Parashat Yitro (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
After we read of God’s direct revelation to Israel of the Torah at Mount Sinai we read that God continues to communicate to them by means of Moses, their representative. This is Israel’s desire, for they have been too overwhelmed by God’s Presence to bear it for too long. So they send Moses into the space that they open between themselves and God. Thus, God will no longer be in direct contact with the people.
We can read the next developments as an effort by God to adjust to this new situation, to somehow respect and yet also to overcome the distance that has been opened by this new format. God says: “This is what you shall say to the Children of Israel: ‘You have seen that I have spoken with you from out of Heaven.’” (Ex. 20:19) In this way God seeks to continue the revelation by harking back to the first moment of intimacy that Israel enjoyed, without an intermediary. God wishes for that moment to continue to exist in our memories, hopefully persisting without the terror it induced.
Because God accepts the gap that has been opened between Her and Her people, the next words seem to be a repetition of God’s concern lest Israel fall into idolatrous worship instead of serving God. This concern was expressed in the Ten Commandments. But there are a few differences. One difference is that it is not so much idolatry that God rejects here. It is misconceived efforts to serve the true God. These mistaken efforts could be tempting precisely because of the distance that now exists between God and Israel. So God gives some guidance, in positive and negative terms, for the proper ways to serve God.
Another key change is that God makes sure to promise blessings to Israel. The way this is expressed is also done so as to recall the direct revelation at Mount Sinai. God says: “In any place in which I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.” (Ex. 20:21) The great commentator, Ibn Ezra, notices that God says that He “will come” to bless the people. This spatial movement seems unnecessary. God could have said, “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned I will bless you.”
But Ibn Ezra explains: “This is just like a human being…It is as if I came to you because I knew that you would come there, and I have come for your sake. Since you have come for My sake, I will come to you and bless you.”
This is exactly what happened at Sinai. The people came to that place in order to serve God, as God had promised. But they were there first. Then God arrived on the scene. This original rendezvous, says God, can be replicated forever. And the original terror can be turned to a blessing.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein