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. 

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Shabbat Yitro: What does the Voice of G-d Sound Like?

This week parashat Yitro calls us to stand once again at the foot of a mountain as a people, brought together not by lines of descent but by a willingness to go forward, to cross over, to live with uncertainty in the hope of reaching a vision.

One of the most compelling uncertainties of Jewish religious tradition centers on G-d. It begins when Moshe asks, “how shall I say when I am asked how I was sent?” and receives the reply: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “What Will Be is What Will Be”. As if we were children asking to know what will happen when we grow up, all Moshe is told is that Time Will Tell. It has been noted already by Rabbinic scholars and interpreters that this is not a name. It may be, rather, a way to describe Eternity – all time and all space, All, Here, Now.

And what did it sound like, to hear a voice one might – during or afterward – attribute to G-d? Coming out of a bush, of all things? According to our parashah this week, G-d spoke:

Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the foot of the mount. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G-d descended upon it in fire; and smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled violently. When the voice of the shofar grew louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice.  (Exodus 19.17-19)

What does that mean, “by a voice”? what did our ancestors hear? what are we, by extension and by tradition, called upon to hear?

It is useful to compare another fascinating story of that mountain, preserved in our sources, that happened at another time:

[The Prophet Elijah traveled] forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mountain of G-d. And he found a cave, and hid there; and, there, the word of G-d came to him, saying to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ …. G-d said: ‘Go forth [from the cave], and stand upon the mountain before G-d.’ And, behold, G-d passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19.8-12)

According to our Jewish intuition, developed over millennia, the sound of G-d’s voice is not a great and thunderous, frightening, obvious sound. The phrase “by a voice” in the Sinai story hints to us that hearing G-d is not necessarily the sound of a voice, although it might be “a still, small voice.”

G-d’s voice might also come to us as a realization of something true for our lives; or as an invocation of something real when we find ourselves standing before it; or as a realization, after the fact, that we were in a place of connection to a sense of something greater than our own individual small selves.

What was, is, and will be.

Such an awareness comes to us in small moments, but the impact is earth-shattering. That still, small, certain voice says that you are an essential part of all that is, carry within you the potential of all that will be, and are a necessary, cherished part of what will be remembered. You are part of us, and of All That Is, Always.

On this Shabbat may you hear what you need to hear, and may the source of that hearing delight and unsettle you with a new awareness of the places where truth resides.