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Friday, January 21, 2011

Parshat Yitro: Taking the Journey


The week's parashah is Yitro (Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23). It begins,  "And Yitro (Jethro), father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done to Moses and to Israel his people, that God had taken Israel out of Egypt." The parashah then continues with Yitro's advice to Moses that he not take on the duty of judging the people's grievances alone, but appoint judges to help him. Finally, it  reaches a climax with the central event of our religious mythology, the giving of the law/Torah at Sinai. It is at Sinai that the ragtag bunch of former slaves finally covenant themselves to God as a people. At Sinai the nation/people of Israel is born.

Whether or not one believes in Sinai as an historical event, does not concern me. For what matters is not the historical veracity of the narrative, but rather, the "Truth" within; the spiritual message that it is meant to teach. I believe that the ancient rabbis too cared more about the inner truth than the factual nature of the narrative.  For in one prominent rabbinic  reading of the text, the Sages stated that Yitro actually came to see Moses AFTER the giving of the law at Sinai, even though the text states that he arrived before the sacred event. The rabbis permit themselves this license based on the rabbinic exegetical principle that "there is no early or late in the Torah." Standard chronology does not affect sacred text.  Time can be suspended – or reversed – by the interpreter if need be. The Torah is not bound by time, but is, in effect, beyond it.

And so our Sages wrote that when Yitro "heard all that God had done to Moses and his people" the text is speaking not only about the exodus from Egypt, but the events at Sinai as well. In 12th century France the great commentator Rashi  also wrote that Yitro journeyed "…out to the wilderness, a place of emptiness, in order to hear words of
Torah.  In her book on Exodus, "The Particulars of Rapture," Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg posits that, upon hearing of the giving of Torah at Sinai, Yitro left his material life and all of his world behind.  He gave up the glory of the priesthood (he was a priest of
Midian) and emptied himself  of ego so that he could then hear the words of Torah.

But how could he hear the words? Had not the Torah already been given? Obviously, he must have heard them from Moses. However, the truth of the matter is that all of the people heard God's word only through Moses.  Though God initially began to speak to all the people people, we read in the narrative that it was too much for them to bear.  And so, they told Moses to go up the mountain, receive the word of God and bring it back to them. Since they knew that Moses was a true prophet to whom God spoke, they also knew they could trust what he would relate to them.

Yitro too relied on the words of his son-in-law in order to understand what God spoke. In the parashah Yitro states "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods" (18:11).  Rashi interprets this to mean that Yitro had experienced the worship of all gods of the world, but that he came to realize [upon hearing of what happened at Sinai] that our God was THE God. In discussing the idea that Moses relayed all that had happened at Sinai Rashi also states "…Moses narrated …everything that God had done in order to attract his [Yitro's] heart, to bring him close to the Torah."

Furthermore, the commentaries speak of Yitro's connection to his past and being caught between a desire to embrace God and fear based on his past identity and experience (something which I don't have time to discuss in this brief commentary).  Yet, the Sages still believed that Yitro was "converted" by hearing all that God had done. However, Zornberg reminds her readers that this occurred even though he had not personally experienced the giving of Torah at Sinai (Zornberg, pp. 253-254).  Even so,  Yitro is brought close to God by hearing Moses tell him the redemption/revelation narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah. Though still reticent because of his connection to his Midianite past, Yitro eventually embraces God and God's word. His acceptance of the words of Torah heals his soul and removes from him any sense of fear or trepidation .

However, perhaps the central point of this commentary is revealed in Zornberg's reminder towards the end of her commentary that Yitro had "…already made all the necessary spiritual movements away from civilization and into the wilderness, as soon as he heard of the Exodus. Moses' narrative works not to bring near one who was far, but to bring near one who has already come close."

Zornberg writes eloquently of how Moses's speech "…engages with the ambivalences, the attraction and the repulsion, of one who, against all odds, approaches Sinai…" and that the "therapeutic" quality of Moses's words recounting all that had happened addresses "a real trauma, a wound inflicted, in a sense by the very encounter with God."

This verse spoke to me on a deep level. For I believe Zornberg is saying that Moses's retelling of the narrative becomes therapeutic, healing speech because it acknowledges the intensity as well as the traumatic nature of the human-Divine encounter. Simultaneously, it also helps Yitro become aware of its beauty and the reality of what it means to approach Sinai.

Moses knows that Yitro is both attracted (out of love, rooted in the present) and repulsed (out of fear, rooted in his past) by Sinai, and so Moses acknowledges this dichotomy. This then allows Yitro to embrace the entire experience, and ultimately God.

We are all aware that God and Judaism (indeed, all religions) have the ability to attract and repel, often simultaneously. We want to find God, we want to connect to community, and yet we are often repelled by the memories, often painful, of our childhood traumas related to this desire. Perhaps it was a rabbi who bored us to tears every Shabbat, who ignored the children or who chastised people harshly for not coming to services.  Perhaps it was an overly strict or an ineffective religious schoolteacher.  Or perhaps it was experiencing Judaism in one's family as boring, judgmental, superfluous or even (especially for women) oppressive. 

Many of us may have experienced these traumas in the past and yet, the fact that you are reading this commentary means that you have chosen to connect in some way to the tradition. Somehow, the attraction overcame the repulsion; the love overcame the fear or anger. Remember, Rashi said that Moses was able to reach Yitro only because Yitro had already prepared himself spiritually. He could be reached and healed by Moses's words because he was not so far away as he might have otherwise been. He had a desire to be close to God and to be part of the new people, and so he had begun his approach to both. That is why Moses was able to bring him all the way to Sinai even though
he had not witnessed it first hand.

This is true for so many of us who consider ourselves on some level to be seekers, but are uncertain exactly how to reach our final destination (or where it is or what it looks like). But if those of us who have begun the journey listen carefully to the words of Torah as filtered through contemporary teachers, whether rabbis, professionals or simply other Jews, as well through our community, then we empower ourselves to continue the journey. If we seek meaning that speaks to us wherever we may be at that moment, then we can be brought the rest of the way in love.  Then together with one another, we can experience the beauty of Jewish community as well as the spirit of the Divine in our lives.

For those who do not believe that they have begun the journey, just stop for a moment and look where you are. You are on the journey with each step you take, no matter how small it might seem. Don't worry about how long it will take. Just pay attention to where you are now and then take the next tiny step. Join with the rest of us as we walk from slavery to Sinai and beyond, over and over again. We are together, yet separate, on this sacred journey. That is what it means to be part of a Jewish community. That is what it means to stand together at Sinai.

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