"Blessed is the L-rd..."
Yitro's (Jethro's) recognition of the unity of G-d and of His dominion, marks both the end and the beginning of a long journey. And as it occurs as a prelude to the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai, understanding the two events as being connected sheds light on the nature of Yitro's journey, and, by extension, the spiritual journey that each of us embarks upon on the way to Sinai, and beyond.
Much of the imagery surrounding the revelation at Mount Sinai can mislead us into thinking of the receiving of Torah as something static, frozen in time, even passive. After all, the ten commandments are etched in stone, signifying a reality fixed and unchanging. The children of Israel stood at Sinai, (in Hebrew the event is referred to as ma'amad Sinai - the standing at Sinai), which further suggests passivity on the part of the receivers. And being that the revelation of the ten commandments was an actual historical event, we can be lulled into thinking that it happened once and doesn't happen again. It is worth reexamining each of these assumptions.
Torah's description of the Sinai revelation is intended not to be a mere historical chronicle of the event, but an actual description of how one actively receives Torah in his or her life. The ten commandments are fixed, yes, just as a compass is fixed and its direction is true. It is up to us to be constantly referring to this moral compass and to be accounting for and calibrating our own actions accordingly.
The Israelites stood at Sinai, not as people standing in line waiting for a handout, G-d forbid, but as subjects stand before their King, with trembling and with awe, fully engaged with all their being in the realization of G-d's presence in this world, which is an ongoing and constant aspect of the receiving of Torah each and every day.
Yes, the Sinai revelation was, in fact, a historical event, but as our sages teach us, all those who receive Torah today were also present at Sinai. It is a historical event that continues to transpire in the hearts and souls of every man, woman, and child who today accept upon themselves the truth of G-d's Torah.
So far from being passive and unmoving, a thing of the past, the receiving of Torah at Sinai is an event that pulses through creation every day anew. And this brings us back to Yitro, and not just to Yitro, but also to Moshe (Moses). Like many of us, both of these spiritual giants journeyed along long and arduous paths before they arrived at the place of Torah. Yitro, as we know, was the Priest of Midian, and as Midrash explains to us, the world renowned master practitioner of all schools of idolatry, the consummate multiculturalist, as it were. But what we also learn from Midrash is that Yitro, who served as advisor to Pharaoh, actually saved the infant Moshe's life, when a suspicious Pharaoh sought to kill him. And he later fled from Egypt after rejecting Pharaoh's planned genocide of the Hebrew nation. But for all his sincerity and yearning for truth, it literally took Yitro a lifetime to gain the enlightenment he so ardently sought. And this of course happened when he witnessed how G-d dealt with the battery of Egyptian deities that Pharaoh had placed his trust in: "'Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted... '" (Exodus 18:11)
Moshe, on the other hand, was born, under dire conditions, to be sure, but marked for greatness from the start. His older sister Miriam, a prophet, knew that he was destined to be the savior of Israel, and Pharaoh himself, as mentioned above, suspected the same. Yet Moshe grew up as an Egyptian in the house of Pharaoh, and only began his long journey when the impulse to seek justice compelled him to strike the Egyptian taskmaster. He fled for his life, (and from the life that he knew), but still carried himself and regarded himself as an Egyptian, ("'An Egyptian man rescued us... '" ibid 2:19) Moshe was still decades away from his encounter with G-d, and even then, as Torah relates, needed much encouragement to continue on his journey.
If it took these two giants, the constant seeker of G-d's truth, and the reluctant savior, so much time and introspection before they arrived at Sinai, how much more so for so many, if not most of us? To stand at Sinai means to discard all that was, and to accept nothing but the Truth of Torah to be our guide. At the conclusion of the ten commandments, Torah relates the following: "And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar... " (ibid 20:15) The people saw voices? They visually perceived sound? Perhaps Torah is telling us this: Only when we are able to allow ourselves to transcend the limitations of our own sensory perception, to rise above the here and now, can we truly receive in our hearts the way of Torah. The end of our journey. And just the beginning.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven, along with guest host, noted Noachide author Jim Long, explore fascinating Midrashic traditions about the early lives of both Moshe and Yitro, and the courage to change our lives in order to become the person we could really be, for isn't that the goal of the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, as related in this week's Torah reading of Yitro?common? Rabbi Richman and Yitzchak Reuven also reflect on the scope of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, Israelís role in the rescue operations and the larger issue of human suffering and G-dís providence.