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Parashat Yitro

February 10, 2023
19 Sh'vat 5783
Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

Dear Friends,

Each time we engage with familiar texts, we are not the same people that we were the last time we engaged with that text. Our position via that text shifts and suddenly we see things we have never seen before and gain insights into the text and into ourselves. 

This was certainly my experience when I revisited Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 -20: 23).  This Torah portion presents us with the juxtaposition of two seemingly opposing scenarios: an essentially intimate family moment and a transformative moment for the entire nation of Israel. 

The parsha opens with Yitro bringing his daughter and grandsons to Moshe, their husband and father. While visiting his-son-law, he observes him at work, sees a way to make his life easier and tells Moshe just how to do it. His advice is well received by Moshe, and then Yitro leaves. This is an intimate family moment with implications for the community. 

We then quickly move to the preparation for and the receiving of the Ten Commandments. This is as a community moment with deep personal implications for all who are present.  We have family life and community life pushing against one another. How do these two moments inform each other? Why are they in the same parsha? First we have a father-in-law facilitating a family reunion, giving advice, and leaving. Then we have God revealing God’s self to the people with the Ten Commandments. If we look closer, we begin to see the harmony that emerges from these disparate experiences.

How does the family interlude at the beginning of the Torah portion inform our understanding of the rest of the Torah portion? Many of us find ourselves trying to balance numerous elements in our lives. There is, in that balancing act, the public and the private self. Yitro was the leader of his people; he had learned a few things about leadership and family over the course of his lifetime. He understood that delegating was key to survival. A leader cannot do what needs to be done alone. In truth, none of us can do what needs to be done in the public sphere of our lives without the help of others. Not even Moshe could do it alone.

One of the key sections in this Torah portion occurs right before the revelation at Sinai with the Divine speaking to Moshe: “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’" (Exodus 19:4-6)

We are told that each of us has the capacity to lead and to have a voice. It is how we live in the public sphere. The challenge before us is the one of creating balance between those two spheres. How do we keep ourselves grounded? How do the people we care about most give us the strength to do the things we care about in that more public space?

On a personal level, there are many blessings in my private life, my family and friends made along the way in the course of a lifetime. At the same time, I am blessed to lead and teach within this amazing and loving community, as well my larger community commitments. These two elements are not always in perfect balance. Striving for that balance can sometimes be quite challenging.

This Torah portion teaches all of us that this not our journey alone. We are traveling together, each with our own gifts, insights, and talents. Maybe Yitro was trying to teach Moshe that, as he was preparing to take on his most awesome role as mediator between God and the people, he was not totally alone and that there were areas in his life where others could share the burden. He taught him that there were those who had an intimate relationship with him and who cared about him. Maybe we see Moshe’s understanding of the importance of those relationships when he later comes to the defense of his siblings.  His father-in-law paid attention to Moshe, saw what he was doing, and helped him understand that the burden was not his alone to carry. So, when we come to Sinai, we are reminded we are not fully in charge; we are part of something greater. Iin order to accomplish anything, whether it be the private sphere or the public sphere, we do so much better when we reach out to others and invite them to join us on the journey. If Moshe did not have to do it alone, why do we?

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784