Friday, January 25, 2008

The Gift of Yitro

Last week, the Jews crossed the Red Sea. This week, they come to Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments. But before we get to Sinai, the storyline is interrupted. Our parsha begins with the visit of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who reunites Moshe with his family and suggests that the Jews set up a judicial system to alleviate Moshe’s workload. It is only after Yitro returns home to Midian that the parsha turns to the national preparations for the revelation at Sinai and then finally climaxes with the Ten Commandments.

The Yitro interlude is odd on several levels. First of all, we are in the middle of telling the Exodus story here – why allow visiting relatives to interrupt? (The Torah is not religious about keeping things chronological; this story could have easily been saved for later.) Moreover, why do we need a Midianite to come up with the idea of hiring judges? The Jews are a smart people; they couldn’t think of this one on their own? And if this really is such a good idea, why didn’t God tell them to do it? Lastly, why is this most important parsha named for Yitro? Is this merely coincidental? Or does it allude to something deeper?

It seems that, somehow, Sinai needed Yitro. Yitro must have contributed something that made the Ten Commandments possible, something that could not have come from anyone else besides him. Now we need to figure out what that thing was.

When Yitro arrives, he sees crowds of Jews standing in line all day waiting to receive guidance from Moshe. Yitro recognizes the inefficiency of this system and he offers Moshe some constructive criticism.

“What you are doing is not good! You are going to wear yourself out, along with the people that are with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it alone.
“Now listen to me. I will give you advice, and God will be with you. You must be God’s representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. Clarify the decrees and laws [for the people]. Show them the path they must take and the things they must do.
“But you must [also] seek out from among all the people competent, God-fearing men – men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them [over the people] as leaders… Let them administer justice for the people…”

Shemot 18:17-22

It seems simple enough. Moshe and the Jews like the idea (Devarim 1:12-14), God concurs (Shemot 17:23-24) and it’s a done deal. But this concept of judges is actually a lot more radical, and a lot more dangerous, than we imagine.

[Moshe said to the people,] “Your personal interests decided this matter for you. You should have said, ‘Our master Moshe, from whom is it preferable to learn? From you or from your student? Isn’t it [better to learn] from you, since you suffered for it?’ But I know what you were thinking. You said to yourselves, ‘Now that they’ll be appointing many judges over us, if [a judge] doesn’t favor us, we’ll give him a gift and he will favor us.’”

Sifrei 14; Rashi to Devarim 1:14

Taking the law out of Moshe’s hands creates a weakness in the system. While Moshe’s integrity is unassailable and the authenticity of his rulings is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for every judge. To ask Moshe to delegate was something no Jew would ever dare to do. It took Moshe’s father-in-law, an outsider whose reverence for Moshe did not approach those who witnessed the Exodus, to suggest the hiring of judges. The Jews went along with it; but even that was cause for rebuke.

Let’s turn now to the Ten Commandments. From a safe distance of three millennia, it is easy for us to romanticize the Revelation at Sinai. What could be more beautiful than experiencing God? However, for the Jews who were there, there was nothing romantic about it. It was terrifying and traumatic, and they begged Moshe to make it stop.

“Today we have seen that when God speaks to man, he can still survive. Now, why should we die? Why should this great fire consume us? If we hear the voice of God our Lord anymore, we will die!”

Devarim 5:21-22

The Jews desperately wanted the revelation to stop, but they were also interested in what God had to say. They came up with a plan and presented it to Moshe.

“You approach and listen to all God our Lord says. You can then tell us whatever God our Lord tells you, and when we hear it, we will do it.”

Ibid 5:24

It seems that the Jews would have heard more directly from God, but it was too much for them to take. Frightened that they would die, the Jews interrupted the transmission and asked that instead Moshe serve as their ambassador. God was not upset by this proposal; on the contrary, He seconds the plan in this communication to Moshe.

“I have heard what this nation has said to you. They have spoken well. If only their hearts would always remain this way, where they are in such awe of Me…
“Go tell them to return to their tents. You, however, must remain here with Me and I will tell you all the mitzvot, decrees and laws that you shall teach them…”

Ibid 5:25-28

The idea was a good one; in fact, it was exactly what God had intended. God wanted the Torah to be transmitted orally through Moshe, for that was to be the primary method of Torah transmission for all time. But this could not happen by divine decree; the Jews had to come up with this idea on their own.

To God’s mind, this was a primary purpose of the revelation. The Jews needed to feel the heat and experience for themselves why Torah requires humans – prophets, sages and rabbis – to serve as intermediaries. But the Jews would never have dared tell God to delegate – if not for Yitro.

Yitro introduced the radical idea that Judaism is not just about faith in God; it is about faith in man. In order for Torah and its justice system to function, trusting humans is necessary. Indeed, this is a central tenant of Judaism. Trust Jews. Our religion depends on it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Invasion of the Mind Snatcher

Everyone knows the story. Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably saw the movie. Devastating plagues, death of the first born, Jews are rushed out, etc. However, there is one question about the Exodus that few dare to ask. Did the Jews really deserve to be saved?

The Midrash is not afraid to raise this uncomfortable question and its conclusion is… no. The Jews did not deserve freedom. (Or, at least, they did not deserve the miracles necessary to get them out.) In as much as God wanted to punish their oppressors, the Jews were stuck in Egypt until they earned the right to an Exodus. In other words, the Jews were in desperate need of a few good mitzvot.

R. Masyah ben Charash said, “The verse states, ‘I (God) passed over you, and I saw you, and behold, your time was a time of loving’ (Yechezkel 16:8). The time has come for the [fulfillment of the] oath I made to Avraham to redeem his children, but they have no mitzvot to perform to be [worthy] of being redeemed! This is the meaning of the verse, ‘…and you were naked and bare’ (ibid 16:7). [You were] naked of mitzvot. [God] therefore gave them two mitzvot: the blood of the Paschal lamb (Shemot 12:7) and the blood of circumcision (Shemot 12:48)…
Mechilta Bo 5; Rashi 12:6

The Midrash is saying that the Jews got the mitzvot of the Paschal lamb and Brit Milah before they left Egypt because they needed these mitzvot in order to get out. The concept is a compelling one, but it raises two questions. First of all, what’s the deal with all the blood? And second, what is it about these mitzvot that makes the Jews worthy of freedom?

It would take a great Kabbalist to divine the full answer to our questions, but personally, I am satisfied with a very simple observation. These two mitzvot are hard. Bloody hard.

The difficulty of circumcision is self-evident, but the Paschal lamb was no picnic either. Lambs were sacred to the Egyptians. To kill one and eat it was to commit a sacrilege – and no one knew this better than Moshe himself.

After plague number four, when Egypt was attacked by hordes of wild animals, Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aaron to the palace.

“Go!” he said. “[You have permission] to sacrifice to your God here in [our] land.”
“That would not be proper,” replied Moshe. “What we will sacrifice to God our Lord is sacred to the Egyptians. Could we sacrifice the sacred animal of the Egyptians before their very eyes and not have them stone us? What we must do is make a three day journey into the desert…”

Moshe rejected the possibility of slaughtering sheep in Egypt; it was just too dangerous. But God commands the Jews to do just that!

Circumcision and slaughtering a lamb are two things that the Jews would never think of doing on their own – and that is why they are the perfect mitzvot for earning freedom. By choosing to do these mitzvot, the Jewish ex-slaves flexed their spiritual muscles, exercised their free will, and demonstrated their ability to rise above self-interest. It was this self-sacrifice for mitzvot, this allegorical blood, which made the Jews worthy of the Exodus and primed them for the covenant at Sinai.

In contrast with the heroic Jews, we have Pharaoh. Once the powerful king of the Egyptian Empire, the Pharaoh of Bo is a pathetic figure. In our parsha, we actually watch the man fade away into nothingness. Due to a series of unnatural disasters, his country is ruined and his approval rating hits rock bottom. But the situation is more frightening than that. Not only has Pharaoh lost control of his country, he has also lost control of his mind.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made his heart stubborn…”


Pharaoh may have wanted to let the Jews free, but God forced him to say no. God invaded Pharaoh’s mind and seized control of his decision making process. In effect, Pharaoh is dead. What remains is nothing more than a puppet of God.

The Egyptians fared no better. Right before the Exodus, God told the Jews to “borrow” valuables from the Egyptians.

God said to Moshe, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request from his fellow and each woman from her fellow gold and silver articles…

It’s fine to ask, but why would any Egyptian in their right mind give stuff to the escaping slaves? The answer is that they were not in their right minds.

God made the Egyptians like the [Jewish] people, and they granted their request. [The Jews] thus drained Egypt [of its wealth].

The Mind Snatcher strikes again! Just like He did to Pharaoh, God invades the minds of the Egyptians and makes them do something they really, really don’t want to do.

What is going on here? Is this God’s idea of a practical joke? Actually, right from the start, the parsha promised us an entertaining show.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn… so you can tell your children and your grandchildren how I made a laughingstock out of Egypt…”

God’s mind control games may be funny (in a slapstick kind of way), but God is quite serious here. The extraordinary power and wealth of ancient Egypt corrupted Pharaoh and his people. They allowed self-interest - the drive for cheap labor and a strong economy - to overrun basic morality. They abused their power and trampled on the human rights of the Jews. They became evil.

The Egyptians had their fun for a time, but one day, the God of Justice arrives. He devastates Egypt with ten plagues, and relieves the Egyptians of their slaves and their valuables. And then God takes away the most valuable thing of all – free will.

God is telling us something here. Our decision making process, our innate moral compass, our unique ability to choose, in short, our bloody humanness, is a divine gift. Treasure it, nurture it, exercise it and strengthen it with mitzvot. Because if you don’t, you may very well lose it.