D’var Torah: Yitro

This week’s Torah portion is packed with a lot of things to cover. At the beginning, we see Yitro (Jethro) who this portion is named after, traveling to meet his son-in-law Moses with Moses’ with and two sons. When he gets there Jethro sits down with his son in law and talks about the miracles that God has done for the Israelites.

“Blessed is Hashem who has rescued you from the hands of Egypt and now from the hands of pharaoh. Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…”. This, from a pagan priest, and former advisor to pharaoh; the non-Jewish father in law of a Jew who married Zipporah, the daughter of a pagan high priest! But that’s a discussion for another time…

Jethro takes a sacrifice to Hashem and “casts his lot” with the Jewish people.

Then, seeing his son-in-law struggling with the burden of leading a nation practically by himself, he suggests appointing a series of judges which, essentially, makes Moses into the equivalent of the supreme court. Anything that can’t be handled by everyone else, after a succession of judges, is dealt with by him. And then, he leaves. Right before the really big stuff happens.

On the sixth day of the third month, seven weeks after the Exodus, Hashem tells Moses to gather the entire nation at the foot of Mt Sinai. G-d says he will descend on the mountain amidst thunder, lightning, billows of smoke and the blast of the shofar, and He will speak, so that “the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after”.

Moses came down, told everyone to stay pure and to not stray across the boundary at the foot of the mountain, or they will die.

God descends and Moses goes up to meet him and God is going to give the Israelites the Ten Commandments, but before Hashem will speak with the Israelites, he says to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to Hashem to gaze, lest many of them perish”. Moses tells God, “They can’t come up the mountain because you told me to make a barrier and to tell them that they’ll die if they do”. God says again, “Yes, I know that! But go down there anyway and tell them again!”

This really stood out to me during Torah study this week. God sounds a lot like I do when I talk to my three year old, “You can’t go over there…Don’t go over there…I said don’t go over there! If yo go over there you’re gonna get a potch on your tuchiss! ” My goal isn’t to punish her, though she may think that it is. My  goal is to make sure she is safe, because she has her whole life ahead of her.

Think about it this way, if someone told you God was on this hill across the street, for real, but you can’t go over there, you have to stay right here. I can go over there and talk to God but you have to stay here. Would you stay away? I know I would have a hard time with that!

We are told in the commentary that God repeatedly warns the Israelites to stay away for the same reason. The Or HaChaim says “ God knew that the people might disregard the threat of death in their zeal to come closer to the source of the Revelation. If the purpose of life is to elevate oneself to a higher spiritual existence, then one could be ready to give his life to achieve such a goal. But God does not want this. He wants human beings to remain alive and bring holiness into their earthly existence”. Wow!

We are being told quite plainly here that spiritual elevation is not the sole purpose of our lives! God doesn’t want that. God wants us to make the earth holy, to elevate our earthly existence. God needs us here because there is so much more to life than seeing God. Hashem is telling us, wait a minute. I need you to focus. I need yo to focus on what you can do in the world to make it better. So I invite you to think about what you can do to fulfill your role in this world, and how best you can “bring holiness into your earthly existence”.

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