Tag Archives: Yitro

Commentary for Yitro

28 Feb

Religion is, inherently, an experiential thing. If it wasn’t, it would be government; just a plodding series of laws and statutes and regulations that we are required to follow. Religion wants you to feel something. You should be kind to your fellow man not just because the rules say so, but because you share a Creator who created you both in His image. Despite this, we often approach religion from an analytical standpoint, and there two major reasons for this.

The first, simply, is that humans are analytical creatures. When we see something, we want to understand how it works and why it is the way it is, and that is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with pouring over every word of text about the four species and contrasting all of their characteristics to determine which piece of the lulav-etrog bundle goes where and which direction to point and shake them at which time, because in doing so, we will gain a greater understanding of what it is we are doing and thus, hopefully, have a more rich experience when we perform that mitzvah.

The second reason that we approach religion analytically is because experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. At the Seder, the Haggadah urges the participant to “see himself as if he was leaving Egypt. We try to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and then finally experience freedom for the first time, but we have trouble because it is not an experience most of us can relate to. Because we cannot directly relate to it, we take the facts we have learned about slavery and we attempt to analytically break them down into situations and emotions we can understand, but we cannot truly recreate them, and thus cannot really achieve the intended experience.

At times when an experiential connection fails us, we look to analysis to create an experience for us. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week’s parshah, is seen as a seminal moment in Jewish history. The scene described in the text is a grandiose production of sights and sounds: Thunder and lightning, pillars of clouds and smoke, shofars blaring all over the place, and a loud rumbling voice coming from the heavens. Exodus 20:15 even tells us that the people experience a form of synesthesia, literally seeing sounds (“and the whole nation saw the voices).” Because such an ecstatic experience cannot possibly be recreated in our minds, people have tended to focus on analyzing the Ten Commandments down to every last detail, to the point where there is actually disagreement between Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations on exactly where the divisions between some of the commandments are.

The Ten Commandments are unique among all of the other sections of the Torah because they have two sets of cantillation marks instead of the usual one set. The first of these sets, the lower cantillation (named because the mark on the first word of the first commandment is below the word), divides the longer, more detailed commandment into multiple verses, while some of the shorter, two to four word commandments, are all contained within a single verse. This version, used by people who are studying Torah, divides the commandments into verses reflecting normal sentence structure while its cantillation marks are used to fulfill their additional role as grammatical indicators and punctuation to help us understand and analyze the Torah.

The second set of cantillation marks are the upper cantillation (named because the first mark is above the first word), and is used for public Torah readings. In this set of notes, the cantillation is much more flashy, with many notes that are very long, very high, or very low. The commandments are divided into nine verses, with each commandment being its own verse, regardless of length, aside from the first two commandments, which are one long verse because those were the two commandments transmitted from God directly to the Israelites, without Moses acting as an intermediary, and were heard at the exact same time. The upper cantillation is intended to help us try to recreate just some small portion of the experience at Sinai. It tries to give us an experience to go with our analysis, because it is only through both experience and analysis that we can truly appreciate our relationship with God and God’s world.

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Commentary for Yitro

5 Feb

In this week’s parshah, Moses gets a visit from his father, Jethro. While Jethro does bring Moses’ wife and sons, who had been staying in Midian while Moses was off liberating the Israelites, the Torah makes it pretty clear based on Ex. 18:1 and 2 that the reason this visit takes place is not so that the family can be reunited, but rather because Jethro had heard of all of the miracles and wonders God had performed for Moses and the Israelites during their dealings with Pharaoh, and that being able to reunite was more of an added bonus.

While 18:1 tells us that Jethro had heard of “all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt,” when 18:8 describes Moses recounting the miraculous events to Jethro, the Torah specifically mentions “everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all of the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.” The “hardships” in question are said to refer to the various issues the Israelites have with the availability of food and water as well as the attack by the Amalekites- all of which are dealt with either directly by God or with God’s help- because if the “hardships” did not refer to these events, then 18:8 would merely be Moses telling Jethro things that Jethro already knows. Strangely, even after being given this new information about additional wonderful things God has done for the Israelites, Jethro’s response (given in 18:9-11) is to praise God, but focusing only on the events that occur in Egypt; the stuff he already knew about.

Interestingly, the issue of praising God for one miraculous event more than others is at the heart of a debate surrounding the other major component of this week’s parshah: the revelation at Sinai and the reading of the Ten Commandments. One school of thought says that we should stand while the Ten Commandments are read to reflect the great importance of this moment in Jewish history, while the other argues that if the entire Torah is Divine, then all parts of it are equally important and it would be wrong to show greater respect to one part over another.   The conversation between Moses and Jethro in the beginning of the parshah seems to give voice to this very debate, with Moses taking the position that all parts of the Torah are equal and Jethro taking the position that certain events are more important than others.

The only other part of the Torah about which such a debate exists is the Song of the Sea, read last week, which recounts God’s defeat of the Egyptian army and envisions the other nations of the world hearing the news and having almost exactly the same reaction that Jethro has here: acknowledgement of God’s supremacy. Some commentators see Jethro’s praise of God (and particularly 18:11’s “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all of the gods”) as a conversion to Judaism, and Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon cites the parting of the Red Sea as the specific event that leads to Jethro’s decision to convert. When viewed through this lens, Jethro’s words do not show a disregard for the new information he was given, but rather show his desire to praise God for an event that he found to be especially meaningful.

While the debate over standing during the Ten Commandments and showing more respect to one part of the Torah than to others does fit nicely, a more literal interpretation of the disagreement as applied through Moses and Jethro would be “is it okay to praise God more for one miracle than for others?” We have all been given many gifts from God: Some people are good at sports while others can sing or play music while still others have a talent for comedy or for mathematics or problem-solving, and we are often very conscious of these gifts, but really, every moment of our life is a miraculous gift from God. Those little everyday bits of joy or inspiration, or even just the fact that physics of the universe works the way it does that allows it to sustain life. There is even a brachah to say after going to the bathroom that thanks God for designing the human body in such a way that it is able to do these things because “if even one of them ruptures or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You, even for a short time.” Jethro teaches us that there is nothing wrong with feeling more connected to God through our ability to make and appreciate music than through the fact that we have such a well-crafted respiratory system or the fact that we can see a rainbow because there are some of us out there for whom neither rainbows nor respiratory systems will make us feel connected to God in the way that a beautiful tune will. Moses teaches us that although we might not connect with them the same way, we shouldn’t neglect the amazing miracles that these other things are. Keeping both of these lessons in mind, we can fully appreciate all of the wonderful things that God does for us.

Commentary for Yitro

6 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. While chapter twenty deals with the commandments themselves, chapter nineteen does the important job of setting the scene in which this revelation takes place. Exodus 19:4 contains not only the famous phrase “I have borne you on the wings of eagles,” but also the much less well know and more theologically puzzling end of the verse “and I have brought you to Me.” If God is omnipresent (and, indeed, during the Passover Seder, God is often referred to as “The Omnipresent”), why did God need to “bring” the Israelites to a specific place where God was?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be that the verse is meant in a spiritual sense, not a physical one, but this doesn’t seem to hold up within the Torah. Exodus 2:23 tells us that “their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God,” which tells us that they believed in God all along. Why, then, could the revelation not take place in Egypt, or by the Red Sea, or in Rephidim or Marah or any of the other places the Israelites stopped along the way? We have the same Israelites and the same omnipresent God who they believe in, so why wait until they reach this one place for this grand revelation?

In every stop along the way, we are actually shown God’s omnipresence through a display of Divine power in some way or another. In Egypt and at the Red Sea, God’s power as the Redeemer of Israel, the Eternal Judge, and the Master of Nature are on full display. At Rephidim and at the Red Sea, God functions as our protector. At Marah and at Elim, God provides for us by giving us fresh water where there previously was none and by giving us the manna. At Sinai, though, none of these facets of our relationship with God is more prominent than any other.

The preparations that Moses instructs the Israelites to take before the revelation are performed by each individual rather than by the people as a whole, with Moses or Aaron or someone else acting as an intermediary. When God offers the Israelites the covenant, it is not the mass group of “the nation” or “the Israelites” that respond, but rather “the entire people (Ex. 19:8) and it is again “the entire people” who are recorded as having experienced the revelation in Exodus 20:15. Each individual was a part of the covenant because Sinai was a place where each individual could explore his or her own unique relationship with God.

But if all of the Israelites are individually engaged in the covenant through their own unique relationship with God, then why have a revelation at Sinai at all? Why not just let it come to everyone in his or her own time?

A few parshahs later, we run into a similar theologically problematic statement related to God’s omnipresence, when God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” To make a long story short, the lesson from this verse is not that God needs us to build a house for God or else God will be absent from the world, but rather that we need a space where we can come together to focus to help invite God into our lives. Just like us, if left to their own devices, it probably would have taken the ancient Israelites quite a while to find the time to focus on their relationships with God and to make themselves ready to accept the covenant. At Sinai, which served as a precursor to the Tabernacle discussed in Ex. 25:8 and to our modern synagogues, the Israelites were all given a time and a place to focus on those relationships, both as a community and as individuals within that larger community.

Commentary for Yitro

17 Jan

Religion is, inherently, an experiential thing.  If it wasn’t, it would be government; just a plodding series of laws and statutes and regulations that we are required to follow.  Religion wants you to feel something.  You should be kind to your fellow man not just because the rules say so, but because you share a Creator who created you both in His image.  Despite this, we often approach religion from an analytical standpoint, and there two major reasons for this.

The first, simply, is that humans are analytical creatures.  When we see something, we want to understand how it works and why it is the way it is, and that is perfectly fine.  There is nothing wrong with pouring over every word of text about the four species and contrasting all of their characteristics to determine which piece of the lulav-etrog bundle goes where and which direction to point and shake them at which time, because in doing so, we will gain a greater understanding of what it is we are doing and thus, hopefully, have a more rich experience when we perform that mitzvah.

The second reason that we approach religion analytically is because experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate.  At the Seder, the Haggadah urges the participant to “see himself as if he was leaving Egypt.  We try to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and then finally experience freedom for the first time, but we have trouble because it is not an experience most of us can relate to.  Because we cannot directly relate to it, we take the facts we have learned about slavery and we attempt to analytically break them down into situations and emotions we can understand, but we cannot truly recreate them, and thus cannot really achieve the intended experience.

At times when an experiential connection fails us, we look to analysis to create an experience for us.  The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week’s parshah, is seen as a seminal moment in Jewish history.  The scene described in the text is a grandiose production of sights and sounds:  Thunder and lightning, pillars of clouds and smoke, shofars blaring all over the place, and a loud rumbling voice coming from the heavens.  Exodus 20:15 even tells us that the people experience a form of synesthesia, literally seeing sounds (“and the whole nation saw the voices).”  Because such an ecstatic experience cannot possibly be recreated in our minds, people have tended to focus on analyzing the Ten Commandments down to every last detail, to the point where there is actually disagreement between Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations on exactly where the divisions between some of the commandments are.

The Ten Commandments are unique among all of the other sections of the Torah because they have two sets of cantillation marks instead of the usual one set.  The first of these sets, the lower cantillation (named because the mark on the first word of the first commandment is below the word), divides the longer, more detailed commandment into multiple verses, while some of the shorter, two to four word commandments, are all contained within a single verse.  This version, used by people who are studying Torah, divides the commandments into verses reflecting normal sentence structure while its cantillation marks are used to fulfill their additional role as grammatical indicators and punctuation to help us understand and analyze the Torah.

The second set of cantillation marks are the upper cantillation (named because the first mark is above the first word), and is used for public Torah readings.  In this set of notes, the cantillation is much more flashy, with many notes that are very long, very high, or very low.  The commandments are divided into nine verses, with each commandment being its own verse, regardless of length, aside from the first two commandments, which are one long verse because those were the two commandments transmitted from God directly to the Israelites, without Moses acting as an intermediary, and were heard at the exact same time.  The upper cantillation is intended to help us try to recreate just some small portion of the experience at Sinai.  It tries to give us an experience to go with our analysis, because it is only through both experience and analysis that we can truly appreciate our relationship with God and God’s world.