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Parashat Yitro 5780 — 02/15/2020

Shemot 18:1-20:23
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

There are different levels of serving Gd. Or haChaim identifies three levels:

  1. Serving Gd (observing the mitzvot) because of fear of punishment (yirat ha’onesh)
  2. Serving Gd out of awe of Gd’s majesty (yirat haromemut)
  3. Serving Gd out of love of Gd (ahavat Hashem)

Note that the first two are both called yirah / “fear” or “awe.” It is clear that in the first case “fear” is the better translation while “awe” fits the second better. Anybody who has been around a very great or powerful person can readily understand the relationship between awe and fear. The Hebrew word shares a root with the verb “to see,” and both fear and awe come from a clear vision, in the former case of the consequences of any action, and in the latter case of Gd’s exaltedness.

Now these levels certainly run from a lower spiritual state (even a dog will learn to avoid certain behaviors if he’s beaten after performing them) to a higher one (completely disinterested compliance). It is generally considered that one proceeds from one level to the next, the lower ones dropping off in the face of the more exalted ones. Or haChaim points out that that is neither true, nor desirable. The verse under discussion is: So shall you say to the House of Ya’akov and tell the Children of Israel (19.3):

The word say [tomar, from the root aleph-mem-reish] is taken to have the connotation of gentle speech, while tell [tagid, from the root gimel-yod-dalet] is taken to connote harsher, blunter speech.
Now, our Sages, of blessed memory explained as follows: the “House of Yaakov” refers to the women, to whom [Moshe] was to speak in soft language; the “Children of Israel” refers to the men, and to them he had to speak more strongly, discussing matters as harsh as bitter herbs [gidin, like tagid]. However, this is difficult to understand, for we do not find that Hashem’s words contained two different messages, a gentle one for the women and a harsh one for the men, but rather, we find only one passage, to be conveyed to all [the Jewish people] together, men and women. …
In truth, the meaning of Hashem’s words is understood in the following manner, which I will preface with this introduction:
We have a concept that is drawn from throughout the Torah, that all the Attributes of the Master, Gd of Israel, whether strict or merciful, are intended to benefit His creations. … It is for this reason that [Hashem] in His wisdom devises ways to increase our reward and our benefit in performing his mitzvos, for that is what Hashem wants above all.
Now, we find that [Hashem] revealed in the Torah that someone who fulfills Hashem’s Torah and His mitzvos because of fear of punishment [i.e., yirah] receives only half the reward of someone who acts out of love for Hashem [i.e., ahavas Hashem]. [Or haChaim brings a proof from a pair of verses, one promising reward to “a thousand generations” and the other to “thousands of generations,” which means at least two thousand. The former is for those who follow Gd’s Will out of fear, the latter for those who follow Gd’s Will out of love.]
[There is, however, a disadvantage in serving Hashem solely out of love:]
Now, in the category of serving Hashem out of love, there exists the possibility that [the love] could lead to wickedness, because [love of Hashem] is not enough to keep a person constantly on guard to avoid a random, one-time sin. To the contrary, [this person] might say to himself that because of his closeness to the Creator and Hashem’s affection for him, He will not be strict with him for this one sin, as is the normal custom among people, where a person will overlook a minor infraction committed by someone near and dear to him. One who serves Hashem out of love can sometimes make the mistake of thinking that Hashem does the same.
The reason Moshe did not tremble to say these things [e.g. You didn’t rescue your people! at the end of parashat Shemot] was that since he had been brought so very close to Hashem, his fear was cooled somewhat, and because of Hashem’s great love for him, he allowed himself to speak this way, for it is obvious that another person who was not as close to Hashem would have been beset by fear and terror when communicating with Hashem, and therefore would never have spoken to Him in this manner. This same pitfall awaits anyone who serves Hashem only out of love, whose love is not counterbalanced by fear of punishment.

I believe that the traits of serving Gd out of fear vs. serving Gd out of love mirror Gd’s Attributes of Strict Justice (midat haDin) vs. Kindness (midat haChesed). These two fundamental attributes in turn represent the fundamental poles of creation – the finite and the infinite. Thus it seems that the two ways we, as finite creatures, have to relate to the infinite Gd mirror some of the most fundamental structures of creation.

Our Sages tell us that Gd created by contracting Himself, as it were, to create a space for the finite, objective creation. This can be likened to the collapse of the infinite to a point, for anything finite is nothing but a dimensionless point compared to the infinite. With this contraction the infinite becomes bounded, finite, while not losing its unchanging status as infinity. This virtual duality sets up a flow of energy and intelligence from the infinite into the finite. This flow is a manifestation of Chesed / Kindness – it is Gd’s gift to the world, sustaining it and causing it to grow and progress.

According to the Kabbalists of 16th century Tzfat however, this flow of Chesed was too much for the finite “vessels” to contain, so they “broke.” The vessels, that is, creation, was damaged by the overwhelming flow of Divine energy, and the energy got broken into pieces and trapped in the broken pieces of the vessels. The answer to the brokenness of the world is not to have no boundaries – that would mean the dissolution of creation. Rather, what is needed is stronger boundaries that can contain the incredible power of the Divine effulgence. This does not mean rigid boundaries, but ones that can be infinitely flexible without breaking.

Now we can see the need for the Attribute of Strict Justice and the need for yirat Hashem in the scheme of creation. Without the Attribute of Strict Justice all we would have is Divine Energy flooding everywhere, with nothing to channel it into anything productive. The boundaries give form to the formless, structure to the primordial chaos. In terms of physics, it is symmetry breaking, not symmetry itself, that gives us the differentiation into different types of particles that is necessary in order to give rise to atoms, molecules, stars, planets, and eventually, at least on one planet, life.

In the realm of humans’ interaction with Gd, Or haChaim points out that if all our interactions are based solely on love of Gd, then there is the possibility of getting too close, too familiar, with Divine, to the point that the proper boundaries are transgressed. At this point Gd “breaks through” against the transgressor (this expression is used in the preparation for the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, when Moshe is told to prepare appropriate boundaries to keep Gd and the people separate), and the transgressor “breaks” like the “vessels.” We want to draw as close to Gd as possible, but we must recognize that if we draw too close our individuality will be completely swallowed up by Gd’s universality, leaving nobody to enjoy the closeness. It is awe of Gd’s greatness and our own instinct to protect ourselves that keeps enough of a boundary between ourselves and Gd that we can survive the encounter. Sometimes the sun is so bright one needs to wear dark glasses.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Yitro

Yitro, the name of Moses’ father-in-law, means “abundance, plenty.”  Supremely Abundant and Plentiful is Gd. So this parshah’s name suggests that even as human beings we can rise to the level of Oneness with Gd, the level of Oneness in which the duality between Gd and us exists as a play, some fun in which our individualities learn to live in harmony with the Supreme in the field of duality.

Yitro was priest of the Midianites.  Midian was a son of Abraham and Keturah and his name is commonly translated as “strife, contention.”  What kind parents would give their son such a name? Just as “Yisroel” (Israel) is usually translated as “wrestled with Gd” or “prevailed over Gd” and yet it is more real to translate it as “embraced Gd,” “united with Gd” so it is better to translate “Midian” as “evaluate, judge.”

This meaning is especially apt because in this parshah, Yitro, hearing the news of Gd’s triumph over Egypt (Mitzraim, “Restrictions”) evaluates this victory, declares that the Gd of Israel is Supreme, and begins to worship Him. Using his evaluating ability he recommends to Moses that he not tire himself by acting as judge in all cases brought to him but that he appoint a hierarchy of judges who can evaluate the less complicated cases and only those which require the full attention of Moses’ Consciousness, need be brought to him. Then Moses can “make known Gd’s statutes and teachings.”

This sets up the central portion of Torah, the Divine Situation in which Gd Himself makes known His Primary Teachings and not only Moses but all our ancestors get a view of Gd and hear His Voice. Gd has prepared Moses for this Blessing, but not the other Children of Israel. So they are frightened and say to Moses (paraphrasing) “You speak to us; if Gd speaks, we will die.”

They say this after Gd appears to them as Fire, and they hear His Voice as He gives out the fundamental principles of our faith (actually, of any moral life) what are commonly called the “Ten Commandments” but which literally mean “the ten words” or “the ten sayings.”  Moses responds” “Fear not for Gd has come to exalt you in order that His Awe shall be on your faces and you shall not sin.”

Nonetheless, the people remain away from the mountain, as Gd commanded, while Moses approaches and Gd tell Moses what further to say to the people. Since the purpose of life is to return to the Primordial Oneness in which the separation between individual and Gd does not exist, we must find some way that we can experience Gd without being afraid and then to dissolve the separation, to not stand in the way when Gd dissolves the separation, between us.

The Ten Sayings can be looked at as descriptions of how we live when we are in harmony with Gd and when Oneness dominates in our awareness; they can also be looked at as guides to behavior so that we rise to the level in which the Harmony is Full and the separation dissolves, both from our side and from Gd’s. This is the level when all our behavior is fully an expression of Oneness and even though we appear to each other’s senses as limited individuals, with limited physiologies, in reality we are Totality, All-in-All, Oneness behaving as finite individuals while remaining All.

Just our simple, innocent, decent lives raise us in this direction, return us little by little and in a way, a lot by a lot, to Love, Joy, Wholeness, Oneness.

Baruch HaShem