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At the Confluence of Releasing & Receiving

At the Confluence of Releasing & Receiving

As I share Torah today, the sun is streaming through my windows, and a slightly open window brings a gentle breeze that belies the presence of winter. There is something palpably hopeful about sunlight and the promise of spring. (This, despite the very real concerns about warm days in winter months, and the dire impacts of climate crises on places and people who need winter’s snow and cold to sustain life.) Last week, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat ~ the New Year of the Trees. We talked about the sap beginning to rise in the trees at this pre-Springtime moment. The 15th of Sh’vat (biblically, a tithing holiday and determining the age of a tree for purpose of harvesting its fruit) is one of our full moon holy days. I find great pleasure in observing this New Year which focuses on trees and their fruits and nuts. We peel, crack, taste, and savor these gifts of the trees. The mystics (Kabbalists), who inspire our modern seders for this holiday, draw our attention to the outer and inner substances of each type of fruit and the ways in which we receive and reflect the trees.  

In addition to Shabbat’s weekly sanctuary in time* and Rosh Chodesh’s regular heralding of the new month, each additional Jewish holiday offers an important marker in time. Each celebration is designed to draw our attention to where we are situated in the seasons, climate, and ecological concerns of the Land and the region in which our story began. As we plan for the upcoming holidays of Purim, Pesach/Passover, and Shavuot, I look forward to exploring each in the context of our relationship with the Land/Earth.

And speaking of Shavuot, this was once a celebration of the wheat harvest and pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Then the rabbinic sages of Yavneh re-invented Shavuot upon the destruction of the Temple and our dispersion from the Land. A  huge paradigm shift was required for a People whose practice was formerly so tied to land-based rituals, and the sages chose to make Shavuot about the receiving of Torah.  This week’s Torah portion includes the rich and dramatic story we read again on Shavuot as we celebrate the receiving of the Aseret ha’Dibrot/Ten Utterances we know as “The Ten Commandments,” or the Decalogue. If you are looking for a real page-turner this weekend, read Torah! Here’s a teaser from Shemot/Exodus 19: 18-20:

 “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for יהוה had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. יהוה came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and יהוה called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up…”

However, skipping to “the Big Ten” means missing the beauty of the opening story of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro. It begins with Yitro having heard about what God has done for the Israelites (parting the Sea of Reeds and providing manna in the desert are pretty newsworthy!). 

Yitro is Moshe’s wife’s father (chotein/חתן in Hebrew which is the same root as chatan/groom), a degree of relationship we call “father-in-law.” This relationship is mentioned 13 times in the 27 verses of Chapter 18, which suggests, even to the most casual reader, that it is important to note. Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is the father of Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife. Not an Israelite but a Midianite. This is an intermarriage. Tzipporah and her children (and Moshe’s children too) have been in Midian with Yitro while Moshe has been dealing with the extreme business of the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian bondage. Now, Yitro is intent on reuniting the family and brings Tzipporah and her sons to Moshe who is encamped with the Israelites and the mixed multitudes who came out of Egypt with them.  It is interesting to note that so much attention is paid to these relationships in a part of Torah where the “main event” certainly seems to be the story that will become a central narrative of our People ~ the receiving of Torah at Har Sinai and the Ten Utterances that will become the core principles of not just Jewish ethics but also the bedrock of Christianity and, even in our increasingly secular age, an enormous influence on Western morality.**

Torah tells us that Yitro brings Tzipporah and “her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, ‘I have been a stranger in a foreign land’; and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, ‘The God of my father’s [house] was my help, delivering me from the sword of Pharaoh.'” (Shemot/Exodus 18:3-4). (These names are poignant and thoughtful and deserving of their own d’var Torah.)

In addition to this family reunion, the other notable lesson of the first chapter of Parashat Yitro is that Moshe listens to the advice of his father-in-law and appoints judges who will help him to govern the Israelites. This demonstrates both the deep respect that Moshe has for Yitro, a Midianite, and the deep humility of Moshe, who, after all, was called by God from a burning bush, stood up to Pharaoh through ten plagues to advocate for freedom, and then has led the Israelites out of bondage and through the Sea of Reeds! When he meets Yitro, he bows low and kisses him and they sit down for a long conversation about what Moshe has experienced with God and the hardships of leadership. It isn’t difficult to imagine such a conversation with a trusted guide. With the release of some of his worries and the thoughtful delegation of some of his responsibilities, we can imagine that Moshe is refreshed and has the energy he needs to move forward in his holy work.

When I think about receiving Torah, I imagine a receiving that continues to unfolding from the mystical experience described in this parasha about the conditions at the foot of Har Sinai. This receiving continues through the generations of sagacious and ordinary conversations about how we are to behave in right relationship with one another, with ourselves, with all who dwell on Earth, with the Earth itself, and with the Sacred Source. 

I have been doing some study in preparation for a course I will be offering for students who have approached me recently with great  enthusiasm about either becoming Jews or learning more about how to do Jewish. I am always so honored to be asked to serve in this capacity and am so grateful for the wonder and thirst of these students that matches and occasionally even exceeds my own. In a time of increasing lack of enthusiasm for religion and a record number of “nones” in research polls of Americans, it is a great gift for a rabbi to be asked to teach someone how to be and do Jewish. At a time when we are divided in so many ways, it is essential to remember that we have particularities in the ways that we approach the One. It is also important to remember that we interpret the wisdom of the ages that we draw from the deep well of Judaism in an infinite variety of ways.  Moshe Rabbeinu, our great teacher and leader, was guided by both his Midianite father-in-law and by God, as well as many others along his journey. So too, must we be open to wisdom where we find it. Our People left Egypt and stood at Har Sinai to receive the Divine Utterances as a mixed multitude. And as a mixed multitude we experience our greatest capacity to listen, hear, see, feel, and receive. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jessica

*Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously crafted of this language, describing Shabbat as “a sanctuary in time.”
**this sentence is drawn from an article by Leon Kass that I read, in part, this week and appears in Mosaic Magazine, and online publication.

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