Drash on Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
What do we do when we hear something “big” is going to happen? Do we feel excited? Curious? Anxious? Fearful? Do we run towards it? Observe it or participate in it? Do we run from it? Do we ignore it and stay where we are? Do we question the news and try to gain greater understanding and clarity before deciding what to do? Do we question the news and try to gain greater understanding and clarity before deciding what to do?
What do we do when we hear about something – both good and bad - that has already happened? Do we focus on the good or the bad? Do we question the source or content of the information before we believe what we’ve heard? Do we reserve judgement, rejoice, or lament the news? Are we indifferent or numb to the news either way?
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk made an interesting observation on the first verse of this week’s parsha. He noted that while the other nations “trembled” and ran away from G-d upon hearing what G-d did for Moses and the Israelites (i.e., bringing them out of Egypt), Yitro, a Midianite priest, and Moses’ father-in-law drew closer to G-d. The other nations focused on the devastation of the plagues, most likely fearing what might happen to them, thus chose to run away. Yitro, in contrast, focused on the miracles or the survival, perhaps awestruck or curious why the Israelites were spared, thus, chose to bring himself closer both to the G-d behind the miracles and the people for whom they were bestowed.
This small yet powerful and insightful verse provides us the lens in which we are guided to understand the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot(the 10 Commandments) at Mt. Sinai. We are reminded to direct our attention to that which draws us closer to G-d and our people. While it is so much easier to focus on that which would cause us to turn our backs and run away, Yitro models thinking and behaviour that piques our curiosity and focuses on the positive.
We could easily turn our back on our tradition thinking it’s too much effort for little reward, or focus on all the punishment if we do not observe the mitzvot, thus running away out of fear of reward or punishment. Alternatively, we could ask ourselves, what about our people, the Torah, our relationship with G-d that has enabled our tradition to endure for centuries? Where can I find meaning in our Jewish tradition, in our sacred texts? How can I strengthen the chain of tradition, challenge that which I find confronting, irrelevant, or even reprehensible, and still be standing at Sinai… still be receiving Torah that shakes me to my core or rings true in every fibre of my being? Or, for some of us, how can I stand at the boundary of the mountain, trying to make sense of the words and experiences in a way that works differently for me than for my neighbour.
Yitro shows us that the way we think about an experience, the way we hear the news that has past or is yet to come, the way we perceive information influences how we feel and act. This is true in every aspect of our lives. So, if we’re feeling anxious, sad, excited, or content, when another person feels differently about a similar situation, we can ask ourselves, “How did I perceive what I heard or experienced?” If we think about the situation differently, will it change the way we feel and, then, the choices we make.
This week, as we read the Aseret Hadibrot, it is good to ask ourselves, “How do we perceive these words? How do we think about our Jewish tradition?” Is it something for others to do? Something that is historical and, thus, no longer relevant? Does it contain nice stories for when we have time to listen? Does it contain important values that can ground and guide us in our lives today? Is our Torah, our Jewish teachings, outdated and relegated only to memories, or vibrant and eternally life-giving?
If we think about our tradition as outdated, there is no need to study, engage and engage in their teachings. However, if we think about our tradition as vibrant and eternally life-giving, we might want to jump in and get a taste of what it has to give. So, perhaps, we can learn from Yitro - consider how we hear and think about our Torah, our Jewish tradition, indulge our curiosity, chose to come closer, and see what it can offer us.
I look forward to seeing you over Shabbat.