Yitro 5777 - 2017 Despite any differences, we are children of the same God

Post date: Feb 23, 2017 4:24:06 PM

This week, we read parshat Yitro (Jethro, Exodus 18:1-20:23) – the parsha which relates the hearing of the Decalog at Mt. Sinai. This greatest revelation in Jewish history is notable not only for how it has shaped religious and secular law throughout the world, but it is also notable for what it is not.

It is not revealed to one person or one intermediary, but all Israelites hear it. Note also that this revelation does not occur in Jerusalem. It does not wait for the building of the portable Ark and Tent of Meeting. In fact, it occurs en route, somewhere along the way, in the middle of the wilderness. So it is with much in our lives. We, who are more scheduled than ever, always needing to get somewhere by some time, could easily overlook our greatest opportunities for growth neither tomorrow nor another place, but simply here and now, along the road.

Although our Ohel Avraham custom is to read the Torah in a 3 year cycle, so important is the message of this chapter, it is read in its entirety.

The chapter opens with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, visiting to the Israelites in the wilderness. After hugs, a big feast, and recounting the remarkable story of leaving Egypt, Yitro hangs with Moshe for a full day of work.

He observes, from sunup until sundown, as Moshe adjudicates every argument, every conflict, minor or major, within the entire community of (600,000) Israelites! By the end of the day, with people still waiting in line, he turns to Moshe and says in yet another one of the Bible’s funniest remarks, “Are you nuts!?”

That's not a literal translation, of course. He actually says, “this thing you're doing, it's not right. It will wear you out and it will wear out the people.”

In corporate speak, “it doesn't scale well”. Yitro then proceeds to help Moshe develop one of the first systems of representative government.

The parsha then turns to a pivotal moment in the history of the our people. Several weeks ago, the Israelites were freed from Egypt by yad chazakah u’biz’roah netu’ya – a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

The Israelites became free through one of the greatest miracles recounted in the Torah. However, simply becoming free does not guarantee that this collection of former slaves and Egyptian hangers-on will be one unified people. In Jewish history, this happens at Har Sinai, Mount Sinai.

At Sinai, Moshe ascends the mountain and encounters God. God dictates the asseret dibrot – the Decalogue (10 statements), or, 10 commandments. During this process, the people are terrified, and rightly so. The biblical description of the encounter at Sinai is scary – the people were warned of being stoned, shot through, or otherwise maimed and killed, were they to touch the border of the mountain.

Then, the Torah describes “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud.” As if this were not terrifying enough, the Torah goes on to state that, “Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because God descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.” I’m certain if I were present at Sinai, I would be scared out of my mind, and the people of Israel appear to be just that.

This is the immediate, literary (or historical, if you so choose to believe) context for the receiving of the law in the form of the Asseret Dibrot: the Israelite people, standing together around the perimeter of a quaking, smoking mountain with thick clouds and an exceedingly loud horn blaring.

A professor once explained to me that the difference between Christianity and Judaism is exactly this moment. Jews became Jews, he said, all together – as a community. Christians become Christian individually – each one needing to accept Jesus as their own personal savior. Jews, however, will always be Jews, because each of us, whether Jews by birth or Jews by choice, Jews of the past, the present, and even our as-yet to be born progeny in the future, can trace our history to, and feel that we, too, stood here, at this moment, waiting for Moses to meet God.

I’m not one to take the Bible as an historic document – I choose to view it as a living creation, representative of generations of ancestors for whom these texts were central to their spiritual and practical existence.

However, there is something transformative about imagining the massive Jewish community of today – stretching across dozens of nations and speaking hundreds of languages – as descending from this one group of newly freed slaves, standing together, terrified in the desert of the ancient Near East.

It is this feeling of transformation and connection that I feel we must evoke and hold fast to now, particularly in the current political climate. The animosity, divisive language, and anger being hurled through every medium imaginable, from news outlets to social networking sites to dinner table conversations, has caused rifts that could end up being more destructive to the Jewish people than any external threat.

Politics is never a kind field, but it has pervaded even many interpersonal relationships as of late – poisoning what could be productive dialogues between individuals with radically different life experiences.

And so, I beg that we all try, in moments of frustration and intense disagreement, to remember that we are all connected together. As Jews, we share this common history and these principles that we have adopted as our code of ethics; as residents of the United States, we share the desire to live as we choose, free from the dynastic powers of a royal family.

Because we have the choice about how to live, many people have lived in ways that others cannot understand. Many people have experiences that their neighbors will never know. These experiences shape our understandings and our choices.

However, just as we can find some commonality with each member of our Jewish community, I feel it is especially important now, to strive to find some commonality with our fellow Americans. It is especially important to reject the proposal that the half of America with which we don’t agree are less worthy human beings. By all means, let’s argue forcefully and passionately for what we care about.

But even as some political leaders are trying to exacerbate our differences for their own success, let’s not take the bait.

It is often difficult, to be certain. But just as I know that the bond we have as a Jewish community, despite all of our differences, ultimately gives us our strength, so too, the bond we share as residents of the United States of America gives us the ability to endure disappointment, disagreement, and distrust, and still remain a strong and vibrant people.

Yvonne Asher

Samuel Asher