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Parashat Yitro 5779 — 01/26/2019

Parashat Yitro 5779 — 01/26/2019

Shemot 18:1-20:23
The centerpiece of Parashat Yitro is of course the revelation at Mt. Sinai. R. Goldin asks, inter alia, why the parashah includes such seemingly irrelevant details as the story of Yitro’s visit to Moshe Rabbeinu, and puts it squarely in with the story of the Revelation. Why is the Torah unclear on whether Yitro stays with the Jewish people or not? In fact, why isn’t Torah explicit whether Yitro came before or after the Revelation, and whether or not he personally experienced it? R. Goldin writes:
Answers to these questions may well lie in two basic truths concerning Revelation which will be discussed in greater depth elsewhere:

  1. Revelation is not a one-time event but an ongoing phenomenon. The Torah is received anew in each generation through study, observance and halachic application.
  2. Revelation unfolds not only in communal but in individual, personal terms. At the foot of Mount Sinai, each individual struggled with his own commitment to God’s newly given law. Similarly, in each generation, as the Jewish nation renews its commitment to Torah, every individual struggles to determine his or her relationship with that law.

I want to consider these two points to see if we can get a better understanding of what Revelation is. The Revelation at Mt. Sinai was certainly a unique historical event, designed to impress upon the nation Gd’s Existence, His Power and His ability to speak to human beings, both directly as well as through prophets. Yet it is certainly true that depending on how we choose to connect to Gd and to Torah, so Gd and Torah are revealed to us, this is true on both an individual and a national level.

We believe that Gd is infinite, unbounded, eternal, transcendental to the entire creation, even as He acts in the creation. The Zohar tells us that “Gd looked into Torah and created,” and that “Torah, Israel and the Holy One, Blessed is He, are one.” It follows that Torah must also be infinite, unbounded, eternal and transcendental to creation, in the same way that a blueprint is transcendental to the building it represents.

Time is a function of creation. Time comes from the sense of motion (think of a metronome, or the earth’s spinning on its axis or orbiting the sun). If there is no creation there is just silence – there are no objects and therefore there is no activity at all, no motion, just eternal, unchanging silence. Space, too, is a function of creation. Space comes from the relationship between objects – you are sitting 18″ in front of your computer screen reading this. So Gd and Torah are infinite and eternal because they are beyond the limitations of space and time altogether.

This means that Gd and Torah are available to us anywhere, at any time. However, it is obvious that it is an extremely rare individual who experiences Gd directly. Some people have moments of transcendence, perhaps on vacation or in breathtaking scenery, and these experiences certainly leave an impression, but they are quite fleeting and we soon return to our ordinary state of consciousness, our quotidian existence. Even at Mt. Sinai, the Revelation was fairly brief and yet it was so overwhelming to the people that they begged Moshe to make it stop. One Midrash even says that they died and had to be revived by a band of angels. Only Moshe was able to sustain the experience of revelation on a continuous basis. The question is, if Gd is eternal and omnipresent, why are we oblivious to Him? Is Revelation really an ongoing process?

I think the answer is both on the level of the mind/spirit and on the level of the physiology. On a spiritual level our Sages tell us that sin – action that is not in accord with Gd’s Will – creates a kind of clouding effect that damages our ability to think and to perceive. For example, eating non-kosher food causes a “blockage/stoppage of the heart” (atimut halev) that occludes our perception of spiritual realities. Someone who studies Torah or prays, and then goes out and does what he knows to be wrong, has not only obviously not internalized Torah, but he also damages his ability to internalize Torah in the future.

An example is in order. In 1969 I took my girlfriend to a concert at the Fillmore East (which was housed in a former Yiddish theater) in New York. It was loud. It was loud for several hours. When we came out onto the street (2nd Ave, near 6th St in the East Village) there was all the usual traffic noise, horns honking, people yelling – but all of this was lost on us. We walked in silence. Our ears had been overloaded to the point where they could no longer respond to incoming stimuli. (Fortunately, the damage was not permanent and after a short while we recovered our hearing.) The overload blocked our ability to perceive sound.

When we do something wrong, we are overloading our souls, so to speak, and probably overloading some subtle part of our physiology and our mechanisms of perception. This overload stays in our system, blocking our ability to see what is right in front of us – the Creator and the wonders of creation. The ongoing process of Revelation then, is not so much a process of Gd’s revealing Himself, as a process of the individual’s removing the blockages in his or her own perception, physiology, soul, so that Gd’s presence can be more and more directly felt and perceived. The process by which these blockages are removed is t’shuvah – return to Gd, return to our own pure soul.

I would like to add another point for those who have some familiarity with the Veda. Many of the traditions and understandings surrounding Veda and Torah are remarkably similar. One difference that stands out is that the Veda begins with the letter A (Vedic Sanskrit is written in the Devanagari script, not the Latin script like most of the European languages) denoting complete openness, boundlessness. The second letter is G/K (it is voiced or not depending on the context), which is a stop, complete contraction. The mechanics of creation can be located in the “collapse” of A to G/K. The Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah (the Kabbalah of R. Yitzchak Luria of Tzfat [Safed], known as the Ari, 16th century) posit that Gd “contracted Himself” (called tzimtzum in Hebrew) to “leave space” for finite creation. However, the story of creation in the Torah begins with the letter B (also not written in the Latin script). Why the discrepancy?

R. Goldin points out that the 10 “Commandments” (Aseret haDibrot = 10 Utterances / Sayings) form, according to some, a set of basic categories of commandments, and all the other 603 commandments can be subsumed under one or another of these categories. If this is the case, then in a sense, the first commandment – the commandment to know Gd (not to merely believe in Gd or intellectually assent to Gd’s existence) is the beginning of the Torah, the most fundamental commandment, for out of Gd comes the creation, as we have just noted. The first of the utterances is Anochi Hashem Elokecha – which begins with the letter A. Now the letter A (aleph) is actually a glottal stop in its original pronunciation, so the A (aleph with a vowel kamatz, pronounced “aw” in Ashkenazi pronunciation and “ah” in Sephardic) begins with a stoppage and then is completely open. The next letter is a nasal, N, so that is still different. N is the third letter of the Veda however, so the difference has certainly been reduced, if we accept the beginning of the Aseret haDibrot as a kind of “beginning” of Torah. Needless to say this whole area requires much more study and thought.

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 of 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 to us, 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