Friday, February 06, 2015

Parashah Yitro - an exploration

The following is a short discussion, aka a dvar (a word), or a drash (an exploration), on the Torah portion Yitro, Exodus/Shmote, 18:1  to 20:23. I will be presenting this discussion to my congregation, Shirat HaNefesh tomorrow, 2/7/15.

Yitro and the building of national identity

Yitro, Jethro, is a parashah, a sidrah that most of you probably know quite well, although it often gets mixed up with Ki Tisa (tablets, golden calf) 4 sidrahs later. What are some of the salient things that happen in this sidrah?

Yitro comes out to meet Moshe, acknowledging the God of Israel as the greatest deity.
Yitro advises Moses on how to govern better, building a judicial hierarchy.
In the 3rd month, on the 1st day, the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai.
Moshe goes up Sinai, and God informs him He wants Israel as His special people.
Moshe returns to inform the people and they/we agree to the terms.
Moshe again ascends and is told to prepare people for experience of God on peak of Sinai.
Moshe instructs people to purify themselves for 3 days, and set a boundary around Sinai to keep people away.
God appears at peak amidst clouds, thunder, ram’s horn blasts, and summons Moshe up.
God tells Moshe to go back down to warn people to stay away.
God declares the Ten Commandments while Moshe is among the people.
Moshe enters mist of God’s Presence and God tells him not to make idols but to make an altar for sacrifice.
In sum, Moshe goes up Sinai 3 or 4 times, but the Commandments are given when he is down with the people.

A traditional drash starts with something far, something apparently unrelated, and then shows how it is near, that is, relevant.

I would like to start with a mashaal, a parable. It's about a king who wanted to marry a beautiful and strong and wise and noble woman. When she gladly accepted his offer of marriage, he had a very special ketuba, a marriage contract, prepared.  In it, among other things, he described all the wealth he was transferring to her.  Such and such tracts of land; thus and many chieftains for an honor guard; what well-trained handmaids and servants; which buildings in the capital city; abundance of garments of this and that sort; special cuisine and cooks; and so on.
The problem was, just after the wedding the king was called away to a distant land across the sea. After many months, he hadn't come back yet, and secret desires began to stir. 

How do we complete this mashaal, this parable? Of course, before you can complete the parable, you need to postulate what the nimshaal, the underlying story is, since a parable is a story meant to illustrate and clarify another story. Take a few minutes to postulate the ending to this parable. If you already know the parable, imagine a new ending.

While your mind is composing the parable’s ending, let me seed your imagination with some ideas.

First, what is illogical about Yitro’s advice about forming a hierarchical judiciary?

This is hard, so let me give you another mashaal. A parent said to her 5 year old, “I want you to obey all the laws of this household.” The five year old of course agreed, but a moment later she did something that angered the father, and he yelled at her. Sound familiar? What’s illogical here? Do you have a written set of household laws that you can refer to? Do you read those laws to your 5 year old every night so that she will know them well?

So now, what’s illogical about Yitro’s advice? [My answer: Israel does not yet have a body of laws to adjudicate!]

So the rest of the sidrah is about getting the Laws, right? Wrong! All that Israel obtains is 10 laws, not even a bare minimum to actually govern a functioning society. There’s no civil or business law here, and only a couple of the most extreme criminal issues are covered, without any discussion of procedure or punishment. Further, one commandment is about outlawing certain thoughts, coveting, which is unimplementable and was never intended to be implemented (it seems to me), at least in a human court.

So what’s missing here? What remains illogical?
1. The build-up of case law over 40 years is what ultimately becomes the Law of Moshe.
2. Much of the law emerged as a response to human need in the face of human conflict and confusion about what to do.
3. A nation needs to build an identity if it is to implement a functioning judiciary. The values that form a nation’s identity also shape a nation’s laws, and vice versa, a nation’s laws, and the way they are implemented, shapes a nation’s identity.

So when does Israel really assume a national identity?

The issues of national identity building are ongoing. Read the news. Much of what you read is about national identity building. Look at the problems in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Look at our national debates about abortion, immigration, racism and affirmative action, corporate profits, history textbooks. The list of issues concerning national identity building is endless. Yitro is the first sidrah in which we, the Jewish people take the first steps towards our national identity building.

The rest of the Bible and then the compilation of our other canonical texts, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, and now in this era, all the documents and historical events leading to the establishment of Israel, and now continuing in the building of Israel, are mostly about national identity building.

So let us return to our mashaal of the king. Now that you have composed your version of the ending, let me tell you how the original author completed it:

After a year, the king still hadn't returned, and the whispering grew louder.  After 2 years people began to be bold enough to ask the queen why she didn't seek out a new royal husband. There were many to be had! But this noble and devoted queen cast them out of her presence.
    The king didn't return for a very long time. But finally he did return. And his wife rushed out to greet and welcome him. The truth is, the king was amazed, and he asked her, "You are truly more noble than I could have imagined! How were you able to withstand your doubts and remain loyal to me?" And she answered, “every time I worried or despaired, I pulled out our ketuba, our marriage contract, and I would read about all the gifts that you bestowed upon me, and my faith in you would return."

    Naturally, it is the nature of a parable that the story refers to something other that its literal meaning. So, who is that king, and who is that queen, and what is that ketuba?

    The king is God, and the queen is the Jewish people, and the ketuba is our Torah. Throughout the ages people have tried to claim that our God has abandoned us, and that we should turn away to another faith, or to no faith, but when we study our Torah, we realize what an incredible privilege it is to be Jewish, to be chosen to be a priesthood people. And that has renewed our faith and courage, in spite of everything.

In sum, parasha Yitro may be seen as a wedding ceremony, in which the Jewish people are married to God, and the Torah is our ketubah. It is in this sidrah that the idea of the nation of Israel is born. It is here that Jewish peoplehood starts to emerge, both through law, and through the willingness to take on an enduring purpose -- to be a priesthood people, to be a holy nation.
This drash was composed in honor of the new ketubah, the new Torah scroll that Shirat HaNefesh is getting, that is indeed being repaired and prepared right now, and which we will take possession of in the coming months.

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