You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Yitro.
From Reconstructing Judaism
“Hearing” The “Voice” of God
By Rabbi Howard Cohen
What does it mean to “hear” the commanding “voice” of God? A key word in this week’s portion suggests that it is not necessarily all that clear. Moreover, one particularly trenchant verse in the haftarah reinforces the problem with understanding revelation (which I am equating with the notion of hearing the commanding voice of God).
After three days of preparing for an event to occur on Mount Sinai, Moshe gathered the people together at the foot of the mountain. The summit became engulfed in a furious storm of lightening, clouds and thunder. “The whole mountain trembled violently.” Moshe began to speak to God: “The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder: As Moshe spoke, God answered him…”
Before proceeding, a speculative question: What do you think Moshe was saying to God at that moment?
Continuing: The word with which the Torah tells us that God answered Moshe is richly ambiguous. That word is “kol” which literally means ‘voice’, ‘thunder’ or ‘sound’. At this critical juncture of communications between God, Moshe and the Israelites, we are left wondering what exactly was heard!
Some have maintained that what Moshe heard was the sound of thunder, which was tantamount to hearing God’s voice, as suggested in Psalm 18:14 (“The Lord thundered from Heaven”). His gift of prophecy, if you will, was the ability to “hear the voice of God” within the sound that everyone else heard as thunder, and translate this voice into words, more specifically into the Ten Commandments which immediately follow. (See Seek My Face, Speak My Name, by Rabbi Art Green, p. 109, for more on this idea).
If Moshe “heard” in the thunder the revolutionary Ten Commandments, what meaning did everyone else take away from this encounter? I think that the haftarah suggests an answer to this question:
“Hear again and again – but without understanding; Look again and again – but without perceiving. Dull this people’s mind, stop its ears and cloud its eyes, or it may see with its eyes and hear with its ears and understand with its mind”
In short, they failed to understand the meaning or message of the “voice of God”! To them it was just thunder. But why not? If they are like most us, would they not expect to “hear the voice of God” speaking to them in a familiar language? On some level, do we not expect to literally hear the voice of God as if it were the result of the same mechanics and physics that produce our voices? How often have we failed to hear or understand the “voice of God” speaking to us through nature; or human acts of courage, kindness, and compassion; or through poetic, musical, and other ingenious human acts of creation; or through scientific inspiration? What is it, in the words of Isaiah, that dulls minds, stops up ears or clouds eyes and results in hearing without understanding and seeing without perceiving?
I am not sure whether it is humbling or comforting to realize that we (or at least I) suffer from the same kind of difficulties discerning God’s voice in the world around me as the Israelites did in the time of Moshe and again hundreds of years later in the time of Isaiah.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Universal and the Particular
Chassidim say of the Baal Shem Tov that he would travel around the little towns and villages of Eastern Europe, asking Jews how they were. However poor or troubled they were, invariably they would reply, Baruch Hashem. It was an instinctive expression of faith, and every Jew knew it. They might have lacked the learning of the great Talmudic scholar, or the wealth of the successful, but they believed they had much to thank God for, and they did so. When asked what he was doing and why, the Baal Shem Tov would reply by quoting the verse: “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:4). So every time a Jew says Baruch Hashem, he or she is helping to make a throne for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.
The words Baruch Hashem appear in this week’s parsha. But they are not spoken by a Jew. The person who says them is Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. Rejoining Moshe after the Exodus, bringing with him Moshe’s wife and children, and hearing from his son-in-law all that had happened in Egypt, he says, “Praise be to the Lord [Baruch Hashem], who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians” (Ex. 18:10).
Three people in the Torah use this expression – and all of them are non-Jews, people outside the Abrahamic covenant. The first is Noach: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem” (Gen. 9:26). The second is Avraham’s servant, presumed to be Eliezer, whom he sends to find a wife for Yitzchak: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Avraham, who has not abandoned His kindness and faithfulness to my master” (Gen. 24:27). The third is Yitro in this week’s parsha.
Is this significant? Why is it that this praise of God is attributed to Noach, Eliezer and Yitro, whereas from the Israelites, with the marked exception of the Song at the Sea, we seem to hear constant complaints? It may be simply that this is human nature: we see more clearly than others what is lacking in our lives, while others see more clearly than we do the blessings we have. We complain, while others wonder what we are complaining about when we have so much to be thankful for. That is one explanation.
It is, though, possible that a more fundamental point is being made. The Torah is signalling its most subtle and least understood idea: that the God of Israel is the God of all humankind, even though the religion of Israel is not the religion of all humankind. As Rabbi Akiva put it: “Beloved is humanity, for it was created in the image of God. Beloved is Israel, for they are called children of God.”
We believe that God is universal. He created the universe. He set in motion the processes that led to stars, planets, life, and humanity. His concern is not limited to Israel. As we say in the prayer of Ashrei, “His tender mercies are on all His works.” You do not need to be Jewish to have a sense of reverence for the Creator or recognise, as Yitro did, His hand in miraculous events. It would be hard to find another religious literature that confers such dignity on figures who stand outside its borders.
This is true not only of the three notable figures who said Baruch Hashem. The Torah calls Avraham’s contemporary, Malkizedek, king of Shalem, a “Priest to God Most High.” He, too, blessed God: “Blessed be Avram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand” (Gen. 14:19-20).
Consider also, the fact that the title of our own parsha this week, which contains the Ten Commandments as well as the most significant event in all of Jewish history, the covenant at Sinai, carries the name of a non-Jew. What is more, immediately prior to the revelation at Sinai, the Torah tells us how it was Yitro the Midianite Priest who taught Moshe how to organise the leadership of the people.
These are remarkable expressions of spiritual generosity to those outside the covenant.
Or consider Tishri, the holiest month of the Jewish year. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as well as reading about the birth of Yitzchak, we read of how an angel came to the aid of Hagar and Yishmael. “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid. God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 21:17-18). Yishmael was not destined to be a carrier of the covenant, yet he was rescued and blessed.
On Yom Kippur, in the afternoon, after we have spent most of the day fasting and making confession, we read the book of Yonah, in which we discover that the Prophet uttered a mere five Hebrew words (“In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed”) and then the entire population – Assyrians, Israel’s enemies – repented. Tradition takes this as the model of collective repentance.
On Succot we read Zechariah’s prophecy that in days to come all the nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of rain (Zech. 14:16-19).
These are three stunning examples of universalism. They do not imply that in the fullness of time everyone will convert to Judaism. Rather, that in the fullness of time everyone will recognise the one God, Creator and Sovereign of the universe. That is quite a different thing.
This idea that you can stand outside the faith and still be acknowledged by people within the faith as someone who recognises God, is very rare indeed. Far more common is the approach of one God, one truth, one way. Whoever stands outside that way is Godless, unsaved, the infidel, unredeemed, a lower class of humanity.
Why then does Judaism distinguish between the universality of God and the particularity of our relationship with Him? Answer: because this helps us solve the single greatest problem humanity has faced since earliest times. How can I recognise the dignity and integrity of the ‘other’? History and biology have written into the human mind a capacity for altruism toward the people like us, and aggression toward the people not like us. We are good, they are bad. We are innocent, they are guilty. We have truth, they have lies. We have God on our side, they do not. Many crimes of nation against nation are due to this propensity.
Which is why Tanach teaches otherwise. Noach, Eliezer and Yitro were people of God without being members of Israel. Even the people of Nineveh became an example of how to heed a Prophet and repent. God blessed Yishmael as well as Yitzchak. These are powerful lessons.
It is hard to think of a more compelling principle for the 21st century. The great problems humanity faces – climate change, economic inequality, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence – are global, but our most effective political agencies are at most national. There is a mismatch between our problems and the available solutions. We need to find a way of combining our universal humanity with our cultural and religious particularity.
That is what the Torah is doing when it tells us that Noach, Eliezer and Yitro said Baruch Hashem. They thanked God, just as we, today, thank God. God is universal. Therefore humanity, created in His image, is universal. But the revelation and covenant at Mount Sinai were particular. They belong to our story, not the universal story of humankind.
I believe this ability to be both particular in our identity and universal in our commitment to the human future is one of the most important messages we, as Jews, have to deliver in the 21st century. We are different, but we are human. Therefore let us work together to solve the problems that can only be solved together.
 There are two other oblique examples. Laban calls Avraham’s servant, “You who are blessed by the Lord” (Gen. 24:31). Avimelech king of Gerar says of Yitzchak, “You are blessed by the Lord” (Genesis 26:29). Again note that neither of the speakers is part of the covenant.
 Mishnah Avot 3:14.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
From Brian Yosef Schacter-Brooks
Four Dimensions of Presence with Others – Parshat Yitro
This parsha begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, coming out to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. When Moses goes out to greet him, the Torah hints at four dimensions of being present with other people (Exodus 18:7):
“Vayotzei Mosheh – Moses went out…” The foundation of being present with another person is “going out” of our mental preconceptions, so that we can open to the person as they are.
“Vayishtakhu – he prostrated…” This means having respect for someone, being sensitive and relating to them in a harmonious way, such as listening and not interrupting.
“Vayishak lo – he kissed him…” While respect is a passive thing, being sensitive about what not to do, “kissing” means showing love in an active way. It need not be actual “kissing,” it might just mean a smile or a handshake.
“Vayish’alu ish l’re’eihu l’shalom – they each asked the other about their welfare…” The actual expression here is that they asked “for peace” (l’shalom). On the surface, this means being actively interested in the other in conversation. But on a deeper level, this is a type of spiritual inquiry in its own right:
“What is the “shalom” – the eternal dimension – of this person standing before me?”
In becoming aware of the eternal dimension of Being in another person, you also bring forth your own eternal dimension, and Being beholds Being…
From My Jewish Learning
Wisdom From The Margins
Jethro’s position at the outside of the Jewish people allowed him to understand how to make the Torah work for a multiplicity of people.
BY RABBI SHIMON FELIX
In Parashat Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many rabbis and commentators have begun their discussion of the Torah portion by noting that the name of the portion, Yitro, is not, perhaps, what we would expect for what is, after all, the most important portion of the Torah.
Jethro (Yitro) was Moses‘ father-in-law, and was, as the Torah tells us at the beginning of the portion, a priest of Midian — a priest of idolatry. Why is this crucial portion of the Torah named after a relatively minor figure, who, in fact, only came to the Jewish people late in life, after a long career in applied paganism?
In fact, according to a Midrash quoted by Rashi, Jethro was somewhat ambivalent about the Jewish people, and his relationship to them. The Bible tells us that Jethro, hearing of the Exodus from Egypt, with its attendant miracles, took Moses’s wife and children, whom Moses had left in Midian, apparently in order to spare them the rigors of life in Egypt, and, with them in tow, joined the Jewish people, encamped in the Sinai desert.
Moses greets him warmly and respectfully, sacrifices are offered to God in recognition of His miraculous care for the Israelites, and a celebratory meal is eaten. Moses then takes him into his tent, where he tells him the marvelous details of the miraculous defeat of Egypt by God.
Jethro Was Happy
The Bible reports Jethro’s response to all this with the words Vayichad Yitro— “And Jethro was happy, for all the good which God had done for Israel, that he saved the nation from the hands of Egypt.” ‘Vayichad‘ is a rare word, not the obvious choice for ‘happy’ or ‘joyous.’ The Rabbis notice this, and derive from it the following remarkable insight: The word ‘vayichad’ comes from a word for goosebumps; Jethro felt goosebumps, a chill, when he heard about the tragedy which had befallen Egypt.
The Midrash goes on to draw the following conclusion: “This is like what people say: ‘One should not speak poorly of a gentile in the presence of a convert, even after 10 generations’.” In other words, Jethro, although he had joined the Jewish people, still felt a connection, an allegiance, to the non-Jewish world, and, therefore, was sensitive to the tragedy of the Egyptians, more sensitive than someone born Jewish, of Jewish stock, might be. And yet, it is this very Jethro, who is ambivalent about his allegiances, in whose parsha the Ten Commandments are given.
To complicate matters, not only the name of the parsha, but Jethro’s subsequent actions in the parsha as well, raise some similar questions. The day after Jethro’s arrival, Moses sits in judgment of the people, who, all day long, approach him, demanding solutions to their arguments, litigations, and problems.
Some commentaries have suggested that, although this story appears in the narrative before the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, it may actually have taken place afterwards, which would explain the great need for Moses to interpret the newly-received law to the people. Either way, we are presented with a picture of Moses inundated, ‘from morning until night’, with the people seeking justice from him.
Jethro, seeing this, approaches Moses and, speaking like a true father-in-law, says: “This is not good, this thing you are doing. You will surely be worn out, you and the nation with you, for this is too great a burden for you, you can not do it by yourself.” Jethro then goes on to outline a brilliant solution: he suggests that Moses recruit suitable men — God-fearing, honest — and appoint them as judges. Jethro proposes that a system of upper and lower courts be established, with Moses at the top of the pyramid.
Moses goes along with the idea, and chooses the judges — some 72,600 of them if we calculate starting from the assumption that there were judges for every 10, 50, 100, and 1,000 people in a nation with a population of 600,000 — who begin judging the people, referring to Moses only the most difficult cases. At this point, knowing when to make an exit, Jethro returns home, to Midian.
A Strange Story
The strangeness of this story is obvious. For one, there is the naming of this auspicious parsha after a retired idolatrous priest, who actually still has a certain reservoir of feeling for the culture and people who oppressed Israel, and whom he has, in theory, left behind.
In addition, why is Jethro, the stranger, the newcomer to the tribe and its beliefs, the only one who can see Moses’s problem, and, moreover, come up with a solution; a judicial system which will more efficiently bring Torah and justice to the people? Why didn’t Moses, or one of the elders, figure this important piece out?
And, finally, why does Jethro return home? Why does he not remain with his family, his newly-adopted people, and get some nachas (Yiddish for satisfaction) from pointing out to all who will listen what good advice he gave his son-in-law?
It seems to me that the answer to these questions lies in a central piece of post-modernist thought. Many post-modernists (Derrida, Foucault) see the marginal as being the place where the action really is. It is not at the center of a culture or a system where we will find its true nature or message, but, rather, at the margins, in the seemingly inconsequential. It is there that the system makes its most crucial statements about itself, its beliefs, and its concerns.
The parsha of Jethro would seem to be the Torah’s way of teaching us about the value and importance of the marginal, and the view from the margins. The parsha of matan Torah — the giving of the Torah — and the way to create the delivery system for that Torah — a network of courts — is best understood by someone at the margin.
For those who actually went through the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, only the most central authority figure — Moses — can be accepted as an adjudicator of Torah law. No one could imagine that other, less central, less authoritative, people could have the right or ability to also determine the will of God. It is Jethro, himself an outsider, a minor figure, who points out the need to look beyond the epicenter of Jewish life — Moses — to the margins, if Jewish life is to flourish.
The Real Strength of Torah
In other words, the real strength of the Torah, its ability to survive and sustain itself, will not be found at the center, with Moses, but at the edges, in the lower courts, among the thousands of junior jurists, who will determine, daily, for their peers, the will of God and His Law.
It is only Jethro, whose marginality as a convert gives him a sensitivity to the plight of the Egyptians not shared by the rest of the Jews, who deserves to have the parsha of the giving of the Torah named after him. It is precisely his sensitive, nuanced, ambivalent response to things — the chill he feels at the news of the fall of Egypt, along with the joy he feels at the salvation of Israel — which the Torah demands.
This is why only a Jethro could understand that what is needed in order to make the Torah work for the people is a judicial system made up of thousands of individuals who will, of necessity, speak with more than one voice, bring to bear more than one sensibility, and look at the Torah with more than one world view. Only Jethro, who, as a convert, carried a multiplicity of sensibilities within himself, understood the need for, and the value of, such a complex, nuanced world view.
The Torah of one man, even a Moses, is not the Torah of a nation. Jethro’s plan democratizes, spreads out, and, therefore, complicates beautifully the message of the Torah, taking it out of the hands of any one individual and making it the property of the people. It is this Torah that we are meant to receive, not a monolithic Torah, interpreted by only one person, one sensibility.
And, finally, it would seem that Jethro understood and cherished his role as outsider, and, therefore, to preserve it, goes back, through the desert, to Midian, in order, perhaps, to retain that marginal world view, the insight of the outsider.
What must we do, to gain that insight? Where is our Midian? How do we get there?
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Women and Revelation
When Moses altered the message given to him by God, he cut women out of the revelation at Sinai.
BY JUDITH PLASKOW
Read from a feminist perspective, Yitro contains one of the most painful verses in the Torah . At the formative moment in Jewish history, when presumably the whole people of Israel stands in awe and trembling at the base of Mount Sinai waiting for God to descend upon the mountain and establish the covenant, Moses turns to the assembled community and says, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15). Moses wants to ensure that the people are ritually prepared to receive God’s presence, and an emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (see Leviticus 15:16-18). But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.” Instead, at this central juncture in the Jewish saga, he renders women invisible as part of the congregation about to enter into the covenant.
These words are deeply troubling for at least two reasons. First, they are a paradigm of the treatment of women as “other,” both elsewhere in this portion and throughout the Torah. Again and again, the Torah seems to assume that the Israelite nation consists only of male heads of household. It records the experiences of men, but not the experiences of women. For example, the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (20:14), presupposes a community of male hearers.
Second, entry into the covenant at Sinai is not just a one-time event, but an experience to be reappropriated by every generation (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). Every time the portion is chanted, whether as part of the annual cycle of Torah readings or as a special reading for Shavuot, women are thrust aside once again, eavesdropping on a conversation among men, and between men and God. The text thus potentially evokes a continuing sense of exclusion and disorientation in women. The whole Jewish people supposedly stood at Sinai. Were we there? Were we not there? If we were there, what did we hear when the men heard “do not go near a woman”? If we were not there originally, can we be there now? Since we are certainly part of the community now, how could we not have been there at that founding moment?
The Larger Narrative Context
Given the seriousness of these questions, it is important to note the larger narrative context of Moses’ injunction to the men not to go near a woman. When the Israelites arrive at Sinai on the third new moon after leaving Egypt, Moses twice ascends the mountain to talk with God. After he brings God the report that the people have agreed to accept the covenant, God gives Moses careful instructions for readying everyone for the moment of revelation:
“Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow,” God says. “Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day Adonai will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:10-11).
It is striking that God’s instructions to Moses are addressed to the whole community. It is Moses who changes them, who glosses God’s message, who assumes that the instructions are meant for only half the people. Thus, at this early stage in Jewish history, Moses filters and interprets God’s commands through a patriarchal lens. His words are a paradigm of the treatment of women, but a complex one. They show how Jewish tradition has repeatedly excluded women, but also the way in which that exclusion must be understood as a distortion of revelation.
Interestingly, the Rabbis seem to have been disturbed by the implication of women’s absence from Sinai, because they read women into the text in a variety of ways. B’reishit Rabbah 28:2 understands Exodus 19:3 (“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel”) to mean that “the house of Jacob” refers to the women and “the children of Israel” refers to the men. According to the midrash, the order of the verse suggests that God sent Moses to the women with the Torah first. Perhaps, the sages speculate, God regretted the mistake of not directly giving Eve the commandment concerning the forbidden fruit and so resolved not to repeat it. Besides, the Rabbis note, women are more careful in observing religious precepts, and they are the ones who will instruct their children. Rashi, commenting on the Mishnah (Shabbat 9:3; BT Shabbat 86a), interprets Exodus 19:15 (“Do not go near a woman”) as a stricture specifically designed to enable Israel’s women to be present at Sinai. Since semen loses its power to create impurity after three days, Moses’ instruction to the men guarantees that women will remain ritually pure, even if they discharge residual semen during the Revelation. In other words, without ever naming Moses’ distortion of God’s words directly, the Rabbis sought to reverse its effects.
Several lessons can be drawn from this. One is the inseparability of revelation and interpretation. There is no revelation without interpretation; the foundational experience of revelation also involves a crucial act of interpretation. Second, we learn that the process of interpretation is ongoing. What Moses does, the Rabbis in this case seek to undo. While they reiterate and reinforce the exclusion of women in many contexts, they mitigate it in others. Third, insofar as the task of interpretation is continuing, it now lies with us. If women’s absence from Sinai is unthinkable to the Rabbis — despite the fact that they repeatedly reenact that absence in their own works — how much more must it be unthinkable to women and men today who function in communities in which women are full Jews? We have the privilege and the burden of recovering the divine words reverberating behind the silences in the text, recreating women’s understandings of revelation throughout Jewish history.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
From Rabbi David Kasher
SYNESTHESIA AT SINAI – Parshat Yitro
What was it like?
This week’s parsha contains what is arguably the single most important moment in the Torah: The Revelation at Mount Sinai. You might say that the whole of the Jewish religion is based on this event. And the content of that revelation is perhaps the most famous part of the Torah, and the most enduring legacy of Judaism: The Ten Commandments.
What I want to focus on, though, is not the meaning or the content of the revelation, but the experience itself. What was it actually like? What did it feel like to be standing there at Sinai?
Well, one thing we do know from the narrative is that it was totally overwhelming. “When the people saw it,” we read just after the commandments are given, “they fell back, and stood at a distance.” And the first thing they did, when they recovered, was to ask Moses to make it stop:
You speak to us, and we will obey. But do not let God speak to us, lest we die. (Exodus 20:15)
דַּבֵּר-אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ, וְנִשְׁמָעָה; וְאַל-יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹקים, פֶּן-נָמוּת.
The experience of truly encountering God, it seems, was so overpowering, it was just too much to handle. They felt that at any moment they could slip away, and lose themselves completely. It’s like staring into the sun. You know the sun is there, you can see its light and maybe glimpse at it for a second, but if you look directly into it for too long, you’ll go blind. Except that this is staring into the Source, not of light, but of existence itself. And so you don’t just go blind. You are obliterated.
This fear is confirmed later on by God, when Moses asks to see God’s glory and God responds:
You cannot see My face, for a person cannot see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)
לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי.
And yet… there was something the people at Sinai did see. Just before they retreat and beg for relief, we read this curious line:
All the people saw the sounds and the flashes, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking… (Exodus 20:15)
וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶת-הָהָר, עָשֵׁן…
Did you catch that? They saw the sounds? Seeing God may be dangerous; but seeing sound – that’s impossible.
Just to be clear, the word for ‘sounds’ here in Hebrew is kolot (קולות), which can be translated as ‘voices,’ or even ‘thunder.’ So some translations have it that the people saw “the thunder and lighting.“ But even so, that phrasing doesn’t really resolve the difficulty. You still can’t see thunder. And anyway, we’ve got another kol in the verse – the ‘sound’ of the shofar – and it seems they saw that, too.
So what’s going on? How did they “see the sounds”? Well, this is just the kind of phrase that the commentators go nuts over (parsha-nuts!). And there are tons of great answers.
Let’s review some:
– The Rashbam is a commentator who always looks for a plain, straightforward answer. He’s not going to accept that they actually saw sounds, that’s way too out there. So he says that what they saw was “the hail and the stones” flying around. And his proof that there was hail here on Mt. Sinai is that during the plague of hail back in Egypt, there was also thunder – kolot. So thunder and hail always go together.
Now, that’s the most rational attempt at an answer that we’re going to get.
– Then there are the more poetic or metaphorical reads. The Italian Renaissance commentator, Ovadiah Sforno beautifully says:
This is like the phrase in in Ecclesiastes, ‘and my heart saw’ – that is, they meditated on the idea of the sounds…
כמו ולבי ראה (קהלת א:טז). התבוננו בענין הקולות…
Rabbeinu Bachya, a great Medieval Spanish commentator who liked to mix rational and mystical interpretations, writes:
‘Seeing’ here means ‘understanding,’ as in, “Ah, I see, the scent of my son…” (Genesis 27:27).
ראיה זו ענין השגה וכן (בראשית כז) ראה ריח בני
This is like the way we say in English, “Oh, I see!” to mean, “I understand!” Maimonides, in the Guide to the Perplexed (1:46), gives the same explanation.
So all of these thinkers understand the Torah to be speaking not exactly, but poetically, or idiomatically.
– On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who take the “seeing sounds” phrase very literally. A favorite of mine, the Kli Yakar, of Prague, has this very cool take on it:
Every word that came out of God’s mouth, immediately began to take form, and became so tangible that they could see the letters flying in the air like they were written in front of them.
שכל דבור ודבור שיצא מפי הקב”ה, מיד נתגשם אותו דבור והיה בו כ“כ ממשות עד שהיו רואין באויר כל האותיות פורחות וכאילו היה הכל כתוב לפניהם
You have to love that bold imagery! And he’s not the only one with such a fantastic interpretation. Rabbi Akiva, the great hero of the Talmud, says that “they saw a word of fire come out of the Mouth of Might, and be engraved upon the tablets.” (Mekhilta) That explains the combination of ‘sounds and flashes of light.’ How wondrous, to imagine God, like some Almighty fire-breathing dragon, puffing out and burning the letters into stone.
– Then there’s Rashi, the King of the Commentators, who is brief as usual, and simply says:
They saw that which is heard, which would be impossible to see in any other place.
רואין את הנשמע, שאי אפשר לראות במקום אחר
Rashi doesn’t try to explain it away. The phrase is unusual, he suggests, precisely because it is meant to describe a highly unusual experience. Somehow, in this extraordinary moment, they could actually see sound. Their senses were expanded, and crossing over normal sensory boundaries, blending into one another.
There’s actually a fancy word for this phenomenon: synesthesia. Here’s a Wikipedia definition: “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” There are people in our world who actually have this condition. They hear music, for example, and report that every note has its own particular color to it.
I suppose the idea here, then, is that everyone at Sinai had these powers. The revelation at Sinai was a “synesthetic” experience.
Okay, building on this concept, I’ve saved the best for last…
One of the greatest of the Hasidic commentators is the Sfat Emet, a 19th-century Polish mystic who was also a brilliant Talmudic and Biblical interpreter. And one of the best pieces of Sfat Emet I’ve ever read is on this verse. He cites Rashi’s interpretation, which we’ve just explained, and then goes on:
We still have to understand, though, what the need is for this miracle. What do I care if they just heard the sounds, without a miracle? And we may answer: because Seeing and Hearing are two distinct experiences, one unlike the other. And each one has an advantage and a disadvantage. For the Seer looks at a thing in its completeness, exactly as it is. But for the Hearer, the sound changes as it enters his ears, and it isn’t exactly the same sound that was originally made. That’s the advantage of Seeing. But with Hearing, there is an advantage that the sound truly enters inside of him through the ear, whereas the sight remains outside. With this in mind, the verse teaches us that the Children of Israel had both advantages. They received the words in the manner of “seeing sounds,” such that even though they truly entered inside of them, nevertheless they “saw” the sounds, without any distortion.
ויש להבין מה צורך בנס הזה מה לי אם ישמעו הקולות בלי נס. ואפשר לומר כי ראיה ושמיעה הם ב’ ענינים לא ראי זה כראי זה. ויש מעלה בכל א’ וחסרון. כי הרואה מסתכל דבר הנראה בשלימות כמו שהוא בלי שינוי. אבל השומע נשתנה הקול בהכנסו באזניו ואינו ממש כפי המשמיע. וזה מעלת הראיה. ובשמיעה יש מעלה שמכניס השמיעה בקרבו ממש על ידי האוזן אבל הראיה היא מבחוץ. מול זאת משמיענו הכתוב כי בני ישראל היה להם ב’ המעלות שקבלו את הדברות בבחינת רואין את הנשמע שאף שנכנסו לתוכם ממש מכל מקום ראו הקולות בלי שום שינוי.
Here we have one of the most amazing descriptions of the revelation I have ever come across. Our scientific understanding of sight and hearing may be quite different now, of course, but his description corresponds well with our intuitive experience of seeing and hearing. Seeing is the sense human beings usually rely on most. We tend to assume we are seeing things exactly as they are, even though they remain at a distance. Hearing, meanwhile, is a weaker, less reliable sense. But it is more powerful to the extent that it actually enters us, and we can feel it vibrating inside of us.
The Sfat Emet’s larger point, however, is not as much about the technical description as it is about the spiritual. What was so incredible about the experience of revelation was that, for that one moment, they heard God’s word exactly was it was, with no distortion, but also were able to completely internalize it. The goal of seeking to understand an objective reality is to truly know things, as they actually are. But the power of a subjective reality, though it may be somewhat distorted by a particular perspective, is that it is personal – we make it our own and and through it we find meaning.
In the moment of revelation, somehow the objective and the subjective – the seeing and the hearing – merged. The Children of Israel were able to understand God as God meant to be understood, but to personalize that understanding in the way that was most meaningful for them. In other words, for that one moment, God and Humanity were truly communicating.
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.
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Revelation Begins with You
This is a 4 1/2 min video
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 Jonathan Sacks
To Thank Before We Think
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 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 Structure of the Good Society
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
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.
“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.
From Chaya Kaplan- Lester
Sinai of the Womb
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 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
Kiss the Sky
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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 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!
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