Yitro: Voices Off by David Hartley Mark

Moses prepares to climb Mt. Sinai, leaving Aaron in charge of an exceedingly nervous and demanding People. The Prophet ascends, penetrating the Very Thick Darkness, where he will remain for forty days and nights. The Israelites hear the Lightning and see the Thunder; the Mountain shakes, the People fear, and stand afar off. The Torah-Text itself passes from Human Drama to Words of Teaching, through the Ten Statements/Aseret Ha-Dibrote, known popularly as the Ten Commandments.

Gershom & Elazar, the Estranged Sons of Moses: We are the Sons of Moses, but we scarcely appear in the Text of the Torah. It is hard to be the sons of a Great Man. And truth to tell, Papa was rarely home: he was always off, somewhere—speaking with He-Who-Is, teaching Torah to the People, judging their legal matters: is this chicken kosher? Whose sheep was this, whose goat? Or arguing with the Mixed Multitude about why such-and-such was forbidden, or might cause God to become Angry. He was a skillful Go-Between, a Diplomat of years’ experience, always smoothing the negotiations between a backsliding Nation and an ever-more-demanding, mysterious, Thundering Desert Deity.

But he was never really there for us: when we were young, he had no time to play, to carve us little Toys of wood or stone, like other fathers…. When we were teenagers, he was not there to answer our questions, or teach us the Shepherding trade that is the badge of our tribe—that became the job of Grandpa Jethro, who did his best, but was a judge and village priest, no shepherd, surely.

And when we became men, setting out on our own lives’ paths, Papa was already gone, out of our lives, off alone with his God. We had no one to say good-by to. Our Mama Zipporah had died alone, forgotten, of a broken heart.

It is sad when a man is married to a congregation, and not to his family….You say, it happens often? That is cold comfort, indeed.

Joshua, Moses’s hand-picked Disciple & Successor: I cannot say the same as the Two Forgotten Sons. I don’t know why, but Rabbi Moshe was always there, for me. From the start, he groomed me for leadership, and I strove to fulfill his expectations. It is true that I was more a Man of Action, and he a Man of Thought, but what of that? We complemented one another.

That time, I took the field against Amalek, I knew that Moshe would be standing there on the hill overlooking the battlefield, between Uncles Aaron and Chur, lifting up his hands, which were heavier than usual, that day. How we hacked and cut at the hands of Amalek, that fearsome day of war! It was just like those Amalekite dogs, to attack us so cowardly-like, in the rear, when we were weary and weak, struggling along in the wilderness, after the Reed Sea’s Splitting, and having aroused the women and babes at Midnight, shocked and scared, escaping Egypt after our long Captivity….

But it surprised me no end, when the Battle was over, and I and my Boys were struggling back to Camp, to report to Rabbi Moshe, and there, before I could open my mouth to report on the Famous Victory which our Lord God had delivered into my hand, Moshe narrowed his eagle-eyes and frowned upon me—a burning glare, down deep into my soul, to freeze my blood—and said, in a whisper like God’s own deep voice,

“Amalek is not those people whom you killed this day, Yehoshua ben Nun: Amalek is the Evil within yourselves; have you cut that evil out of your hearts? Well, have you?”

And he turned around on his heel, and walked off, with nary a thank-you for our having saved our People.

My battle-weary comrades, there around me, bloody, thirsty, exhausted, clothing ragged from their warring, were angry, and murmured against Moses—

“What does that prophet, that Man-of-Dreams, know how it is to hold a sword-and-buckler, to glare one’s enemy in the face, and stab him dead? When has he ever desperately fought a man, hand-to-hand, and struck a blow for freedom?”

–But I knew Moses’s meaning—had he not been the first from among us, who killed the Egyptian, all those years ago? I quickly hushed their balking. Instead, they gathered loot.

Datan & Aviram, the Rebels: Do not expect us to say anything good about Moshe, even to the extent of honoring him with the title, “Rabbi.” He is no rabbi of ours: he’s a Levite; we are from the Tribe of Reuben, which ought to lead—our grandfather was the Eldest Son of Jacob, known as Israel.

Why did he, or this Mysterious God who both kills and preserves, not slay us in Egypt? Because we are rebels, and disagree, and we, too, are necessary to this People. This New Nation, conceived out of slavery, called Israel, will never be rested or complacent. They, we, must always question, and argue, and wrangle, with one another. It is our doom, our fate, but our salvation, as well. Only by questioning shall we discover the Truth; only by arguing will we settle Matters of Torah.

Woe unto you, O Moses, when all shall agree with you! Neither for you nor for any judge, prophet, king, rabbi, or—for we are prophets, too—prime minister to follow, will ever there be peace. How can peace ever reign among such a quarrelsome people? For truly, the future belongs to the likes of us: ourselves being denied the leadership of Israel, we and our descendents will sow the seeds of doubt before the future heads of Israel, forever….

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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