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Torah Sparks

January 22, 2011 – 17 Shevat 5771

Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 18:1 – 18:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

Jethro visits his son-in-law, Moses, in the wilderness, and expresses wonderment at all the blessings and protective care THAT he learns God has bestowed upon the Israelites. He offers a sacrifice to the God of Israel and Aaron and the elders join him in a sacral, celebratory meal. This event has inspired some readers of scripture to conclude that the "Priest of Midian" in fact adopted the religion of Israel, an assertion that remains in the realm of midrashic speculation.

Moses has been acting as sole judge for almost all disputes and questions. The very next day, Jethro advises him to create a system of lesser judges to hear minor cases. That would lighten the burden of leadership and administration that Moses has borne alone while simultaneously easing the judicial process for the Israelite public. Moses, he suggests, still should exercise personal authority over major cases and questions. Moses heeds his father-in-law's counsel, and Jethro returns to Midian.

Moses and the people Israel arrive at Mount Sinai and begin preparations for God's revelation. Israel is adjured to be faithful to the covenant, and thus to become God's "treasured possession" or "chosen people." Israel is to conduct itself as "a nation of priests and a holy people." The people unanimously embrace and accept their covenantal status: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" After three days of anticipation and preparation (reenacted in our time as shloshet y'mei hagbala, the three days preceding Shavuot), the Israelite tribes gather at the foot of Mount Sinai. They witness "thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn." Fire, smoke and a violently quaking mountain instill awe and fear in the Israelites about to receive God's law. The Israelites are warned to keep their distance, not to touch the mountain itself.

The heart of Parashat Yitro is the decalogue – the Ten Commandments – which, oddly, are not given any special name or official designation in this chapter. Later, in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4, they are referred to as aseret hadevarim – the Ten Pronouncements (or less accurately, Ten Words). It should be noted that the terms eser ha-devarim and aseret ha-dibrot, while in common usage, both are incorrect. They lack gender agreement. Eser ha-dibrot is perfectly acceptable. The use of the term "Ten Commandments" in English is popular but unfortunately often is understood to imply the sum total of God's commandments, an egregious numerical and theological error indeed. (This error was popularized by American essayist and humorist H. L. Mencken, who quipped: "Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.") In fact, the decalogue is followed immediately by a series of further commandments: the prohibition against "gods" of silver and gold, and the prescription of an earthen altar, constructed without metal tools, and equipped with a ramp to prevent immodest posture that might result from approaching the altar via stairs.

Theme #1: "Character Assignation!"

"You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times." (Exodus 18:21)

Derash: Study

"If they all were endowed with these same qualities, why was X appointed chief of a thousand, and Y appointed chief of ten? It seems that it was for this very reason that men of truth ('trustworthy men') were selected. One who is deeply committed to the value of truth is not demanding about his own honor or position." (Rabbi David of Kotzk)

"'Trustworthy men who who spurn ill-gotten gain' – That is, those who truly spurn ill-gotten gain, for there are also those who (affect to) spurn ill-gotten gain… in order to gain money!" (Rabbi Chayim Sonnenfield)

"'Men 'who fear God, trustworthy men.' That is, whose fear of God is genuine, and not affected." (Rabbi Moshe Chefetz)

"'Capable men' who have the ability to bear burdens and are not afraid of them… 'Who fear God,' that is, they have no fear of people, only of God alone." (Ibn Ezra) "I wish you could make a friend of me, Lizzie. Do you think you could? I have no more of what they call charater, my dear, than a canary-bird, but I know I am trustworthy." (Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend)

"Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder." (George Washington)

"As he who fears God fears nothing else, so, he who sees God sees everything else." (John Donne)

Questions for Discussion:

What are the qualities to be sought in and demanded of our leaders? Is character more or less important than the ability to handle a specific job or office? Is it really possible to lack character yet be trustworthy, as in the Dickens passage?

Which character traits do we most value in a friend? In a rabbi? In selecting a spouse?

What are "ill-gotten gains" – aside from bribery in its most literal and vulgar sense? Principles are compromised or abandoned in favor of profit, position or popularity by those who would never take a bribe, per se. How does this temptation manifest itself in our own lives, and in the affairs of our communities and congregations?

"God-fearing" is a descriptor rarely applied in nonfundamentalist circles, though it aptly describes many of our finest leaders and pious members of our communities. To what extent is faith in God and personal piety a requirement for our community leaders (and its lack a disqualification from office)? Political leaders? Religious educators? What aspects of personal probity or religious fealty do we – and do we not – consider non-negotiable?

What attention should character development be given in our religious schools? How is the moral education of our children hindered by respected public figures with very public moral lapses? How should parents, educators, and religious leaders respond during such scandals?

Theme #2: "Me for you and you for Me"

"Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples." (Exodus 19:5)

Derash: Study

"The essence of Judaism is the affirmation that the Jews are the chosen people; all else is commentary." (Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg)

"It is no arrogant temper that we claim to be the chosen people. We thereby affirm not that we are better than others, but that we ought to be better." (Rabbi Morris Joseph)

"The fellows who say to you, 'I expect more of the Jews,' don't believe them. They expect less. What they are really saying is 'Okay, we know you're a bunch of ravenous bastards, and given half the chance you'd eat up half the world...'" (Philip Roth)

"The primary reason I am a committed Jew is that I believe Jews have a divine mission to the rest of humanity. It is nothing less than a tragedy that few Jews feel Judaism has anything to say to the world. It is terrible for the world and for the Jews." (Dennis Prager)

"All over the world, we Jews are a minority. Only in Israel are we a majority. As a nation that for two thousand years was a classic minority of the world, Jews have a moral obligation and a political obligation to show how to behave in a country where they are the majority." (Joseph Burg)

"Altogether, both the glory and tragedy of Israel may be traced to the singular idea cherished by its people – the exalted, conceited, preposterous idea that they alone were God's people." (Herbert J. Muller)

Questions for Discussion:

How do we understand the meaning of "chosenness" in our approach to Jewish life and history? Is this classical formulation still a constructive force in Judaism? In the affairs and conduct of the state of Israel? In your own personal spiritual journey? What qualitative claims, if any, are implicit in claiming to be God's chosen people?

What did Professor Hertzberg mean? How is all of Jewish practice, belief, history a "commentary" on the central principal of chosenness? Why might he have chosen to paraphrase Hillel's famous remark in making his point?

What is the historic mission of the Jewish people? Joseph Burg identifies one perceived aspect of that mission. Dennis Prager asserts the centrality of the Jewish national mission to his own personal religious commitments, without (at least in these few sentences) describing the substance of the mission (elsewhere he does so most eloquently). What should the Jewish people be saying to the world? How do we, individually and as Jewish communities and congregations, aid in identifying, detailing, and furthering the historic mission of the Jewish people?

Is it desirable to "expect more of the Jews"? Rabbi Joseph and Philip Roth display very different perspectives on this question! Are there situations in which a "higher standard" is harmful? Times when such expectations are absolutely proper?

The idea of Jews as a chosen people has been attacked as elitist and racist. By placing covenantal duties on ourselves alone, however, we leave ample room for non-Jews to act, believe, and worship very differently from us and still be in God's favor, and in complete compliance with God's will. Is it not more accurate to say, therefore, that Jewish chosenness actually facilitates religious diversity and principled ecumenism?

Historic Note

Parashat Yitro, read on January 22, 2011, dramatically recalls the tribes of Israel gathered at Mount Sinai for God's revelation. On January 22, 1957, Israeli military forces withdrew from the Sinai peninsula.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The commandment to honor your father and mother applies even after their death. The Mourner's Kaddish is one way to fulfill this commandment after a parent's death. It is also customary to add "May her (or his) memory be for a blessing" each time a departed parent is mentioned. During the first year of mourning, it is further customary, according to some, to add: "Let me be an atonement for her (or him)." Safeguarding the dignity of our parents through deferential treatment is central to the fifth commandment while our parents are alive. That same concern for dignity is reflected in how we speak of our parents after their passing, as well. (See, for example, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 270:9)

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