Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Yitro 5774

Parashat Yitro
Cantor Gershon Silins
17 January 2013

Yitro, this week’s portion, is famously the location of the first statement of the Ten Commandments (there’s another in Deuteronomy). In a sense, it is the fulcrum of Jewish history in biblical times. Before this portion, the relationship between God and humanity was personal and familial. At this moment in Jewish (and world) history, a framework is imposed on this relationship, and the relationship between God and humanity is restructured as communal commandment and obedience – God commands the community (through Moses) and people (generally) obey. While at this point, and for long after, membership in the Jewish people will continue to be a crucial part of the relationship to the divine, it now begins to be possible to relate to God principally through obedience to God’s commands, and that relationship is now becoming, at least in theory, open to the larger community, not just the immediate family of the Patriarchs. Not coincidental to this development is the presence of Yitro himself in this portion, and for similar reasons. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, is not a member of the Children of Israel, he’s a priest of Midian. But his suggestions to Moses meet with God’s approval and become part of the structure of society – moving the encounter with God away from the experiential and revelatory and towards the institutional. From now on, people who never had direct communication with God will mediate the community’s encounter with the divine. In order to settle the disputes among the people (disputes that up to now, Moses alone has been settling, apparently based on his continual direct connection with God,) Yitro recommends that there be representatives appointed to respond to the community’s need for guidance. These representatives will have to rely on themselves – their sensitivity and their sensibility – and in doing so, they will become interpreters of divinity into some persuasive language that the community will understand and respect.

We can see several other threads beginning to be woven here as well. It is manifest in today’s reading that the God to whom we relate is one who changes, that occupies historical moments in time, and expects us to change as well. Yitro makes a suggestion that is apparently outside of the experience of either Moses or God, and God agrees, thereby causing a radical change in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Traditional texts tell us that our lives are a mere handbreadth in comparison to God’s. But the covenantal relationship demonstrates that while our life’s work may be insignificant in comparison to God’s, it is not insignificant to God. Divinity in the Torah is not unchanging; the biblical God is not the God of philosophy. There is no divine perfection or omniscience here, nor is there a concomitant divine changelessness or timelessness. Whether or not there might be a philosophically satisfying god, one that is whole, perfect, complete and unchanging, that is not the God that we meet here. Therefore, it is a reasonable question (and one that must be asked in every generation): what is the relationship of people today, post-modern as we are, to this evolving God? I recently heard comedian and commentator Bill Maher saying on a TV broadcast that the only assertions he takes seriously are evidence-based ones. That sort of simple materialism, which says that only science can give us useful information about the world, is fine where it works, but it works by excluding everything that has a non-scientific reality. And non-scientific reality is what we encounter every day in the most important parts of our lives: human love, our relationship with animals that are pets and with animals that we eat, all forms of art, creativity, talent, humour – and that’s just a start, a taste of the non-scientific elements that make up the most meaningful aspects our lives. On that list also is the loyalty and faithfulness we feel to the commitments of our ancestors and the world they created. Everyone has parents, but I don’t feel the same about yours as I do about mine, and so it is with our heritage. There are many traditions, but this one is ours, to accept, reject, struggle with, define, redefine, and, for better or for worse, to be defined by.

The connection between this week’s portion and what we seek in our own day is that it provides some kind of glimpse of the meaning and purpose promised to our ancestors. That glimpse isn’t always comforting – even at its most direct, the relationship our ancestors had with God was troubled, troubling, and often had consequences of suffering and death – but this is our inheritance, and it is where we must begin. But the next step that we cannot help but take is one that accepts the reality and significance of our lives, and the ways in which humanity has developed and changed since biblical times.· We are members of an ancient community that we honour, but we are not defined solely by its values. We have become critical thinkers, and we cannot and must not see the world the way our ancestors did. And that is the path towards crafting a relationship with what is most sacred in our lives, a relationship that continues to evolve, but which can provide meaning and purpose in our lives as we encounter those elements of our world that we cannot easily define but which we know are sacred.