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Torah Sparks

Parashat Yitro
February 2, 2013 – 22 Shevat 5773

Annual: Ex. 18:1-20:23 (Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 19:1-20:23 (Etz Hayim p. 436; Hertz p. 290)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6 (Etz Hayim p. 451; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Jethro visits his son-in-law, Moses, in the wilderness, and expresses wonderment at all God's blessings and protective care. He offers a sacrifice to the God of Israel; Aaron and the elders join him in a celebratory meal.

Moses has been acting as sole judge for almost all disputes. Jethro advises him to create a system of judges to hear minor cases, to both lighten Moses's burden of leadership and administration and simultaneously ease the judicial process for the Israelites. Moses still should exercise personal authority over major cases and questions. Moses heeds his father-in-law's counsel, and Jethro returns to Midian.

Moses and the people Israel arrive at Mount Sinai and begin preparations for God's revelation. Israel is adjured to be faithful to the covenant, and thus to become God's "treasured possession" or "chosen people." Israel is to conduct itself as "a nation of priests and a holy people." The people unanimously embrace and accept their covenantal status: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" After three days of anticipation and preparation, the Israelites gather at the foot of Mount Sinai. They witness "thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn" that instill awe and fear in them as they are about to receive God's law. The Israelites are warned to keep their distance, not to touch the mountain itself.

The heart of parashat Yitro is the Decalogue. The Decalogue is followed immediately by a series of further commandments: the prohibition against gods of silver and gold, and the prescription of an earthen altar, constructed without metal tools, and equipped with a ramp to prevent any immodesty that might result if the altar were to be reached by stairs.

Theme #1: "Have you the wing?"

"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me." (Exodus 19:4)

Derash: Study

"Other birds carry their young beneath them, in their talons, fearing that a bird of prey might swoop down on them from above. But an eagle is afraid of nothing except people shooting arrows from below, for no bird of prey flies so high as to attack it from above. So it carries its young on its wings. Just as the eagle thinks, 'Better that the arrow pierce me than my young.' I, the Lord, have done likewise" (Rashi)

"That is, I raised your status tremendously, from being the slaves of slaves to being My servants." (Bekhor Shor)

"With eagles, the parents tend and care for their young for a protracted period, until they are able to fend for themselves. This is in contrast to the raven, which, it is frequently noted in Rabbinic literature, neglects its young." (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

"When an eagle comes in for a landing, it brakes by pressing its wings forward… When you see an eagle soaring at 10,000 feet, remember: we can soar above our attachments to plans and power, and the pain that these cause. When you see an eagle spiraling along hidden currents of air, remember: hidden currents carry us. When you see an eagle land at its nest, remember: even the fiercest birds can love – though they do have to learn how to brake." (Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)

"There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud." (Carl Sandburg)

Questions for Discussion

What characteristic(s) of the eagle do you associate with the metaphor in our verse: "on eagles' wings"? Are there other possibilities not represented among these commentators?

How do the two halves of the verse relate to each other? That is, is what God "did to the Egyptians" primarily the freeing of the Israelites? Was that the essence of God's providence? If so, was the infliction of the plagues necessary?

React to Sandburg's comment. Is the eagle imagery necessary in order to counter the temptation "to wallow in the mud"? Why might this have been particularly important for the newly liberated Israelites? How does the comment of the Bekhor Shor relate to this question?

What are the "hidden currents" to which Rabbi Kaplan refers? When have you most dramatically experienced those forces?

Contrast Rashi and Rabbi Steinsaltz: what is the difference between shielding our children and caring for them… and which is a more attractive descriptor of God?

Theme #2: "Art thou afeard?"

"'You speak to us,' they said to Moses, 'and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.'" (Exodus 20:16)

Derash: Study

"When Israel heard the words 'You shall have no other gods…' the evil impulse left them. But when they said to Moses, 'You speak to us' it returned and will not leave again until Messianic times." (Midrash Shemot Rabbah)

"It was the priests and the tribal leaders, who were near to Moses, who said this, after the Ten Commandments were completed." (Ibn Ezra)

"Having proven themselves incapable of hearing the Torah from God directly, Israel was now obligated to follow Moses unquestioningly." (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

"The encounter with the Holy universally inspires fascination; inevitably and characteristically it also arouses feelings of awe, even terror. Fear of death is a frequent reaction. The unique, transcendent, supernal holiness of the Divine Presence is felt to be beyond human endurance." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"With the exception of rare individuals, human beings cannot endure direct contact with God. Thus every religion strives to mediate God's Presence. Through ritual, through study, through the performance of mitzvoth, and through encounters with people who embody what God stands for, we are able to 'meet' God." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

Questions for Discussion

Were the Israelites demonstrating appropriate reverence for God in this verse… or were they squandering an opportunity for experiencing the divine and gaining a purer and more direct Source of illumination?

Why does Ibn Ezra suggest that it was the Israelites leaders and cultic elite who insisted on Moses serving as mediator? Does this reflect a knowing caution? Or a self-interested affirmation of mortal leadership?

Who are the "rare individuals" to whom the Etz Hayim commentary refers? Who "embody what God stands for"? Do such individuals exist today? Should we strive for such religious (perhaps mystical) achievements?

Would you prefer – as your personal religious leader and spiritual guide – one who feels prepared to "endure" the intensity of the Divine Presence? Or one whose approach to religious experience is "mediated" in a manner more approximating your own – "through ritual, through study, through the performance of mitzvoth"?

Historic Note

In Parashat Yitro, read on February 2, 2013, Jethro advises Moses regarding the need for shared leadership of the People Israel: "Seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times" (Exodus 18:21). On February 2, 1983 (thirty years ago today), Pope John Paul II named 18 new Cardinals, including Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who enjoyed a particularly cordial relationship with the Jewish community, which held him in high esteem. On February 2, 1931 devoted Daf Yomi students gathered in cities around the world for the first septennial Siyyum Ha-Shas, celebrating completion of the entire Babylonian Talmud, a program of study initiated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Rabbi Shapiro, by 1931 Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin in Poland, led the Siyyum at that august academy.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Parashat Yitro concludes with the prohibition against using stairs to access the Temple altar. Stairs are, of course, typically used to ascend the bimah in many of today's synagogues. It is, however, customary to limit the number of stairs to six. This may be designed as a check on the self-importance of those preaching or leading the congregation in prayer. Kabbalistic explanations for the number six have also been offered, suggesting parallels to six specific sefirot. (See Mishnah Berurah Orach Chaim 150:12; Zohar 2:205a)

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