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Friday, January 21, 2011


Last year, about this time, I gave a dvar torah at synagogue (I believe it was a combined Migwan and Ofek service, if I am not mistaken), in German. I got around to translating it recently, so I thought I'd post it now, since it's once again time for the Torah portion "Jethro", Exodus 18:1-20:23.

A "dvar torah" is an interesting form -- something along the same lines as a sermon, but generally with a heavier emphasis on textual analysis than exhortation. Anyway, here you go -- panic and terror, a trembling mountain, a nervous and terrible God, a mellow and helpful father-in-law: four surprises hidden in the Torah Portion "Jethro"...

Dvar Torah - Parascha Jethro 2/6/10

Oliver asked me to deliver a Dvar Torah this morning, which I am very happy to do. I come to the text as an author myself, and as a postmodern believer. That means that I am interested in how the Parasha functions as a story --in its characters and the plot. And it also means that I am prepared to believe that, as it were, God wants to say something to me, today, with this text -- perhaps something totally different than what it meant for its original readers and listeners.

So, I read the Torah portion again, and I found four surprises.

The first surprise is that the Torah Portion is called "Jethro" in the first place. This is, after all, the Torah Portion in which the Law is given. The People Israel hears the Ten Commandments in God's own voice at Mount Sinai. Why is the title of this Parasha the name of a non-Jewish Arab guy?

Now, of course, Parashot don't have titles in the modern sense. They are just denoted by the first word of the portion. But the proto-rabbis who divided the Torah into parashot (possibly as early as the Babylonian exile) did have some choice in the matter. Someone decided to begin the Parasha of the Giving of the Law with the rather mellow visit of Moses's father-in-law. That's an interesting choice.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead they'd attached Jethro's visit to Parasha Beshalach. Then today's Parasha would be called "Bachodesh", and it would begin like this: "In the third month after the Exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel came in those days into the desert of Sinai." The arrival at Sinai: dramatic! And then God comes and says "I have carried you on the wings of eagles" and "you will be a holy people to me" and "stand ready for the third day". And then the Revelation -- "the whole mountain shook, and the sound like trumpets grew and grew." And then the Giving of the Law.

That would be powerful, awe-inspiring, right? Awe and majesty... and, frankly, panic. Because there's a whole heck of a lot of panic in chapters 19 and 20. "The whole people were terrified". "Don't let God talk to us," they say, "or we will die."

Even God -- here comes the second surprise -- even God is nervous. God says several times to Moses, that the people should not "break through." And then, later, God says, "And the priests, who come before the Lord, the must purify themselves, so that the Lord does not destroy them."

That's interesting, right? Not "otherwise I will destroy them." It sort of sounds like God is not sure of being able to keep these destructive energies under control. God is also apparently sufficiently nervous as to forget the earlier Divine instructions to Moses. Moses responds: "The people can't climb up onto Mount Sinai; You commanded us, make a fence around the mountain and consecrate it." God answers, basically, "Oh! Oh, right, okay, right, no priests, right, I did say that -- okay then, just you and Aaron!"

Now of course we know, nowadays -- after two thousand years of the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Judaism -- that God can't be nervous. God can't have difficulties with self-control. God is, after all, this bodiless, endless, unchanging First Cause. God can't forget something on account of being nervous. We know this from Aristotle.

The original authors of the Torah, however, hadn't read Aristotle. The divine was, for them, not something benign and predictable like a mathematical formula. Divinity was terrifying; panic and mortal fear were appropriate reactions to the divine. Even God is afraid of God.

So anyway, this would be a very dramatic Torah portion -- our imaginary "Bachodesh", which would start with chapter 19. Arrival at Sinai -- tension mounts -- terror, panic, the Giving of the Law.

So why start with Jethro?

In chapter 18, Jethro comes to visit Moses, congratulates him on the successful escape from Egypt, sacrifices a burnt offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about his legal system. Now here's the third surprise: as Jethro reorganizes the courts, Moses never asks God. Jethro brings reasons; he convinces Moses on rational grounds. Moses says, "the people come to me, in order to ask God advice." But Jethro says, find yourself judges, who can handle all the small stuff. Otherwise, you're going to get burned out. Jethro says, in effect: you can't -- and you don't have to -- ask God everything.

And "Moses did all that he said." He doesn't ask God permission. There is a dramatic difference in tone and mood between chapters 18 and 19.

Fourth surprise: when does this encounter with Jethro take place? Is it really before the revelation? First a quick consultation with the father-in-law, and then over to the holy mountain for the Giving of the Law?

Actually no. At the beginning of chapter 19, they "arrived in those days in the desert of Sinai... and camped in the desert at the foot of the mountain. And Moses ascended to God." But back in chapter 18 it says that Jethro, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer came to Moses "in the desert, at the mountain of God, where they had encamped."

They are there at Mount Sinai. Chapter 18 and chapter 19 take place simultaneously. The reasonable, pragmatic visit with Jethro, where he says "hey, we don't have to ask God everything, let's just decide ourselves", and the terrifying wedding day between God and the people Israel, at the quaking mountain, where everyone is panicking about uncontrollable divine power. Simultaneously.

So why is this Torah portion called "Jethro"?

I can imagine that it's no accident. Perhaps this juxtaposition is meant to point towards a certain balance. There is the awesome majesty of God -- the majesty of a Universe too huge and powerful, for our primitive human thinking ever to encompass. And then there's human logic, human reason. Simultaneously. God does not fit in our comfortable logic. And nonetheless we must decide ourselves, with our human reason. As Jethro says, you can't keep asking God everything. Shabbat Shalom.

Posted by benrosen at January 21, 2011 11:42 AM | Up to blog

Thanks for this--I enjoyed it.


Posted by: Vardibidian at January 21, 2011 02:01 PM

This is brilliant Ben. I learned a lot. Thanks.

Posted by: dmr at January 25, 2011 12:12 AM
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