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Words of God

The week's parashah, Yitro, takes its name from the opening line which states "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 on with Yitro's advice to Moses not to take on the duty of judging the people's grievances alone, but to appoint judges to help him. Finally, the parashah 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 covenants themselves to God as a people. At Sinai the nation/people of Israel is born.

At this point I must confess to you that I do not believe in Sinai as a literal, factual, or historical event. I doubt that it happened at all, just as I doubt the historical veracity of the exodus, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and so many other events in the Torah. But that does not concern me. What concerns me is not the "fact" of these mythic narratives, but rather, the "Truth" of them. I care what the message is that the tale is meant to teach. I care what the ethics, values and beliefs are that underlie the story, and not whether or not a mountain named Sinai ever existed or a man named Moses ever ascended its heights.

Am I a heretic for saying this? Some would certainly answer with a resounding "yes!". However, if I am a heretic so are the majority of all non-Orthodox rabbis as well as many, if not most, of our congregants. I make this statement based not only on my experience, but also on the experience of many colleagues and upon what the non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries teach in their curricula. So I have no actual empirical data to back up this seemingly extreme statement. You must accept or reject it based on your knowledge of me and what is in your own heart. As with so much of Judaism, and religion in general, we have to trust the words and the stories that are presented to us even without verifiable evidence.

This is not that different from what our Sages imagined Yitro to experience. In the midrashic (rabbinic) reading of the text the Sages state that Yitro actually came to see Moses after the giving of the law at Sinai, even though the text would seem to imply that Yitro arrived before the sacred event. The rabbis are permitted to do this thanks to the rabbinic exegetical principle "there is no early or late in the Torah." In other words, 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 say 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. Connecting this with Rashi's (12th century France) comment that Yitro journeyed "out to the wilderness, a place of emptiness, in order to hear words of Torah" Aviva Zornberg discusses in her book "The Particulars of Rapture" the interpretation that, upon hearing of the giving of Torah at Sinai, Yitro left his material life and all of his world behind, giving up the glory of the priesthood (he was a priest of Midian) and "emptying 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? If so, how could Yitro now hear the words of Torah? Obviously, the answer is that he heard them from Moses. 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 Moses and the people it was too much for them to bear and so they told Moses to go up and 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 said 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" (Shemot 18:11) and 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." The commentaries
also speak of Yitro's connection to his past and being caught between a desire to embrace God and a fear based on his past identity and experience (something which I don't have time to discuss in this brief commentary) and yet the Sages still believed that Yitro was "converted" by hearing all that God had done. And yet, Zornberg reminds her readers, this occurs even though he has not personally experienced the giving of Torah at Sinai (Zornberg, pp. 253-254). Yet somehow Yitro is brought close to God by hearing Moses tell him the narrative of redemption and revelation, of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah. Though still reticent because of his connection to his 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, the final, and perhaps central point of my message today is revealed by 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' 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' 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, as I hope it will to you. For what I believe Zornberg is saying is that Moses' retelling of the narrative becomes therapeutic, healing speech because it acknowledges the intensity as well as the traumatic nature of the human-Divine encounter while also helping Yitro to 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) and repulsed (out of fear) by Sinai, and so Moses acknowledges this dichotomy. This then allows Yitro to embrace the entire experience, and ultimately God.

I know, as I'm sure do many of you, that God and Judaism have the ability to attract and repel, often simultaneously. We all want to find God, we all 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 or one who ignored the children or chastised people for not coming to services (not remembering that s/he was speaking to those who were attending!); perhaps it was an overly strict or an ineffective religious schoolteacher; or perhaps it was experiencing Judaism in one's family as boring, judging or even superfluous. Many of us experienced these traumas in the past and yet, the fact that you are reading this d'var Torah means that you have chosen to connect in some way to a Jewish. Somehow the attraction overcame the repulsion; the love overcame the fear or anger. Remember, Rashi said that Moses was able to reach Yitro because Yitro had already prepared himself spiritually. He could be reached and healed by Moses' words because he was not so far away. He had a desire to be close and so had begun to approach God. 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 our contemporary teachers, whether rabbis, professionals or lay people, and through our community then we empower ourselves to continue the journey. If we seek meaning that speaks to us where we are then we can be brought the rest of the way and together we can experience the beauty of Jewish community as well as the spirit of the Divine in our lives.

For those who have not yet begun the journey it may take longer, but you too will be able to join the rest of us. But it is our task to reach out to others just as others once reached out to us. That is what it means to be part of a Jewish community. That is what it means to stand together at Sinai.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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