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Torah Sparks

Parashat Yitro
February 7, 2015 – 18 Shevat 5775

Annual (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Triennial (Exodus 19:1 – 20:23): Etz Hayim p. 436; Hertz p. 290
Haftarah (Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6): Etz Hayim p. 452; Hertz p. 302

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Hearing of Israelite triumphs, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, visits the people, and notices that Moses is overloaded listening to his people’s grievances. Jethro convinces Moses to create a council of elders to assist in this task.

Promising to make the Israelites a “kingdom of priests,” God promises to make a series of utterances to the people at Mount Sinai. Moses urges the people to prepare themselves. The people witness a majestic scene of thunder and lightning. God announces 10 maxims on topics relating to devotion to God, honoring parents and the Sabbath, and refraining from crimes like murder, theft, adultery and falsehood. Though the Israelites are scared of the scene, Moses calms them.

Theme #1: The Eagle Hasn’t Landed

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

God describes the liberation from Egypt with beautiful imagery, and the metaphor God employs is telling.

God said, “You have seen what I have done to Egypt, and I carried you on eagles wings. You saw what I did to Egypt, drowning them in the sea, while at the same time, I carried you on wings of eagles. You crossed the sea on dry land as if you were being carried by eagles.” -- Mikraey Kodesh

In Exodus 19:3b-8, the story begins and ends with the Exodus from Egypt, when YHWH brought Israel, as on eagles’ wings, to himself. In Joshua 24, the horizon is larger: history begins with the backdrop to Abraham’s migration, the generation of his father, the Mesopotamian Terah. Most of the recapitulation of the sacred history begins, like Joshua 24, some time in the Patriarchal period. -- Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

Here YHVH has likened His historical relationship with Israel to the eagle, who stirs up his nest and hovers hither and thither above it in order to teach his young how to fly. That the latter are taken to mean the peoples cannot be doubted, as in the Song, shortly before, the Highest had allotted their territories to the nations and had fixed their boundaries. The great eagle spreads out his wings over the nestlings; he takes up one of them, a shy or weary one, and bears it upon his pinions; until it can at length dare the flight itself and follows the father in his mounting gyrations. Here we have election, deliverance and education; all in one. -- Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant

Questions for Discussion:

Mikraey Kodesh sees the eagle’s wings as a symbol of the Israelites soaring above the suffering of their Egyptian masters. Was it important for God to make this point before the Revelation at Sinai? Is it a promise that accepting the commandments will enable the Israelites to rise above ordinary human experience in the future? To what extent is being a religious person an act of “rising above” secular society?

Levenson understands this preamble to the giving of the Torah as a version of Israelite history that revolves solely around the departure from Egypt. Are there times when is it useful for a group to limit their historical recall to one basic (albeit important) event? When might that choice gloss over a more nuanced understanding of the struggles of the past? How comfortable should we be about the Exodus playing such a vital role in our understanding of our relationship with God?

According to Buber, God takes Israel by the hand and guides the nation through every step. Is this vision of God similar to our understanding of the One we pray to? Or do we pray to a God whose willingness to be active in our lives depends on the level of necessity?

Theme #2: The Mixed Senses

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ... The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens. (Exodus 20:15, 19)

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Revelation at Mount Sinai is the blurring of the people's senses, a new phenomenon for all involved.

From this apparent contradiction [in Exodus 20:19] we can learn that at the moment of the giving of the Torah, everything reverted to the primordial state of creation before the Holy One had made a separation between the heavens and the earth. For at this hour the earth was joined with the heavens, the distance between them, removed. -- Daat Sofrim

I see your voice in the night/I feel your angel eyes/I taste your words/I touch your mind/all your truth and all your lies/Synesthesia/everything is turning around/Synesthesia/I hear the color and I see the sound/ … /Synesthesia/everything is upside-down/Synesthesia/I see the voices and I taste the sound … /Synesthesia/everything is so unclear/Synesthesia/I use my hands to see and my eyes to hear. -- Peter Himmelman, “Synesthesia”

With respect to the presentation of the Sinai narrative in Exodus, commentators are divided about what the people heard from Yahweh himself and what they heard through Moses. On the one hand, the text seems to imply that Moses alone heard Yahweh’s voice, because Moses alone went up the mountain and heard Yahweh speaking in thunder. In addition, Exodus 20:18, which comes after the Decalogue, says that, after seeing the thunder and lightning, the sounds of the trumpets, and the smoke, and the people were afraid and begged Moses to serve as mediator. This could be taken to mean that they neither heard nor wished to hear the Decalogue. On the other hand, Exodus 19:24-25 indicates that Moses descended the mountain to warn the people against approaching it, which implies that Moses was not on the mountain at the time when the Decalogue was spoken. -- Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Questions for Discussion:

Daat Sofrim claims that the blurring of senses described at the conclusion of Revelation represents the culmination of a plan that God had put together many centuries before. When have we experienced moments when we feel that everything comes together at once? Why are those moments so satisfying or so unnerving?

Himmelman’s song captures the perspective of an Israelite standing at Sinai, with his/her senses completely mixed up at such a remarkable moment. What would be the purpose of God’s causing this to happen? Can this be seen as a giant “reset” button, in which the Israelites will never experience anything the same way again?

Vogt illuminates the text’s lack of clarity regarding how the Israelites heard the words of Revelation. How does hearing the words from God directly make them different than hearing them from Moses?

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