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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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Parshat Yitro

Dvar Torah delivered by Morrie Levin on Shabbat, 20th Sh’vat 5776,聽30th January 2016

This parsha has many many important sections. I tried to organize them by聽my concept of their importance in terms of effect on us 鈥 and on Judaism聽today, thus select the portion to focus on. Many Rabbis have selected聽aspects to focus on. Some focused on Jethro or the ten commandments聽Some mentioned the events at Mt. Sinai. Mt Sinai, to me, really crystalizes聽how we came to be, the root reason that Jews have truly become the holy聽people and the light of nations. A real sensual shock affecting all present —聽the 600,000 followers, Moses, and their descendants 鈥揳nd us– forever.

The parsha starts with a meeting — the 600,00 followers, Jethro, and聽Moses at Mount Sinai. Jethro -a Midianite priest – learns more about聽Moses, his beliefs, his interaction with the Pharaoh and the plagues. He was聽welcomed, well treated, (he was, after all, father in law) and gives聽excellent advice. We don鈥檛 have a clue as to why he did not stay and was聽not even officially recognized. He left before the main event, although聽Sforno thinks he came to become Moses鈥檚 follower.

But first, what were we before and after Mt. Sinai ? At this point in time聽there was no such thing as being Jewish. Within the multitude (600,000)聽were people who really followed the traditions of Abraham mixed with聽people who were more or less aware of the traditions and were willing to聽go along. In today鈥檚 terminology they would be called an ethnic group,聽which would be designated ethno-religious. You could question whether聽all fully understood or accepted God鈥檚 position and role (sole and unique).

There was an understanding of God and communication from God. God聽spoke to and directed our forefathers. Early in Exodus, the people (slaves聽in Egypt) cried out to God because the Egyptians were mistreating them.

Communication was always through messengers (Angels). Some practices,聽such as Brit Milah, from the covenant with Abraham were observed聽although there was no overall concept, no set of rules, for the people to聽follow. All were, of course, aware of and more or less understood the聽plagues. Sforno points out that the Egyptians also learned from the聽plagues– that the Israelite God was supreme.

Moses, we know, was saved from death and raised as Egyptian royalty.聽We know his story till now:聽going to and living in Midian and being聽selected by God to free the Israelites. Moses was the first (and only) person聽to directly communicate with God . Until now God communicated via聽angels. Now God enters the picture directly. God, of course, had a plan:聽creating a holy nation: involving Moses, the multitude and their offspring .

For the multitude to be really involved, an experience was necessary.聽Think of the burning bush and Moses: the experience directly affected his聽beliefs and actions . For the multitude, it began with feeling as if they were聽traveling on wings of eagles鈥攎aking them aware that they were聽different from all other peoples.

So we now have the multitude camped at Mt. Sinai. People who have聽twice experienced God鈥檚 power, seen the effect of the ten plagues on the聽Pharaoh and experienced the trip to Mt. Sinai. They were asked to and聽they agreed to follow God鈥檚 rules in the future. They were also given聽special rules relative to the mountain, necessary because they were to聽experience God face to face. Sforno empahasizes God鈥檚 orders. He聽describes areas they could not enter partly because of crowds and safety聽needs and emphasizes God鈥檚 orders that special cleansing was necessary聽and entering a forbidden area meant death. Moses said鈥擠o not be afraid;聽God has come to test you in order that the fear of God may be ever with聽you.

There were many related experiences at Mt. Sinai. God spoke via thunder聽and a clarion to the multitude but never actually appeared and revealed聽himself as a cloud of smoke. The cloud of smoke appears later on, over the聽Mishkan and even later over Solomon鈥檚 Temple. God gave Moses the ten聽commandments, dictating belief in God, observance of God an proper聽behavior between people. They accepted Moses as speaking with and聽transmitting God鈥檚 messages. It is not clear, given the nature of the mixed聽multitude what they were before and therefore what they converted from,聽but now they, children and adults belonged directly and solely to God.

According to Rav Kook, at Mt. Sinai, at this time, a mass conversion took聽place. The people accepted God鈥檚 role in their future. It is interesting that聽Rav Kook recognizes this very very simple first and huge conversion but is聽seen as a strong proponent today of conversion linked with a great deal of聽individual study and exposure to Jewish practice. Here, God selected the聽Israelites 鈥揾is special treasure- as a holy people to teach the rest of the聽peoples God鈥檚 rules and principles. I submit that this conversion was聽somehow implanted in the genes at Mt Sinai and somehow affected all聽future generations. What did they convert to? Nothing. Religion with the聽one God concept had no structure there and then. We know it now as聽Judaism- being Jewish. This had no meaning then and there except聽complete acceptance of the God they had just agreed to. They felt that聽God would provide basic rules that they had agreed to hear and obey.

Judaism was initiated. They would soon receive the ten commandments聽and eventually the Tanach . The concept of Shabbat and the observance of聽the ten commandments would become part of their – our – lives.聽You cannot say that after many many modifications they would have the聽Judaism of today. Virtually all 鈥渘ew鈥 ideologies or practices are based on聽modifications of something that came before. However, at this time and聽place, there was no real, formal set of procedures and beliefs to modify. I聽am sure there were 6oo,ooo opinions. Most parashot tell how to be Jewish.

To me this part of this parsha makes me understand the importance of the聽beginning, how we came to be, what we are, and the importance of our聽influence on our offspring. In one sense, Spinoza puts it best: Judaism is a聽perspective on life. It is not the outcome of a doctrine but rather of聽concrete events, actions and insights of a people who experienced an聽encounter with God within the confines of history.聽From one point of view this sounds fine. There is another perspective: God聽started his plan 3000 years ago and today we are seeing its effects.

This parsha makes you think when you say “Shabbat Shalom”.

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