Shabbat Yitro: Jewish Revelation – It’s Not What You Think

Long before either the People of Israel and G*d are ready, they meet at Sinai in this week’s parashah, called Yitro. This parashat hashavua recounts the ultimate Jewish moment of Revelation. This a moment that will be foreverafter enshrined in song and story and liturgy. Yet in our people’s cultural memory we find that there is no clear sense of what really happened. A close reading reveals that much is uncertain.
* Did only Moshe meet G*d, or did all the Israelites see or hear or sense Some Thing?
The Torah itself has a quality of confusion to it here; we read that the Israelites “saw the sounds” of the great crashing boom when G*d appeared at Sinai. Looking at the textual evidence, some Rabbis deduce that all the Israelites heard the actual Voice of G*d, and it blew them many miles away from Sinai. Others suggest that hearing the Voice caused our ancestors to die on the spot, so that they had to be revived by angels. Still other midrashim assert that even Moshe did not encounter G*d’s presence directly, since our holy texts declare that no person can behold G*d and live – and Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi, was described as a great leader, but was still only a human being.
* What was the artifact of that meeting – the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words), the entire Torah, or something else?
Some midrashim describe Moshe sitting and transcribing Torah, others say G*d wrote it; some seem to indicate the entire Torah, yet the Torah itself describes the two tablets of stone that Moshe brought down from the mountain. How, after all, could the narrative of Moshe’s life – and death – be included in the Torah, not to mention the forty years of wandering, before they even happened? One answer is that Moshe wrote the whole Torah except for that last part – his death – which was written by Joshua, his attendant – but another midrash insists that Moshe himself wrote it, through tears. And what do we do with the midrash that asserts that the entirety of the Torah is only the Name of G*d?
* Finally: what, if one may even ask, was the Revelatory moment like?
One way in which the Rabbis consider this question is by looking at the content of the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words that, if not the only content of the Revelation, was certainly central to it. Some of the mitzvot commanded to us, they point out, don’t really need a Revelation from the Supreme Holy Source of All. Any human community left to work it out will certainly learn that in a functional community all must abide by laws such as you shall not murder and you shall not steal. (You can see the full list according to Jewish tradition here – and yes, different religious traditions number them differently!)
  • So our ancestors didn’t need to hear all Ten Words; really, all they needed to hear were the first five, from I Am Your G*d through the fifth, honoring parents, and all the rest could be understood from them.
  • No, says another teacher, you don’t really even need the first five: all you need is to hear I Am Your G*d, conveyed in the first two, to become aware that there is a G*d, a Source and Grounding of life and its meaning, and we could work the other eight out for ourselves.
  • Ah, but did they really need even the first? Maybe, one Rabbi finally suggests, all they – and we – really need to hear is the first word of the first command…no, actually, really only the first letter of that first word.
Which is the letter alef. A letter that makes no sound at all, but is only the awareness that a sound is about to be made. The Jewish approach to revelation does not focus upon establishing the inarguably true content of the Revelation, but upon the key to being able to see that it continues everywhere, in every place. And upon this all depends: the awareness of what is, and what may yet be.
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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.