Shabbat Yitro: What Makes a Jewish Leader?

Our parashat hashavua is Yitro. This parashah, in which we find described the revelation of the Jewish path symbolized by the Ten Words, is not named “Great Moments At Sinai” but Yitro [usually vocalized as Jethro in English], which is the name of Moshe’s father in law. Yitro is a Midianite priest – and so our parashah of the great moment of the Israelites standing at Sinai and entering into the Covenant is named for not only a non-Jew but (how to put this)  leader of a non-Jewish religion. 

About the fact that Moshe “intermarried”, this was par for the course at the time; Israelite men found life partners from everywhere. Jewish identity at the time passed through the male line, father to the son.

About Yitro, there is much midrash which recognizes that in the parashah he intervenes to give Moshe excellent leadership advice early on. The commentaries list his virtues, and those of Moshe as well (who was able to take advice from his father in law). The rabbinic focus on Yitro’s obvious leadership qualities must have been foremost in their minds when they settled upon the haftarah for today. Although it does describe a revelatory moment every bit as dramatic as that of Sinai for the prophet Isaiah, the interesting insight has to do not with the overwhelming presence of the Jewish vision of G-d, but of the uniquely Jewish sensitivities required of a Jewish leader.

In that spirit I offer you this weekly source of commentary on haftarah in hopes that you will find as much interest and insight in it as I do:

This week’s haftarah, while found in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, is seen by most as the Isaiah’s inaugural prophecy. In it, Isaiah experiences the famous vision of the divine throne room where the fiery angels praise God with the famous words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory” (6:3). What confounds this majestic picture is Isaiah’s response where he seemingly expresses his unworthiness to experience this vision: “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (6:5) Isaiah’s words were followed up by what seems to be either a punishment or a purification ceremony: ‘Then flew unto me one of the fiery angels, with a glowing stone in his hand, which he had taken with his tongs from the altar and he touched my mouth with it, and said: lo, this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away.” (6:6-7)

Isaiah’s words do not offer us a clear picture of what he saw as his own failings. This gave interpreters an opportunity to express their visions of his failing. One such expression can be found in this midrash: Since he saw the ministering angels praising the Holy One Blessed Be He and did not join them in praising Him, he became troubled, likening himself to a man of unclean lips, for if I would have joined my praise to theirs, I would have lived forever like them. How could I possibly have remained silent? While he stood dumbfounded over the matter, he uttered some unnecessary words: ‘I live among an unclean people’. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Regarding the words ‘For I am a man of unclean lips’, I can forgive you and allow you to bear responsibility for yourself, but regarding My children how could you say ‘I live among an unclean people’? Immediately, he bore the consequences of his words, as it is written: ‘The one of the fiery angels flew over to me with a live coal’. (6:6).” (Pesikta Rabati 33)

This midrash sees the prophet as an advocate for his people. A prophet or leader who would veer from this mission was to be considered sinful and worthy of punishment. This midrash sees Isaiah as falling short of this role and as requiring intervention. Only after this initiation was Isaiah worthy to serve his people. 

This colorful interpretation of Isaiah’s introduction to his role as a prophet is intended as a powerful message to all those who take on the mantle of leadership.

About This Commentary  This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 

Shabbat BeShalakh: Birds, Trees, and Song

Shabbat BeShalakh describes a moment in Jewish religious history that still reverberates throughout our study and practice. This is the parashah which retells our exodus out of Egypt. We tell the story over and over again:

* in the Shabbat Kiddush over wine: ki hu yom mikra’ey kodesh, zekher l’tziyat Mitzrayim – “this is a day of holy gathering, a reminder of going out of Egypt”

* in the Shema section of the daily prayers: miMitzrayim ga’altanu HaShem Elokeynu, umibeit avadim piditanu – “From Egypt HaShem our G-d redeemed us, from a house of slavery we were brought out”

* in the Haggadah of Pesakh….

There are many lessons we are meant to draw from the retelling of the Exodus, and even more good questions. For example:  just how would one commemorate a redemption like this? What is the proper response? For our people, it was song – and the special name for this Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of the Song [of the Sea], led by Moshe and Miriam. (Her version includes tambourines, leading to the surmise that perhaps she has a better sense of rhythm.)

We celebrate this Shabbat of Song with a special ritual during the chanting of the Song itself from the Torah, and there is also a sweet custom to give thanks for all the kinds of song in Creation by putting out food for birds on this Shabbat, in honor of their songs. 

The proximity of Tu B’Shevat to Shabbat Shirah this year allows us to embrace even more of the world around us in appreciation and in respect. Many birds, after all, depend upon trees, and Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees. The most Portland-ish of all Jewish holy days!

Singing is an expression of the soul that reaches deeper in, and farther out, than words can. On this Shabbat, give yourself over to the hope of small, fundamental things: the fragile beauty of a finch, the grand glory of a sequoia, the sweetness of a shared song. And let that song give you the courage to head back out there, as our people has always done, armed with the kiddush, the mi kamokha, the Haggadah, reminding us that we belong to a millennial journey whose most beautiful moments are still to be known.

Shabbat Bo: It Starts Here

Our parashat hashavua is significant in several ways, one of which is that starting here, the Torah begins to be full of the 613 mitzvot that it is so famous for. Up until this point, there has been a narrative describing generations of Israelites, but next to no commands. The famous medieval commentator Rashi asks in his notes on this parashah, “why did the Torah not begin here, with the beginning of the mitzvot? Why did it spend a book and more dwelling on non-halakhic matters, and non-Jewish as well?

There is another question to ask, and I offer it as one answer to Rashi’s question. In this parashah, we find the Israelites to be in the middle of the chaos of the final plagues brought upon Egypt, preparing for a precipitous leave-taking from their home, albeit a place of enslavement, for 400 years. We are neither at the end nor the beginning of the story, but somewhere in the muddled middle.

Yet G-d instructs Moshe to tell our ancestors that hahodesh hazeh lakhem rosh hodashim, “this month shall be your first month”. Why here? How is this a beginning?

These two questions can usefully inform each other. Consider: it is precisely in the middle of chaos that one seeks landmarks upon which to depend. The mitzvot are those landmarks for us. At any given moment of our lives, when we aren’t sure how to respond in word or act to whatever life brings us, a Jew can always sort it out by simply asking: where is the mitzvah in this moment? what am I obligated to do?

Yet Jewish life is certainly not only about the mitzvot. They are the framework of our religious path, and give us location, speed limits and merge signs. But  the framework is an empty skeleton, incapable of sustaining life. It needs the flesh and blood of the stories that show us how the halakhah, the path, really looks in lived experience. The twelfth chapter of Exodus is the perfect place for G-d to begin to offer the mitzvot that will guide us forever after, because it’s only at this point that we see, spreading out before us, a world not bounded by slavery, but open to indeterminacy, and the responsibility to make meaningful choices.

The parashah begins with the word bo, “come here”. It is often interpreted to mean “come to yourself”, i.e. in the face of chaos and fear calm down, look inside.

It is true for us every day: chaos, and the opportunity to seek a framework that will order it. It doesn’t matter if the framework seems arbitrary to those outside of our story, because it has no rational explanation. It is simply one way forward, one promise of beauty and meaning out of the glorious contradictory maelstrom of all that is around us. Any day, every day, you can calm the chaos by looking about you and asking where is the mitzvah in this moment. Today can be for you the first of months.

Shabbat Shemot 5776: what do you see in that bush?

One of the useful things about Torah is that every word of the sacred document has been pored over for so many generations, by so many devoted readers, that the commentaries are legion, and a well-worn path of interpretation lies before us as we in our own day consider what insights our Torah might divulge. As my teacher Byron Sherwin ז״ל used to say to me, “you don’t have to go outside the sources to be a feminist, you just have to keep digging to find what’s already there.” Replace the word “feminist” with any other sense of identity that you have that you may feel is outside the reach of our ancient wells of wisdom and experience, and, well, Dr Sherwin would suggest that the fault we find is in ourselves, not the Torah (or our stars, for that matter).

Every week we gather to read the Torah and to consider ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries upon it. We sometimes struggle with questions of legitimate boundaries; what is a Jewish interpretation? how is it developed? And we tend to privilege the more ancient as the more authoritative. That’s a natural inclination, and it is true that the ancient interpretations have formed the Judaism that we live in; what is less certain, and much more open, is the question of what interpretations we help to create and carry forward to develop th Judaism of the next generation.

Our parashat hashavua (Torah parashah, “section,” of the week) begins the book of Shemot, also called Exodus. In it we have the famous story of the bush that was burned but was not consumed. The New Yorker magazine recently ran a wonderful cartoon which showed Moshe staring at the bush while G-d, behind a nearby tree, says “that’s just a burning bush; I’m over here.” What a brilliant comment on our tendency to get caught up in the images by which we visualize what truth means to us. Religious imagery is always meant as a pass-through, but we focus on what we can see, and forget about the more complicated, mysterious unseen.

That small bush has led to some wonderful interpretations. I offer you three, and urge you to consider if you can come up with a fourth, and in so doing, join us in the interpretive journey which keeps Torah an endless well of living waters for us all:

1. Why did G-d speak to Moshe out of a bush? To teach us that there is no thing that does not have its place, and no person that does not have her/his moment.  (ben Zoma, Shemot Rabbah)

2. The bush represents the Jewish people, and the fire is our many years of suffering. It cannot destroy us. (13th century French Rabbi Hizkiyanu ben Manoah, known as Hizkuni)

3. How long does it take, when looking at a fire, to notice that the wood is not burning? To see miracles takes focus, and time. (11th century Zaragozan scholar Bahya ibn Pakuda)

There are so many more possible interpretations and insights we might find in that small, ever burning bush. It’s not a trivial thing: gaining facility in finding meaningful insights in a Torah passage transfers directly to the rest of your life. What small thing is right in front of you, full of a meeting with Eternity, and your own place in it, that you need to have?