D’var Torah, Yitro

by Larry Kaufman

At Kahal, a Shabbat morning worship group at my synagogue, lay people typically present the d’var Torah, according to a set format: a parasha overview, presentation of topics from the parasha that particularly interest the darshan (explainer, presenter), and posing three questions for discussion by the community.  Being assigned the parasha for Shabbat Yitro marks my first time talking about a parasha I’ve presented before. 

Re-confronting a text and finding something new in it may be something we expect from rabbis, but it’s a new situation for me.  After a two year lapse, I might have tried to get away with a simple repeat, but knew that on-line readers could find me out by linking to the archives.   Encouraged by Ben Bag Bag’s reminder in Pirke Avot to turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,  I decided the only thing this drash would turn in common with the last one would be my decision not to pay attention to Yitro‘s centerpiece, the Ten Commandments. 

I pick up at the point where Yitro has come and gone, bringing back Moses’s wife and children, and offering advice on delegation. God now alerts Moses He’s about to speak to the people directly, instead of through Moses, and tells Moses how to set things up:      

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel, You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Me. Now then if you will obey me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.  Indeed, all the earth is Mine.  But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Three things in those verses caught my eye:  

  1. Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel.  Why the distinction between the house of Jacob and the children of Israel? Commentators typically ascribe references to Jacob as familial, references to Israel as national.  Here, the Rabbis tell us, beit Yaacov, the house of Jacob, refers to the women, and b’nai Yisrael to the men.  Shouldn’t b’nai Yisrael then be translated sons rather than children of Israel?  And were the Rabbis gender stereotyping in saying Moses was told to talk first with the women, because the women will transmit God’s message to their children?

  2. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Me.  The insecure God wants to win the trust of this unruly people, reminding them they owe Him big time.  The commentators take the metaphor on eagles’ wings to mean safely and securely, based on the idea that a mother eagle carries her fledglings on her wings to protect them. The Torah commentaries in my library don’t pay a lot of attention to this verse, but the Chabad website makes a big deal of the rescue bird not being Kosher. Christian sources seize eagerly on this line, interpreting the rescue as a symbol of God’s grace. Ornithological commentators tell us the bird whose characteristics best match up with the Hebrew nesher is not the eagle but the vulture, indicating that other-than-faithful translation is nothing new. 

  3. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, or, in Hebrew, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh. Maybe it’s the Diaspora Zionist in me, but I translate goy kadosh as a holy people, extending the holiness to those who are not part of the nation.  Nonetheless, nation is the choice in the standard translations, from King James forward.  Is that because an earlier verse has segula mikol ha-amim, a treasure among all the peoples? The paradox is that am here refers to everybody, while goy is saved for Israel.  In contemporary usage goy typically means gentile, while am is us, as in Am Yisrael Chai.  Another interesting faithful translation note: while mamlechet kohanim seems pretty straightforward as a kingdom of priests, the Orthodox Art Scroll Stone Chumash renders it a kingdom of ministers, to make clear that we have the responsibility whether we are Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael.  

As the narrative continues, the people assemble at the foot of the mountain to receive the Holy Words, amidst thunder and lightning, a dense cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar, with the mountain all in smoke, and trembling violently.  With all the Wizard of Oz special effects, it’s no wonder that God seems a little confused – He wants the people there, but also wants them to keep their distance.  He lets Aaron approach with Moses, but then Moses comes down alone to alert the people that the Word is coming.  At show time, apparently, Aaron is still up on the mountain with the Boss.  God hands down the Big Ten, and the people tell Moses  they’re going to do as they’ve been told, but, please, Maish, after this, you handle it for us, it’s too scary.  Moses reassures them, gets a few more reassurances  from God, and a few more instructions, and the parasha ends.    

While congregations may expect a d’var Torah from the rabbi to give them answers, the minhag (practice) of our Kahal requires only that we lay darshanim ask questions.  Accordingly, Reform blogosphere, answer these:

  1. Why did God want all the people there for the sound and light show?  Who blew that loud shofar?  Why all those special effects?  As Frank Morgan told Judy Garland, I’m a very good man, but a very bad wizard. Why does a very good God want or need all the wizardry?

  2. A few parshiyot farther on, God is going to call Moses back up the mountain so He can put their understanding in writing.  Why the waiting period between the public revelation and the private etched-in-stone encounter?

  3. What does it mean to be a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?  How do we Jews do in terms of being a holy nation, and what do you do personally to be part of a kingdom of priests?

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

2 Responses to “D’var Torah, Yitro”

  1. avatar

    Dear Mr. Kaufman,
    I continue to turn this portion over and over as Ben Bag Bag’s perek says on this the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. Some new concerns have arisen.
    1)Why are the aseret ha-dibrot not called the 10 mitzvot? By merely being ‘sayings’, it appears that they take on lesser rather than greater importance.
    2)”I am the Lord…” is listed as the first commandment. It doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like an introduction. Is belief in G-d assumed, not commanded? This opens discussion about abstract monotheism.
    3)”El kanah hu…” has become increasingly unsettling. This opens relationship concerns about One who has ‘issues’. Or is this just a matter of historical context, a stage in our spiritual development which we have since passed.
    I bring these questions to services tomorrow.
    Shabbat Shalom,

  2. avatar

    @ Maurice Feldman
    Having been out of commission for a few weeks, I’ll belatedly provide my responses to the questions you raised, and which you said you were going to raise at Shabbat services. I hope you’ll share the answers you got, and also that you’ll react to these observations.
    1. Why aseret dibrot rather than mitzvot? First, I would translate dibrot differently from the way you do — not as “sayings” but as Statements (recognizing that there are no capital letters in Hebrew). Second, were these verses to be called the Ten Mitzvot, how would they stand out among the 613?
    2. You challenge the first Statement as not being a commandment. Again a reason for dibrot rather than mitzvot. Note that Christian formulations, depending on denomination, add either our second, or our second and third, to our first, presumably echoing the same puzzlement that you have expressed. The issue tends to go away if you read this with emphasis on the initial I — I and not some other god — am the God who has taken care of you. This suggests a time of one God for one people, rather than one God for all people.
    3. I love your formulation of El kanah as a God who has issues. And indeed He does, not only here — issues that are not resolved as long as He is active in history. (Good current Reform practice would preclude my use of the masculine pronoun — but at the time of the Exodus, God could perhaps be seen by the people in the form of a calf, but never in the form of a woman.)
    As things happened, I was unable to present the three questions I posed in my original post to my Kahal — and I would particularly like to know how the blog community reacts to Question 3 — how are we doing in fulfilling the commandment to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? Anyone?

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