brachot: “Man should be wise in his fear of God.” And on the left side from the Yalkut: “You should be simple-hearted in your love of the Lord.” On the right side from the Talmud: “God wants the heart.” And on the left side, from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The heart of His people is corrupt and wayward.” And the Rebbe pondered the contradictions. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, “You are now to be born.” Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow both columns no matter the contradictions.
To be Jewish is to live both columns. It is to live with tension, ambivalence, and paradox. “Polarity,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is at the heart of Judaism.”
Consider this image: A pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc and you say, “This point here at the zenith, this is the truth” … or if you stop it down at the midpoint and say, “This is truth” — you are wrong. You will always be wrong, because truth is the pendulum in motion.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught that every difficult, complex problem – in politics, life, or thought – always has a simple answer, which is always wrong. Not just wrong – deadly. For throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody’s rule. We have always been the anomaly to someone’s absolute. And we have suffered for it. This is why extremism of any kind makes us so anxious. It is what scares us about fundamentalism and simplistic moralism. We respond viscerally. Whatever reduces truth to a simple absolute reduces us.
Every morning we recite, “Blessed is God who creates light and darkness, peace and all else.” Ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one principle, one idea, one path, denying the contrasts and the reality of tensions. But neither are we dualists who break everything into sharp disjunctions between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, us and them. We are monotheists. We can acknowledge the contrasts in experience because we affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity. This is the meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments read this week all over the world: Ani Adonai Eloheychem. I am the Lord your God. In worshipping one God, we embrace life’s rich complexity. We insist upon it.
I am grateful to my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis for his insights included in this drasha.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Structure of the Good Society
From Ziegler School of Religious Studies
Shabbat Parashat Yitro
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz,
Associate Professor of Rabbinics
“Seeing is Believing?”
Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1 – 20:22
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
There is a seemingly simple and clear point of narrative continuity between the event that ends last week’s parashah, i.e., the battle with Amalek, and the event that stands at the center of this week’s parashah, i.e., the revelation at Sinai. It would seem that the people go from one event to the other:
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as the Lord would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water to drink… Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” (Ex. 17: 1 and 8)
“Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai…Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.” (Ex. 19:2)
But if you’re paying close attention to the chapter numbers here, you should notice something potentially odd. There’s a chapter, chapter 18, between these two parts of the larger narrative, and that chapter contains an entire story of its own – the story of the arrival of Moshe’s father in law Yitro (for whom the parashah is named) together with Moshe’s wife Tzipporah and children Gershom and Eliezer, Yitro’s welcome from Moshe and the Israelite elders, and his wise advice to Moshe on how to organize the Israelite judicial system. What’s more, according to 18:5, Moshe’s family arrives when “he [Moshe] was encamped at the mountain of God” – that is, perhaps sometime after the arrival described subsequently in 19:2.
So when did Yitro come? For that matter, what motivated him to come, and did he intend just a visit or some more lasting association with his son-in-law and the people of Israel? And why did he come? As far back as the time of the early rabbis, the Talmud tells us, rabbinic scholars looked to the first verse of the chapter for clues:
“Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.” (Ex. 18:1)
“What tidings did he [Yitro] hear, such that he came and converted? Rabbi Yehoshua says: He heard about the war of Amalek… Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in says: He heard of the giving of Torah… Rabbi Elazar says: He heard of the splitting of the Reed Sea and came…” (Bavli Zevahim 115a)
Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar both connect the opening of this parashah to the events of the previous parashah. Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in (a different person than “just” Rabbi Elazar), however, appears to draw on a rabbinic dictum found elsewhere (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1 [49d] and Sotah 8:3 [22d], and Bavli Pesahim 6b), to the effect that “There is neither earlier nor later in the Torah” – that is, sometimes events in the Torah are narrated out of chronological order. Although related before the Revelation at Sinai, the events of this chapter actually took place later. Nor is the debate resolved among the classic commentators of the medieval period. Rashi, for example, suggests that Yitro heard of either the splitting of the sea or the war against Amalek, apparently preferring to preserve the chronological order of the narrative. But many others, including Ibn Ezra and Ramban, offer some compelling reasons to place the episode later: for example, how could Yitro offer sacrifices if the Tabernacle had not already been constructed, or how could Moshe serve as the community’s arbiter of the law if the law hadn’t already been revealed?
Note that no matter which rabbi we read with, we begin from a premise that Yitro is coming in order to join the Israelite people; the opening question of the Talmudic discussion presumes that he becomes a convert to the Israelite religion. The true question for the rabbis was: what inspired him to do so? Of course, there are arguments to be made in support of each of the views, and one basic “take-away” of this passage is that the journey to become part of the Jewish people can be a different and personal experience, with different and personal motivations and inspirations, for each and every Jew by choice. There is no single motivation that is automatically more “legitimate” than another, and however and for whatever reasons someone comes to throw their lot in with ours, so long as they do so with sincerity we can and should welcome that person in.
For the purposes of (the rest of) this drasha, however, I want to consider what insights we can derive if we read with Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in. For if we adopt this tradition, at least for the moment, then it would seem that Yitro is the first person to consciously and willingly accept Judaism without himself having experienced the Revelation at Sinai. Now, it is true that according to another (later) midrashic tradition (found in several places in the 9 th century collection known as Tanhuma), that all the souls of all people throughout history who ever were or will be associated with the Jewish people, whether by birth or “naturalization” through conversion, were present at the moment of revelation at the mountain? Yitro included. And me included. And, if you, my reader, were born Jewish, have joined the Jewish people, or are in the process of joining the Jewish people, you too are included. This is a very powerful midrash, one that I believe in deeply, and one I know has spoken to many people – sometimes particularly so for those who did not have their Jewish identity as a given all their lives (whether through non-Jewish birth or ignorance of Jewish ancestry), seeking a way to explain their discovery of a profound sense of connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
But tell me – what exactly of the experience of being at Sinai do you remember? It is much like trying to recall that we ourselves went out of Egypt at our Passover Seder. What the soul remembers is not remembered in the same way as that which we experienced bodily; with all our senses (not that memory of even our embodied experiences is a straight-forward process). While our souls may have been present, it was not we who directly and personally “witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 19:15).
There is a way, then, that Yitro’s story, even if it occurred after the Revelation, is placed exactly where it needs to be for us as we read through the Torah year after year. Within the Israelite people of his moment, Yitro’s experience – or lack of direct experience of Revelation – is different, and unique. But within the grand scheme of Jewish history, it is the norm, more or less, for nearly all of us. We have only the memory of the soul, not the memory of the senses. Reading about Yitro’s experience is an intimation of and preparation for us for our own experience of Sinai as much as for understanding the experience of our ancestors in the Wilderness. No matter whether you are Jew by birth or by choice (or a bit of both), seeing is not, and cannot be, the root of believing, of identifying, of connecting. Indeed, even seeing proved not to be enough for many of those who were actually there! What we have instead is hearing, not so much in the literal meaning of taking in and interpreting aural data, but in the more metaphorical sense of learning, internalizing, and knowing. Yitro heard, and as we will read next week, the Jewish people promised to Moshe and God: we will hear and we will do (Ex. 24:7). Yitro had before him “all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel his people”; we have before us all that and of Torah from Sinai until now. From our heritage, may we find that which inspires us to come, to do, to join, to jog the memories of our souls.
The Transmission of Revelation
By Rabbi Rochelle Robins, Dean of the Chaplaincy School at AJRCA
Has anyone ever gently told you something about life or even yourself that makes little sense and then its meaning unfolds in levels and layers in your heart over time? Receiving is possibly far more important than creating. Parshat Yitro may be, if one were pushed to choose, the most important section of our sacred text. The Aseret Hadibrot, the ten commandments, plays more of a central role in the cultivation of Jewish life than the creation story itself. In this text, God refers to Godself as the redeemer of the people Israel and not the creator of the universes. Wouldn’t the powers of creation hold more influence over the powers of redemption?
Moses transmits the words of commandments and revelation. The Israelites were overwhelmed and true revelation, if it comes too soon and too directly, may steer us away from connection to others and the Divine. It can lead to the antithesis of the desired outcome. Moses serves as a buffer, a teller, and a transmitter of the covenant that will eventually transform the Israelites into the Jewish people, a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:4-6).
Yet before we become mamlechet kohanim we are required to listen, “im shamoa tishmeu, “if you will listen, (19:5),” then you will receive and “ye‘erav lachem, it will become sweet for you” (Rashi).
The receiving of revelation or becoming awake to life’s full experience isn’t an expedient process. We may be clueless or pained at times. We may receive and then brush the awareness away as if it were chametz on the counter as we are cleaning for Pesach. Paying close attention to those who speak truth to us with subtlety or starkness reaps gifts over time. We grow and incorporate news levels of commitment to living as fully awake as possible.
We are both givers and receivers of revelation. We play the role of Moses who stands before an individual and the community to pronounce thoughts and opinions that if heeded could improve life. People mostly receive direction in gentleness but gentleness can’t always be afforded. We most often are responsible to be the listeners and receivers of family, teachers, friends, and even perceived adversaries. We are a listening tradition and it is this listening and quietness that leads us to right action and right relationships.
Our ability to receive revelation shifts according to our ability and emotional willingness. While it might be better to absorb the insight now, it may also be better to integrate later and more deeply as we’re able. As it is written in Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishamel, Bachodesh 9,
“‘And all the people saw the thunderings and lightnings.’
The thunderings upon thunderings, the lightnings upon lightnings. How many thunderings were there and how many lightenings were there? It is simply this: They were heard by each person according to his capacity.”
In his book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationship to Transform the Jewish Community, Rabbi Ron Wolfson commented on this midrash: “This midrash is saying something quite profound: each of us has an individualized capacity to hear revelation(s).
As we listen and respond to Parshat Yitro, we are offered to opportunity to remember that revelation and awakening can be revealed over time. And in our own time, within our own capacity, ye’arav lanu, the receiving of Torah has the capacity to become sweet for us. The creation gives us life, yet revelation keeps us awake.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
To Thank Before We Think
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
Finding the Authority Within
By Rabbi Beth Lieberman, ’15
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19: 4-6)
The beauty, power, and majesty of this image have been noted by commentators through the ages. It is inspiring, this act of love and redemption which enables the Israelites to become a holy nation. But the most transformative aspect of this verse is how it challenges us, beyond the first intoxicating rush of escape, to strive towards a soulful union with the Divine.
The eagle carries its young while teaching them to fly. According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, “One report of this behavior by “the golden eagle comes from Arthur Cleveland Bent, one of America’s greatest ornithologists, on the authority of Dr. L. Miller:
“The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly hand-ling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour.” (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII , 302)
We humans do this, too. When we teach or guide others, at any point in our lives, it is a complex dance of nurture, pushing away, observing, and finding a fresh approach. It is how we learn to fly. So much in our tradition’s teachings compels us to do this – to expand our narrow places, and in doing so, to become fully human, able to recognize the Divine within ourselves and in others.
There is a meditation from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot HaKodesh, which seems tailor-made for exploring the metaphor in Exodus 19:4. Its words:
Rise up, human.
Rise up, for you have tremendous strength.
You have wings of the spirit, wings of mighty eagles.
Do not deny them
Or they will deny you.
Seek them, and you will instantly find them.
Let us rise up, and join together, so that we may bring growth and healing where it is needed.
Dedicated to those who have raised up so many, the magnificent faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion California.
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Revelation Begins with You
This is a 4 1/2 min video
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Yes we said yes we will yes
In this week’s Torah portion, the children of Israel tell Moses, כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / “All that God has spoken, we will do.” After that, they receive the Ten Commandments.
Wait. Doesn’t that seem backwards? How could we accept the mitzvot, and only then learn what they are? How does it make sense to to agree to do, before we’ve heard what it is God is calling us to do? Almost every Torah commentator under the sun tackles this question, because it’s a big one.
Lately I’m spending quality time with Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Hasidic master also known as the Me’or Eynayim. And he says this is a teaching about how spiritually, no one ever stands still.
We’re always rising and falling. Life-force ebbs and flows. Our connection with God ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel connected with something beyond ourselves, and enlivened by that connection. Sometimes we feel we’ve fallen away and meaning is nowhere to be found.
Our task — he says — is to remember that all of creation is filled with divinity, that (in the words of the Zohar) לית אתר פנוי מיניה / there is no place devoid of the Presence. It’s easy to feel that at spiritual high moments when we’re feeling connected and full of love. It’s harder to feel that when life is difficult and God seems distant.
When we feel that we’ve fallen far from God, when we feel conscious of our shortcomings that keep us feeling disconnected, when we’re feeling existentially lonely, that’s when we need to remember that there’s no such thing as “far from God.” God, he teaches, is never absent or far away — only sometimes very hidden. God withdraws in order to make space for us, or perhaps to encourage us to seek.
When we feel that we’re far away from God or from goodness, God is actually right there with us in our feelings of exile, our feelings of loneliness, our feelings of despair. Sometimes everything seems clear and we can feel God’s presence with us. Sometimes the clarity departs and God feels far away. But the distinction is one of epistemology, not ontology.
And the answer to feeling existentially far-from-God is to say yes — even when we can’t feel the presence of the thing we’re saying yes to. Say yes to life, even if you don’t know where life will take you. Say yes to spiritual practice, even if you don’t know how spiritual practice will change you. Say yes to the mitzvot, even when you don’t wholly know what they are. Say yes to God, even if you aren’t sure God exists, or is listening.
Agreeing to do before we’ve heard what it is we’re supposed to do is an inversion. It’s rising before falling. But the thing about falling is, it just spurs us to want to rise higher. One step back, two steps forward. At least, that’s the Me’or Eynayim’s take on it. Because spiritual life never stands still.
Standing still is stasis, and stasis is death. As long as we’re living, we’re growing and changing. My seven-year-old likes to say there’s no such thing as doing “nothing” — even if we’re holding perfectly still, we’re breathing, we’re existing, blood is pumping through our veins. If we’re alive, we’re changing. In the Me’or Eynayim’s terms, if we’re alive, we’re rising and falling.
We agree to do the mitzvot — that’s a moment of rising. Then we fall, because that’s how life works. We touch elevated consciousness for long enough to give God an existential “yes we said yes we will yes,” and then we fall away. But in our falling, we listen for God’s presence in the world, and that’s when we hear the Voice issuing forth from Sinai. שמע: we listen, and achieve a glimmer of understanding, and rise up again.
The first step is a leap of faith: כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / “all that God has spoken, we will do.” We leap even though we don’t know what we’re leaping to. We leap, saying “sure, we’ll spend our lives with You” before we really know Who God is or where God might take us. We leap knowing that we will fall… and that from our place of having-fallen, we can rise to greater heights.
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