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Parashat Yitro 5773 — 01/30/2013

Parashat Yitro 5773 — 01/30/2013

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you… you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens.  They shall judge the people at all times, and they shall bring every major matter to you and every minor matter they shall judge.  If you do this thing – and Gd shall command you – then you will be able to endure… (18:17-23)

… and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered (19:16)

… the people saw and trembled and stood afar off.  They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we shall hear/understand/obey; let Gd not speak to us lest we die.”  (20:15-16)

Face to face did Hashem speak with you on the mountain, from amid the fire.  I was standing between Hashem and you at that time, to relate the word of Hashem to you – for you were afraid of the fire and you did not ascend the mountain… (Deut. 5:4-5)

Hashem heard the sound of your words when you spoke to me and Hashem said to me … they did well in all they spoke.  (Deut. 5:25)

Our portion is of course dominated by the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, when the entire nation heard the Ten Utterances (aseret hadibrot) directly from Gd.  There is another theme that actually appears twice in the Parashah, as I have indicated by the quotes above.  In both cases the people opt for a relationship with a spiritual leader who is on a lower level than the real leader: the “leaders of thousands” instead of Moshe Rabbeinu in the first case, and Moshe Rabbeinu instead of Gd in the second.  What is perhaps surprising is that our Sages criticize the people, asking: Is it better to learn from the master or from the disciple?  One must say it’s better to learn from the master!  On the other hand, Gd Himself gives His approval to their choice!  In the first case Yitro, who has suggested the arrangement, adds the caveat that “Gd shall command you,” which apparently He did, because the scheme was in fact implemented.  In the second case the approbation is more explicit – Gd tells Moshe that the people “did well in all they spoke” when they pleaded for an intermediary.

In both cases of course there were good reasons for the decisions taken.  Yitro pointed out, quite cogently, that one judge (“I judge between a man and his fellow”) and one spiritual leader (“the people come to me to seek Gd”) for 600,000 men and their families was probably not tenable long-term.  Indeed, even though, according to one traditional take on the chronology, Moshe had been doing this for only one day (“It was on the next day that Moses sat to judge the people” 18:13.  Rashi comments that this was the day after Yom Kippur, when Moses descended the mountain with Gd’s forgiveness for the golden calf incident and with the second set of tablets.), Yitro could see that everyone would be exhausted by the ordeal within a very short time.  Nevertheless, as Artscroll comments: Although Jethro’s idea was eminently sensible, it was not an unmixed blessing.  By accepting the proposal, the nation deprived itself of Moses’ personality, influence, and teaching.

The situation in our second case was much more stark.  As much as Moshe Rabbeinu might be superior to all the leaders he appointed, he was still a human being.  Gd, on the other hand, is infinite and in His essence unknowable.  A wise man once said that given our limited ability to comprehend that which is infinitely greater than ourselves, it is Gd’s mercy that He doesn’t reveal himself (referring to our day and age).  According to the Midrash, when the Israelites pleaded with Moses to be an intermediary with Gd “lest we die” if we have any more direct revelation, they weren’t exaggerating – after hearing the first two Utterances directly from Gd, they all did expire and required Divine/angelic intervention to be revived.  The lesson learned was that although they now recognized that Gd could talk with human beings who could survive the experience (Moshe Rabbeinu, and by extension, other prophets over the course of the next several centuries), the average person needed to keep his distance.  As we noted, Gd agreed with this assessment, apparently deeming it sufficient that the experience of Revelation put the “fear of Gd” (really the awe of Gd’s Majesty) in the average person, who would get the details of the revelation from the prophets.

Clearly there is a tension here between the need and desire for the individual to draw close to the Divine, and the obvious danger to the individuality of doing so.  What is the basis of this tension?  I believe that it is based in the nature of human beings as self-aware created beings.

Since we are created beings we are finite.  Our minds, our bodies, our personalities are all limited.  On the other hand we also have a soul, which is actually the deepest aspect of our being.  Our Sages describe the soul as a “piece of the Divine on High.”  That is, its essential nature is infinite.  Our philosophical tradition describes human beings as having an animal soul, which handles the work of the body, and a Divine soul, which handles our connection to the infinite.  A different way to express this is that we are our Divine soul, but it inhabits our body, or it is clothed by our body.  Since the Divine soul is infinite and part and parcel of the “Divine on High,” it has no problem approaching Gd, because it really isn’t separate from Gd to begin with.  The only issue with approaching Gd has to do with the body.

Our esoteric tradition describes the process of creation beginning with Gd’s contraction (tzimtzum) of His infinite essence to leave a “place” for finite existences to exist.  Inherent in this description is the idea that finite existences must maintain a separation from Gd in order not to be completely overshadowed by Gd’s infinity.  Just as the light of a candle is insignificant and overwhelmed by the light of the sun, so individual, finite beings are insignificant in the light of Gd’s radiance, so much so that if they approach too close to that effulgence, they can no longer maintain their integrity.  In Kabbalistic terminology this is called the “breaking of the vessels” (shevirat hakeilim) – when Gd radiated His effulgence into the “space” left by the primordial contraction, finite beings were overwhelmed and shattered.  This shattering experience is reflected in our Parashah, when Gd warns Moshe to keep the Israelites off Mt. Sinai, lest Gd “burst forth against them.”  And of course the Israelites themselves reported how shattering the experience was, even from a safe distance.

Perhaps this can give us an insight into the Sages’ criticism of the Israelites’ “settling” for learning from the disciple rather than the master.  The whole purpose of our existence, and the whole purpose of Gd’s revealing His Torah to us, is to purify ourselves so that our finite body is no longer an obstacle to our infinite Divine soul’s enjoyment of communion with Gd, the soul’s infinite source.  Our soul is already pure, as we say daily in the liturgy: My Gd, the soul which you have placed in me is pure.  We need to purify the body of its natural attachment to the pleasures of the senses, that is, the pleasures of attachment to the material world.  Gd’s Torah and its mitzvot can be viewed as a program of practicing living in a way that places attachment of the Divine soul to its Divine source over attachment of the animal soul to the physical.  This allows us to transcend and purify our physical nature so that we are no longer endangered by approaching the master.  When we reach this stage as an individual we fulfill the purpose of our existence.  When the Jewish people reaches this level, we fulfill the purpose of creation.  This is the Redemption that Gd promises us we will experience.  Our Sages tell us that Gd will speed the coming of that day if Israel merits it.  Let’s do all we can to merit it!