You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Yitro.
From The Hebrew College
Image as Portal to God
By Rabbi Adina Allen
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
This week, in Parashat Yitro, at the foot of a shaking, quaking, smoking Mount Sinai, the Israelites receive the word of God and are given the Ten Commandments—the foundational ethical and religious code for how to live as a people in service to God. The first two commandments are set up to enforce monotheism as the religious system, declaring that God is the only god. Then, before the prohibition against coveting or adultery or even murder, the Israelites are instructed, “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” (Exodus 20:4).
What was the role of this prohibition for the Israelites then, and what, if any, role might there be for image-making in our religious and spiritual lives today?
The question of the role of image-making is a particularly potent one for me given my life and work as co-founder and Creative Director of an organization that offers art-making as a Jewish practice for spiritual connection and social transformation. Behind me as I sit at my desk and write this is a wall covered with pieces of artwork I have made over the past three years. Swirls of color, energetic lines, abstract shapes mixed together with more recognizable forms that exist on earth and beneath the seas—eyes, a key, a human hand, a beating heart, a bucket dipping down into a deep well. As of this moment, there are more than forty pieces hanging up, each made in a virtual communal art-making session. These pieces were created using the Jewish Studio Process, the core methodology of our work, which brings together beit midrash textual inquiry with art-making as a way to process, deepen and expand the learning. Foundational to this practice is the belief that anyone and everyone can do it—one need not be an artist or scholar to draw forth meaning and draw down images; to make meaning of the mystery for others and for ourselves.
Engaging in art-making after studying text gives the words we have explored and the questions we’ve raised time and space and a place to land — on the page and inside of us. As Carl Jung said, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” As we create, still percolating on the material we studied, connections that we weren’t previously aware of, resonances between the text and our lives, start to surface. Sometimes this happens simply from the meditative practice of keeping our hands busy so that our minds can continue to meander through the learning. Other times this happens through what emerges in our art — without having intended to, a particular image becomes recognizable on the page, or the way certain colors blend together or various shapes look may evoke a reaction or insight that connects back to the text, offering us a new layer of meaning. Through the process of allowing color and line to arrange themselves on the canvas, the words from the text rearrange themselves within us. In this practice, image-making opens each of as a site for the ongoing revelation of the meaning, magic and multiplicity of the Divine word.
At Sinai, having escaped the narrow confines of Mitzrayim yet having not yet made it to the Promised Land, the Israelites are in a state of formation. The decades of desert wandering are the time in which they are discovering who they are as a people and what their collective political and religious life will look like. It is here that the call to monotheism comes and the prohibition against image-making comes. Rather than subsets of the community worshiping discrete deities in our own homes or at our own altars, God instructs the Israelites to come together as a people through centralized worship. One way we might understand this insistence towards monotheism is that the Divine is helping the Israelites move away from seeing gods as individual things—rock, tree, statue—in order to experience God as everything.
Midrash teaches that at Sinai “God spoke like a picture visible from all angles, everyone looked at it and it gazed back at each of them.” Here, image and word are brought together. The experience of God’s speech is “like a picture;” the words of revelation come through this picture of God. God is one, yet the image of God is refracted through the hands, hearts and minds of the many—through each of us. The only way to see the picture in its entirety is for each of us to share the part of the image that we are able to view. Rather than taking us away from connection to the Divine, each image opens up ever-more facets of the mystery of God.
While in biblical times keeping God abstract and out of reach may have served to protect the nascent idea of one God as it was coming into being, at the time in which we are living right now, we are in need of ever-more ways to connect to, experience and sanctify the innumerable expressions of God in this world. When I look at the artwork on my wall, I am transported back into the text I was studying at the time. Like photos from a trip, images are a reminder of and a portal to a particular moment and to the insight and feeling that we had when creating it. The contours of the image are like a topographical map of the terrain we’ve traveled.
As a spiritual practice for today, image-making connects us to something bigger and beyond the self—to the community of fellow travelers we were with when we created it, and to God, who permeates both the inherited words of text and the way those words moved through us on that particular day. The process of creating images through art-making is a powerful way of taking the Divine oneness that monotheism gifted us and opening ourselves as channels for the multitudinous ways that this singular Force shines uniquely through each of us and into the world. May it be so.
From reform judaism.org
Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI JONATHAN K. CRANE
Yitro is frequently praised in Jewish sources for inspiring his prophet son-in-law, Moses, to set up a judicial system and delegate his many responsibilities so that the Israelites could continue building their civilization. We might understand Yitro as the first cross-cultural consultant. A Midianite, he visited the Israelites’ camp, where he studied the situation, asked a few questions, expressed evaluations, offered a proposal, observed its implementation, and promptly left (Exodus 18:1-27). Yitro’s significance cannot be overstated: he revolutionized the community’s judicial systems into hierarchical tiers. It’s curious, therefore, that his questions that enabled him to provide such profound guidance haven’t received more scrutiny in either classic or modern commentaries.
When Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you alone sit while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14)
About a decade ago, Nicholas Carr argued that the internet further undermines our capacity for deep reflection by giving us quick, superficial impressions and summaries. In today’s age of shallow thinking (added to implicit biases that are human nature), people fixate primarily on the what: “what’s your job,” “what do you stand for,” or “what’s your opinion on this?” Knowing another person’s what allows us to categorize them. We assume that by knowing what someone’s job or position is, we can easily figure out everything else that’s important to know about them.
Anyone near the Israelites can see what Moses is doing: sitting as a judge while everyone else mills around waiting their turn to be heard. Understanding his why requires thoughtful questions. A midrash describes the scene Yitro observed:
‘And Moses’ father-in-law saw’: What did he see? He saw him sitting like a king on his throne and all paying attendance upon him, whereupon he said to him: ‘What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you alone sit?’ (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 18:14).
One might conclude that Moses relishes in his authority at the expense of those he serves. But such shallow impressions leave Yitro unsatisfied. He pushes deeper; he asks Moses why he does what he does. He wants to know the rationale behind Moses’ practice. Yitro is curious and wants to understand how Moses views himself and leadership.
Moses explains to his father-in-law that he does three things:
When people come to him, he inquires of God (Exodus 18:15), which Rabbeynu Bahya understands to mean that he prays for their health or implores God to find their lost items.
When people have a dispute, he judges between them (Exodus 18:16a).
He informs the people of God’s statutes and teachings (Exodus 18:16b).
Moses clarifies his three roles to Yitro: he is simultaneously prophet, judge, and teacher. In his view, he is as indispensable to the people as he is to God. They-the people and God-need him to do all of this.
Yitro, however, replies, “the thing you do is not good.” He explains that it’s exhausting for everyone involved. Specifically, Moses is acting as judge when people bring a dispute (davar) to him. According to the 14th Century Provençal scholar Levi ben Gershon, when Moses is so immersed in the role of being a judge, prophecy will not come to him when God wishes. Moses’ fixation on doing so much compromises his ability to perform each of these roles. He prioritizes busy-ness over being.
Something needs to change; the issue is not only what should change, but why.
Yitro encourages Moses to continue in his roles as prophet and teacher but advises him to delegate his judicial responsibilities to other qualified individuals, which will benefit everyone (Exodus 18:21-23). This appears to be a kind of consequentialist argument: so that benefits will ensue, delegate. But this is not how Yitro framed his proposal. He said, “Now listen to me, I will give you counsel: God be with you (v’yihi Elohim ‘imach)” (Exodus 18:19).
Yitro reminds Moses that being with God is a core value that should guide him in aligning his life and labors with divine concerns. He emphasizes the importance of being value-driven (the “why”) instead of only goal-oriented (the “what”).
Yitro assures Moses that were he to live by his core value, he “[could] stand and all the people [could] go to their homes whole” (Exodus 18:23). Yitro’s genius lies not only in his judicial innovations but also in his focus on values. The challenge he presents is counter-cultural and very personal. It’s as if Yitro says to Moses (and to us):
“Do not be satisfied with the shallowness of what. Rather, pursue your convictions and let your why guide you. You may find your inner prophet waiting to arise.”
From Rabbi Yael Levy
A Way In: At the Mountain
This week, as we gather with our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai, much is revealed even before we stand at the mountain:
Camped together, we are shown that we are in relationship with all people across religious and cultural boundaries. We need each other, we learn from each other, we help each other find our way.
We are also instructed that earth herself is holy, and her seasons and offerings are our abiding guides.
It is before dawn when we stand at the mountain
Thunder and lightning fill the sky.
A dense cloud appears.
Flames cover the mountain.
The earth trembles, a shofar wails.
And then there is silence.
A silence so full there is nothing else.
In the silence,
All creation disappears,
And there is only One,
Then the wind returns,
We are back at the mountain
Amid fire and smoke
And our trembling hearts.
And we hear
Something that will help us
Remember that beyond all distinction
Beyond our uniqueness, our differences,
Is the One.
Something that will help us remember
That we are responsible for and to each other
And we are here to live in reverent relationship
With all beings, with all life.
Elohim speaks these words, saying:
1. I am. I was. I will be. I am the Continual Unfolding of All.
I am the force of transformation, the energy of liberation that opens the expanse.
2. Do not give yourself to false gods. Do not worship what you make with your own hands. Be aware of what you worship through your actions and choices.
3. Do not lift up my essence for lies and deceit. Do not use my name to justify destruction.
4. Remember Shabbat and keep it holy. Stop. Pause. Be.
Honor creation. Rest and allow others to rest as well.
5. Honor your parents. Honor those upon whose shoulders you stand.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not betray.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not lie. Do not use words to hurt or destroy.
10. Do not be led astray by comparing yourself to others. Do not get lost in desiring what others have. Be content, be fulfilled with what your life brings. (Exodus 20:1-14)
May these ancient calls guide us in becoming beings that bring mending and healing to this fractured and precious world.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
There is so, so much to pay attention to in this parshah, it is easy
to overlook the very last line, the commandment to not make steps
going up to the altar in the future mishkan-sanctuary, lest you
“expose your nakedness”. Famously, one interpretation is that if we
shouldn’t disrespect the stones of the altar, then all the more so we
shouldn’t disrespect people. But within that verse (and the verse
preceding, the commandment to not cut the stones of any altar with
metal) lie the seeds for a whole ethics and ethos about how to treat
the more-than-human world, and particularly how we should treat the
dimensions of the world we tend to think of as “inamimate”. I thought
this afternoon that I might share with you all a passage from Kabbalah
and Ecology about this verse and its place in creating a sustainable
Applying ethical standards to all creatures as ends in themselves, or
in religious terms, as ends in the eyes of God, is the only ethics
that can lead to a sustainable future. Here are some of the
traditional roots for that future ethic:
In Mishnah Avot, Ben Azai teaches: “Don’t be despising/scornful / Al
t’hi baz to any person/adam, and don’t be rejecting / v’al t’hi maflig
to any thing/davar, for you don’t have a person who does not have his
hour, and you don’t have a thing that does not have its place.” (4:3)
The moral directive concerning human beings, “Don’t despise anyone”,
is paralleled by a directive to not reject any “thing”. In context,
“thing” would include animals, plants, rocks, possibly even human
Similarly, from the commandment to not make steps going up to the
altar, the midrash learns that one should show respect even to the
rocks of the sanctuary. One version of this idea, which again uses the
root BZH (in the term bizayon), reads:
“Do not go up steps to my altar [and expose your nakedness]” [Ex
20:22]—if this is true with stones, that do not have in them
awareness/da`at, neither for bad nor for good, that the Holy One said:
Do not act with them in a despising manner / minhag bizayon, then it
is a rule [that even more so applies to] your fellow, who is in the
likeness/d’mut of the One who spoke and the world was, that you should
not act with him in a despising manner. (Mekhilta Bachodesh 11)
The need to show respect even to something that has no awareness only
strengthens the directive not to despise humans. The idea of God’s
image is used here to include beings that are not in God’s image
within the universe of moral responsibility.
All of these texts apply the principle “Do not do to others what is
hateful to you” more broadly than is understood in any normative
anthropocentric ethic. They provide a model for how moral categories
may be extended beyond the realm of sentient creatures. From our
perspective, Ben Azai’s dictum in Avot that every thing has its place
could be reframed as “Everything has its ecological niche; everything
serves the needs of its own ecosystem.”
Looking ahead to the ways these ideas are formulated in Kabbalah, one
finds that the same ideas and vocabulary are beautifully interwoven in
Cordovero’s Tomer D’vorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah). Cordovero builds
his ethics upon this principle of not despising, using the same
terminology that referred to honoring humans to exhort his reader to
honor every single creature:
[It is good medicine for a person] to honor the creatures/nivra’im
entirely/all of them, since he recognizes in them the exalted quality
of the Creator / ma`alat haborei’ who “formed the human with wisdom”
(quoting the blessing we say for the human body) and so [it is with]
all creatures – the wisdom of the One who forms /hayotser is in them,
and he [can] see himself that they are so very very honored, for the
One who forms [them] cares for all… And it is even evil in the eyes
of the Holy One if they despise any creature/b’riyah of His creatures,
and this is [why] it says: “How manifold/diverse are Your works / Mah
rabu ma`asekha” [Ps 104:24] – …[the word rabu alludes to the phrase]
“rav beyto / important in the house [of the king]” [Esth 1:8] – very
important…and it is worthy for a person to understand wisdom through
them, and not despising/bizayon […] Moreover, [a person’s]
compassion must be distributed to all the creatures, not despising
them and not destroying them, for so is the upper/highest wisdom
distributed to all the creatures, silent and growing and moving and
speaking (mineral, vegetable, animal, human). (from Tomer Devorah,
chapters 2 and 3)
(adapted from Kabbalah and Ecology, pp.163-164)
In Cordovero’s mysticism, the instruction to not despise is given the
broadest application possible to all existences and creatures. This is
part of the great ethical potential in Kabbalah.
From Rishe Groner
Where do you see the face of the Divine?
Sometimes, we get our Divine inspiration in the heady, the spiritual, the transcendent. Moments of collective prayer. Meditation. Ecstatic journeys of drumming and dancing. Climbing to the top of a mountain and marvelling at the Divine Presence showing us Her face through the beauty of nature.
The experience is beyond our daily life experience, we feel the oneness of All Being, and it’s all we can do not to completely expire, collapse, leave our physical bodies behind. It’s out of the ordinary, doesn’t happen every day, and gives us the inspiration and the spiritual battery-pack-charge that can last us for months or even years.
Other times, it takes a little longer to recognize that we’re still staring at the face of the Divine. When we witness children playing; when we see love in the face of another, when we experience our own bodies healing and experiencing the miracle of life. Every breath we take. The way our bodies metabolize food and fight against illness and move around and dance and run and laugh and play.
When we experience a moment of synchronicity, of the Divine Providence that governs everything showing God’s hand in the day-to-day; from the bus we catch just on time to the person who calls us precisely in the moment we need them.
These alignments, these moments of beauty and inspiration, are buried into real life – traffic, deadlines, loneliness and stress. And yet, they are our experiences of Divine immanence – the way the universe is present for us in every moment, even if we’re not on top of a mountain or dancing til our souls burst.
The experience at Sinai, we read in this week’s Torah portion, was a transcendent moment. The Talmud teaches us that our souls burst, quite literally – outside our bodies, as we struggled to absorb the intensity of the Divine light showing itself at the time. Tasting the transcendent, while limited by physical bodies was too much for us – and we expired from that experience. Moments later, we were revived, and received the instructions for a lifetime of Divine experience – but this time, one marked not by transcendence, but by immanence.
The Ten Commandments are pretty mundane on a surface level. They tell us to do the things that all people should just do – because it’s the right thing to do. Avoid murdering your neighbor – sounds good to me. Keep your hands and your eyes on your own personal property, not somebody else’s – also, logical. Maintain a stable family and community – definitely on point. Honor the Divine in life, recognize that Source is all that is – also, a decent way to live life. Even Shabbat, the Divinely-ordained moment of stopping to recharge and reset and recognize the Divine Creator of all, has its logic. They all create for us a decent world that we want to live in.
They are the portals to our connection to the Divine.
Our Sages in the Midrash tell us that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, despite living long before the Revelation on Sinai, observed and performed all the mitzvot, rituals and commandments of the Torah. There are all kinds of commentaries on everything from eating Matzah on Pesach to fulfilling the obscure and complicated “Eglah Arufah” (broken calf) unsolved-murder-mystery ritual.
Yet, we learn from our mystical tradition, that there was one difference in how those rituals were performed.
Our rabbis teach that the 248 limbs of the body mirror the 248 positive commandments; just as the 365 sinews of the body are correlated to the 365 negative commandments. They are portals, channels, wires and harnesses and Divine conduits that connect us to the conveyor belt that is the Divine will.
“As water reflects a face” – as above, so below – our actions down here, stimulate an action in the myraid upper realms, and are possible through our own physical action.
When we take a glass of water and make a blessing on it, it moves from the Godly – powered by the Divine – to the sacred, because this hydration enables us to then pray, connect with others, do goodness in the world. When we write words of wisdom on a piece of paper, it becomes holy. When we convert physical compounds like wool into tzitzit; leather into tefillin; knives into surgical tools of healing and plants into medicine we make them holy. It actives the Divine energy within, known as ‘neutral’ energy or klipat nogah; and those sparks elevate and become fused with the Divine, changing the essence of the object into one of sacredness.
We have a portal between heaven and earth; between mundane and sacred; between this world and the Divine –
and that is what we received at Sinai.
Our ancestors did not have this power.
When the Matriarachs and Patriarchs performed the same rituals we do today, the leather stayed leather; the paper stayed paper; and nothing was transformed at its root. Like the definition of the word “Shaman”, their work was in the upper realms. They engaged on a spiritual level with God, they were able to channel it into their experience so they could impact people and spirit on this world, but they were doing it on a spiritual plane – not a physical one. Like the shamanic experience, which takes place in the mystical realms of the upper or underworld and then has an impact on physical space; our patriarchs and matriarchs did all kinds of spiritual gymnastics, but didn’t succeed in making a connection between above and below. Their physical acts were purely physical, their spiritual acts were purely spiritual.
When we stood at the foot of the mountain, listening to fiery lightning and watching thunderous smoke, a portal was opened between above and below.
Now, even the most average human has the ability to co-create with the Divine
Infusing spiritual Divine energy into the most physical of objects
Elevating the most mundane into something transcendent
Experiencing powerful God-energy immanently
We see it in the face of babies
On the carpet of wildflowers in the field we drive past every day
In the belly laugh that shakes us
In the touch of friends (may we experience it speedily in our days!)
In singing and dancing our prayers
In the food we cook, the gardens we till, the people we love, the good things we do.
We don’t need to climb up the mountain – we receive the Torah at the foot.
“Lo bashamayim hi” – “It is not in the heavens for you to say, let’s send someone to go get it for us” – Moshe tells us in his last will and testament at the end of Devarim (Deuteronomy). We have access to this portal and power in our own daily lives, because we got it that one time at Sinai.
We are drawing on our peak experience, our moment of revelation, and it’s been a few thousand years or so…
Parshat Yitro: Want to fight injustice and build community? Start with humility.
RABBI SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
(JTA) — America faces challenges we have not seen in generations. Deep elements of resentment and radicalism are set on tearing apart the fabric of the nation. Our ability to argue with humility is gone, crossing partisan divides is a dire proposition and violence is seen by too many as a necessary political remedy to return to basic principles.
With all the uncertainties around us — climate change, public health crises, economic instability, political extremism and polarization, conspiracy theories and a breakdown of societal trust — we don’t always know how to engage or how to lead in any given moment.
Of course, we don’t have to accept this. And indeed, Jewish tradition and wisdom can guide us in profoundly different directions that bring about healing and, most importantly, a sense of humility. We can live with humble uncertainty and yet also with fervent moral conviction.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, provides us with a profound question: Why do the Ten Commandments, which begin with the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” use the Hebrew word “Anochi” (which means “I”) instead of the more common “Ani” (which also means “I”)?
For generations, this grammatical and philosophical question has intrigued Jewish scholars.
To help create a foundation for this question, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz, known as the Mei Ha’Shiloah, suggests that the extra letter in Anochi signifies the chasm between what we know and what we think we know. This is the central point of Jewish revelation: Even that which we know so deeply, we only partially know.
More critically, getting to truly know God requires us to put aside our egos.
The Reform teacher of Jewish mysticism Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes about another place where Anochi is used rather than Ani: In Genesis 28:16, when Jacob awakens from his famous dream and says, “Surely there is God in this place and I [anochi] did not know”:
This simple ‘extra I’ … leads R’ Pinhas Horowitz, the author of a Hasidic commentary on the Torah, ‘Panim Yafot,’ to an important insight. ‘It is only possible for a person to attain that high rung of being able to say, “Surely God is in this place,” when he or she has utterly eradicated all trace of ego from his or her personality, from his or her sense of self, and from his or her being.
The space of prayer in which we connect with the most expansive spiritual consciousness is actually a tool for cultivating compassion and empathy. In focusing on divinity, we abandon our self-centeredness and find a new center in everyone and everything else beyond us.
For another view, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib (the Sefat Emet) writes:
The simple meaning of this is that the land of Israel is the place where one surrenders one’s senses and desires (will) to God’s will … All externals must be abandoned for the sake of seeing God’s will. Only then is it revealed to a person … To this end we must continually surrender our knowledge … that which we understand with our minds.
Shall we embrace the “I” of Anochi, or will we seek to embody the “I” of Ani? We know we must rescue religious fervor from fundamentalist fervor and epistemological arrogance and return to a place of awe and questioning if we hope to restore a Jewish worldview of humble allyship rather than arrogant supremacist ideologies. We are left humbled seeking to move from ego to a place of godliness.
So must we be left alone and lost without any way to know, act or speak? The neo-Hasidic teacher and late leader of the Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wrote in “Journey Beyond Knowledge”:
A real question comes from (admitting) ‘Eini yodea’ — I really don’t know. The admission of not knowing is the prelude to redemption and revelation. So, Moshe Rabbeinu himself said: ‘We won’t know with what we shall serve God until we get there.’ (Exodus 10:26)
Instead, we are awakened to postmodern responsibility. We are called to act when we don’t know what is right. We are called to lead when we don’t have certainty. We are called to pray when we know not Who we pray to. We are called to community when we are uncertain about who we must stand with at the given time.
We may know more later than we do now. And yet, we must still act and we must still respond, even with our uncertainty. Michael Fishbane writes in “Sacred Attunement” about what it means to be in a sacred covenant and to our ability to process obligation within new moments of uncertainty: We can accept it, or we can deny it. But nevertheless, we are expected to respond to it.
And as we learn from Parshat Yitro, we don’t have to make all moral decisions and lead by ourselves. There is holiness in collaboration, in bringing people together and in building community rather than shunning it. As Moshe learns from his father-in-law, Yitro, we have an innate ability to build community, share leadership and walk together — and we’re not truly able to be our best selves when we try to do everything by ourselves.
Including more voices in our work and conversations also enables us to expand our spiritual consciousness. Alone, at Sinai, we are struck down by lightning in our smallness. Together, at Sinai, we are humbled but united in a bold, albeit uncertain, holy mission to repair the world.
The challenges we face are not insignificant, and the right path is not always clear. But let us reject the ego, cynicism and radical skepticism that move us away from courageous action. Let us reject fundamentalism that arrogantly offers us pure truth and certainty of conviction. Let us, together, choose a middle path that is modest and imprecise, yet morally robust.
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 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.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
To Thank Before We Think (Yitro 5776)
The Ten Commandments are the most famous religious-and-moral code in history. Until recently they adorned American courtrooms. They still adorn most synagogue arks. Rembrandt gave them their classic artistic expression in his portrait of Moses, about to break the tablets on seeing the golden calf. John Rogers Herbert’s massive painting of Moses bringing down the tablets of law dominates the main committee room of the House of Lords. The twin tablets with their ten commands are the enduring symbol of eternal law under the sovereignty of God.
It is worth remembering, of course, that the “ten commandments” are not Ten Commandments. The torah calls them aseret hadevarim (Ex. 34:28), and tradition terms them aseret hadibrot, meaning the “ten words” or “ten utterances”. We can understand this better in the light of documentary discoveries in the twentieth century, especially Hittite covenants or “suzerainty treaties” dating back to 1400-1200 BCE, that is, around the time of Moses and the exodus. These treaties often contained a twofold statement of the laws laid down in the treaty, first in general outline, then in specific detail. That is precisely the relationship between the “ten utterances” and the detailed commands of parshat Mishpatim (Ex. 22-23). The former are the general outline, the basic principles of the law.
Usually they are portrayed, graphically and substantively, as two sets of five, the first dealing with relationships between us and God (including honouring our parents since they like God brought us into being), the second with the relations between us and our fellow humans.
However, it also makes sense to see them as three groups of three. The first three (one God, no other God, do not take God’s name in vain) are about God, the Author and Authority of the laws. The second set (keep Shabbat, honour parents, do not murder) are about createdness. Shabbat reminds us of the birth of the universe. Our parents brought us into being. Murder is forbidden because we are all created in God’s image (Gen. 9:6). The third three (don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness) are about the basic institutions of society: the sanctity of marriage, the integrity of private property, and the administration of justice. Lose any of these and freedom begins to crumble.
This structure serves to emphasise what a strange command the tenth is: “Do not be envious of your neighbour’s house. Do not be envious of your neighbour’s wife, his slave, his maid, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s.” At least on the surface this is different from all the other rules, which involve speech or action. Envy, covetousness, desiring what someone else has, is an emotion, not a thought, a word or a deed. And surely we can’t help our emotions. They used to be called the “passions”, precisely because we are passive in relation to them. So how can envy be forbidden at all? Surely it only makes sense to command or forbid matters that are within our control. In any case, why should the occasional spasm of envy matter if it does not lead to anything harmful to other people?
Here, it seems to me, the Torah is conveying a series of fundamental truths we forget at our peril. First, as we have been reminded by cognitive behavioural therapy, what we believe affects what we feel. Narcissists, for instance, are quick to take offence because they think other people are talking about or “dissing” (disrespecting) them, whereas often other people aren’t interested in us at all. Their belief is false, but that does not stop them feeling angry and resentful.
Second, envy is one of the prime drivers of violence in society. It is what led Iago to mislead Othello with tragic consequences. Closer to home it is what led Cain to murder Abel. It is what led Abraham and then Isaac to fear for their lives when famine forced them temporarily to leave home. They believe that, married as they are to attractive women, the local ruler will kill them so that they can take their wives into their harem.
Most poignantly, envy lay at the heart of the hatred of the brothers for Joseph. They resented his special treatment at the hands of their father, the richly embroidered cloak he wore, and his dreams of becoming the ruler of them all. That is what led them to contemplate killing him and eventually to sell him as a slave.
Rene Girard, in his classic Violence and the Sacred, says that the most basic cause of violence is mimetic desire, that is, the desire to have what someone else has, which is ultimately the desire to be what someone else is. Envy can lead to breaking many of the other commands: it can move people to adultery, theft, false testimony and even murder.
Jews have especial reason to fear envy. It surely played a part in the existence of anti-semitism throughout the centuries. Non-Jews envied Jews their ability to prosper in adversity – the strange phenomenon we noted in parshat Shemot that “the more they afflicted them the more they grew and the more they spread.” They also and especially envied them their sense of chosenness (despite the fact that virtually every other nation in history has seen itself as chosen). It is absolutely essential that we, as Jews, should conduct ourselves with an extra measure of humility and modesty.
So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.
We are here because God wanted us to be. We have what God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we want anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.
If your new car makes me envious, I may be motivated to buy a more expensive model that I never needed in the first place, which will give me satisfaction for a few days until I discover another neighbour who has an even more costly vehicle, and so it goes. Should I succeed in satisfying my own envy, I will do so only at the cost of provoking yours, in a cycle of conspicuous consumption that has no natural end. Hence the bumper sticker: “He who has the most toys when he dies, wins.” The operative word here is “toys”, for this is the ethic of the kindergarten, and it should have no place in a mature life.
The antidote to envy is gratitude. “Who is rich?” asked Ben Zoma, and replied, “One who rejoices in what he has.” There is a beautiful Jewish practice that, done daily, is life-transforming. The first words we say on waking are Modeh ani lefanekha, “I thank you, living and eternal King.” We thank before we think.
Judaism is gratitude with attitude. Cured of letting other people’s happiness diminish our own, we release a wave of positive energy allowing us to celebrate what we have instead of thinking about what other people have, and to be what we are instead of wanting to be what we are not.
 To be sure, Maimonides held that the first command is to believe in God. Halakhot Gedolot as understood by Nachmanides, however, disagreed and maintained that the verse, “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is not a command but a prelude to the commands.
 This has long been part of Jewish thought. It is at the heart of Chabad philosophy as set out in R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s masterpiece, Tanya. Likewise Ibn Ezra in his commentary to this verse says that we only covet what we feel to be within our reach. We do not envy those we know we could never become.
 The classic work is Helmut Schoeck, Envy: a Theory of Social Behaviour, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. See also Joseph Epstein, Envy, New York: New York Public Library, 2003.
 See on this Anthony Smith, Chosen Peoples, Oxford University Press, 2003.
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 (Yitro 5775)
In the House of Lords there is a special chamber used, among other things, as the place where new peers are robed before their introduction into the House. When my predecessor Lord Jakobovits was introduced, the official robing him commented that he was the first rabbi to be honoured in the Upper House. Lord Jakobovits replied, “No, I am the second.” “Who was the first?” asked the surprised official. Lord Jakobovits pointed to the large mural that decorates the chamber and gave it its name. It is known as the Moses Room because of the painting that dominates the room. It shows Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. So Moses was the first rabbi to adorn the House of Lords.
The Ten Commandments that appear in this week’s parsha have long held a special place not only in Judaism but also within the broader configuration of values we call the Judeo-Christian ethic. In the United States they were often to be found adorning American law courts, though their presence has been challenged, in some states successfully, on the grounds that they breach the first amendment and the separation of church and state. They remain the supreme expression of the higher law to which all human law is bound.
Within Judaism too they held a special place. In Second Temple times they were recited in the daily prayers as part of the Shema, which then had four paragraphs rather than three. It was only when sectarians began to claim that only these and not the other 603 commands came directly from God that the recitation was brought to an end.
The text retained its hold on the Jewish mind none the less. Even though it was removed from daily communal prayers, it was preserved in the prayer book as a private meditation to be said after the formal service has been concluded. In most congregations, people stand when they are read as part of the Torah reading, despite the fact that Maimonides explicitly ruled against it.
Yet their uniqueness is not straightforward. As moral principles, they were mostly not new. Almost all societies have had laws against murder, robbery and false testimony. There is some originality in the fact that they are apodictic, that is, simple statements of “You shall not,” as opposed to the casuistic form, “If … then.” But they are only ten among a much larger body of 613 commandments. Nor are they even described by the Torah itself as “ten commandments.” The Torah calls them the aseret ha-devarim, that is, “ten utterances.” Hence the Greek translation, Decalogue, meaning, “ten words.”
What makes them special is that they are simple and easy to memorise. That is because in Judaism, law is not intended for judges alone. The covenant at Sinai, in keeping with the profound egalitarianism at the heart of Torah, was made not as other covenants were in the ancient world, between kings. The Sinai covenant was made by God with the entire people. Hence the need for a simple statement of basic principles that everyone can remember and recite.
More than this, they establish for all time the parameters – the corporate culture, we could almost call it – of Jewish existence. To understand how, it is worth reflecting on their basic structure. There was a fundamental disagreement between Maimonides and Nahmanides on the status of the first sentence: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Maimonides, in line with the Talmud, held that this is in itself a command: to believe in God. Nahmanides held that it was not a command at all. It was a prologue or preamble to the commands. Modern research on ancient Near Eastern covenant formulae tends to support Nahmanides.
The other fundamental question is how to divide them. Most depictions of the Ten Commandments divide them into two, because of the “two tablets of stone” on which they were engraved. Roughly speaking, the first five are about the relationship between humans and God, the second five about the relationship between humans themselves. There is, however, another way of thinking about numerical structures in the Torah.
The seven days of creation, for example, are structures as two sets of three followed by an all-embracing seventh. During the first three days God separated domains: light and dark, upper and lower waters, and sea and dry land. During the second three days He filled each with the appropriate objects and life forms: sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and man. The seventh day was set apart from the others as holy.
Likewise the ten plagues consist of three cycles of three followed by a stand-alone tenth. In each cycle of three, the first two were forewarned while the third struck without warning. In the first of each series, Pharaoh was warned in the morning, in the second Moses was told to “come in before pharaoh” in the palace, and so on. The tenth plague, unlike the rest, was announced at the very outset (Ex. 4: 23). It was less a plague than a punishment.
Similarly it seems to me that the commandments are structured in three groups of three, with a tenth that is set apart from the rest. Thus understood, we can see how they form the basic structure, the depth grammar, of Israel as a society bound by covenant to God as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The first three – No other gods besides Me, no graven images, and no taking of God’s name in vain – define the Jewish people as “one nation under God.” God is our ultimate sovereign. Therefore all other earthly rule is subject to the overarching imperatives linking Israel to God. Divine sovereignty transcends all other loyalties (No other gods besides Me). God is a living force, not an abstract power (No graven images). And sovereignty presupposes reverence (Do not take My name in vain).
The first three commands, through which the people declare their obedience and loyalty to God above all else, establish the single most important principle of a free society, namely the moral limits of power. Without this, the danger even in democracy is the tyranny of the majority, against which the best defence against it is the sovereignty of God.
The second three commands – the Sabbath, honouring parents, and the prohibition of murder – are all about the principle of the createdness of life. They establish limits to the idea of autonomy, namely that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others. Shabbat is the day dedicated to seeing God as creator and the universe as His creation. Hence, one day in seven, all human hierarchies are suspended and everyone, master, slave, employer, employee, even domestic animals, are free.
Honouring parents acknowledges our human createdness. It tells us that not everything that matters is the result of our choice, chief of which is the fact that we exist at all. Other people’s choices matter, not just our own. “Thou shall not murder” restates the central principle of the universal Noahide covenant that murder is not just a crime against man but a sin against God in whose image we are. So commands 4 to 7 form the basic jurisprudential principles of Jewish life. They tell us to remember where we came from if we are to be mindful of how to live.
The third three – against adultery, theft and bearing false witness – establish the basic institutions on which society depends. Marriage is sacred because it is the human bond closest in approximation to the covenant between us and God. Not only is marriage the human institution par excellence that depends on loyalty and fidelity. It is also the matrix of a free society. Alexis de Tocqueville put it best: “As long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone.”
The prohibition against theft establishes the integrity of property. Whereas Jefferson defined as inalienable rights those of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” John Locke, closer in spirit to the Hebrew Bible, saw them as “life, liberty and property.” Tyrants abuse the property rights of the people, and the assault of slavery against human dignity is that it deprives me of the ownership of the wealth I create.
The prohibition of false testimony is the precondition of justice. A just society needs more than a structure of laws, courts and enforcement agencies. As Judge Learned Hand said, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” There is no freedom without justice, but there is no justice without each of us accepting individual and collective responsibility for “telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Finally comes the stand-alone prohibition against envying your neighbour’s house, wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else belonging to him or her. This seems odd if we think of the “ten words” as commands, but not if we think of them as the basic principles of a free society. The greatest challenge of any society is how to contain the universal, inevitable phenomenon of envy: the desire to have what belongs to someone else. Envy lies at the heart of violence. It was envy that led Cain to murder Abel, made Abraham and Isaac fear for their life because they were married to beautiful women, led Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. It is envy that leads to adultery, theft and false testimony, and it was envy of their neighbours that led the Israelites time and again to abandon God in favour of the pagan practices of the time.
Envy is the failure to understand the principle of creation as set out in Genesis 1, that everything has its place in the scheme of things. Each of us has our own task and our own blessings, and we are each loved and cherished by God. Live by these truths and there is order. Abandon them and there is chaos. Nothing is more pointless and destructive than to let someone else’s happiness diminish your own, which is what envy is and does. The antidote to envy is, as Ben Zoma famously said, “to rejoice in what we have” and not to worry about what we don’t yet have. Consumer societies are built on the creation and intensification of envy, which is why they lead to people having more and enjoying it less.
Thirty-three centuries after they were first given, the Ten Commandments remain the simplest, shortest guide to creation and maintenance of a good society. Many alternatives have been tried, and most have ended in tears. The wise aphorism remains true: When all else fails, read the instructions.
 Mishnah Tamid 5:1, Berakhot 12a.
 We do not know who the sectarians were: they may have included early Christians. The argument was that only these were directly heard by the Israelites from God. The others were heard only through Moses.
 Maimonides, Responsa, Blau Edition, Jerusalem, 1960, no. 263.
 Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive command 1; Nahmanides, Glosses ad loc.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vintage, 1954, vol. 1, 340.
 The best book on the subject is, Helmut Schoeck, Envy; a Theory of Social Behaviour. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.
“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 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
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 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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