Archive for the '2.05 Yitro' Category

In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

Populist Torah

At the end of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we read that we should make an altar of earth and not of stone (Exodus 20:21-22). It seems to make sense that in response to our having just received the Torah we would feel the drive to respond to God’s revelation with sacrifice. But, why the commandment to make alters out of earth and not stone?

I think an answer to this question is found in Yitro’s critique of Moses which itself serves as the introduction to the giving of the Torah. Moses is sitting all day adjudicating God’s law for the people. Yitro says:

The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out and you are well as this people who are with you for this matter is too hard for you. You will not be able to do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

At the core Yitro is telling Moses to reveal God’s Torah to all the people directly. Torah needs no agency.

The centrality of earthen alters over hewn stone seems to reflect a populist notion of devotion. Everyone should have access to this response, not just those who have the money or the physical strength to make a stone structure. Everyone should have access to saying thank you to God just as everyone should have access to Torah itself. Neither Torah nor a response to it is in Heaven; they are both in reach. In a world with Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook every aspect of knowledge is within reach. The more I learn about Jewish history the more I want to say thank you. Why not find new ways to learn about our heritage? My challenge stands, just as Yitro, that we all find some good people to join in learning Torah. While Torah is not in heaven it is much easier to reach in the context of a community. And the best part is with the help of the internet, we are no longer limited to finding community in the context of the stone buildings of our institutions. Our community might be right there in our backyard.

Turning to Others

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, there is a recitation of the Ten Commandments by Moses, and although those laws help create the foundation for Judaism, there are other crucial lessons in this portion that can help guide us today concerning the role each of us plays in the Jewish community, our interactions with non-Jews, and the importance of Torah in our work.  The portion begins with Moses in the desert, leading the Jewish people toward Mount Sinai.  There, Moses is visited by Yitro, his non-Jewish father-in-law.  Yitro offers advice to Moses on how to be a wise leader and advises him to have others help him serve as judges when disputes arise among the Jewish people.  After Moses and Yitro finish discussing these matters, Moses travels to Mount Sinai where God delivers the Ten Commandments, and Moses recites them to the gathered crowd.

Yitro plays a crucial role in this section of the Torah, when he helps to council Moses during attempts to serve as a mediator when disputes arose.  Moses was handling all of these problems himself, and Yitro realizes this is far too much work for Moses to handle without any assistance.  Yitro suggests that Moses appoint other Jews to serve as judges and leaders for the groups of thousands, hundreds, fifty, and ten so that these other leaders can handle lesser disputes.

This illustrates the importance that each of us plays within the Jewish tribe.  Although Moses is held in high regard for his wisdom and justice, there was far too much work for him to do alone, and if he hadn’t been able to turn to others for help, he would have surely failed.  In any struggle that the Jewish community might face today, having strong and wise leaders is important, but so is having people to help them with all the other tasks they need, no matter how unimportant they seem, because without all of that combined help, the efforts would not succeed.  Similarly, when writing a Torah, tradition says that anyone who writes a single letter in the Torah, it is as if they have done the whole thing, because without that one person’s assistance, the Torah would not have been completed.

The role of Yitro in this portion also serve as a useful lesson for today.  Yitro is not identified as Jewish in this portion, as he recognizes that God is most powerful, but he also worships other deities.  Still, he comes to Moses offering advice, and Moses accepts his counsel and acts on his suggestion.  At a time when the Jewish people were all together in the desert, it was still a gentile who came forward with the best advice for Moses.  Today, when there are many college campuses with only a small number of Jewish students, there are other groups they can turn to for help in creating successful programs.  Whether it is an interfaith breakfast to commemorate Yom Kippur and Ramadan or a black/Jewish seder for passover, these types of multicultural activities emulate the spirit of the exchange when Yitro was working with Moses.

Finally, we see in this portion the importance of the Torah to the Jewish people.  Previously, Moses has served as the leader of the Jews as they escaped Egypt and wandered in the desert.  Moses is a tzadik among his generation, and he received assistance from God in overcoming the obstacles he faces.  Finally, in Yitro, Moses appoints others to serve as judges alongside him, choosing people who do not have this personal relationship with God.  Although at first it seems like they would not be as wise or fair as Moses, promptly after these judges are appointed, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Commandments from God.  The link between these Jews being appointed as judges and receiving the Commandments from God shows that all the wisdom these leaders need to help adjudicate matters correctly can be found in the Torah.  Today, when we might not have direct instructions from God on how best to handle problems that arise, we still have the Torah, which was used then as a substitute for God’s wisdom in helping the new Jewish leaders serve the Jewish people.

Although the struggles we have today pale in comparison to what Moses and the Jewish tribe faced as the wandered the desert, we can gain important insight from Yitro.  Like Moses, we can turn to non-Jews for assistance, and we can learn the importance of delegating work, and realize that whatever role we might place in accomplishing something (no matter how small) our efforts are crucial for success.  Finally, we see that in all the difficulties we face, we have the Torah to guide us, the same way the early leaders did that served under Moses, and by passing on this Torah wisdom to students, we prepare them for being strong leaders themselves.

– Originally prepared with Andy Ratto when we worked at St. Louis Hillel at Washington University

Torah 2.0 and Sharing Tribal Knowledge

The main event of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro – arguably the climax of the book of Exodus, if not the entire Torah – is the Revelation at Sinai. This event is directly preceded by Moses’s reunion with his family. Amidst this reunion, Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, sees Moses at work. While Moses was sitting from morning until night listening to the people who had come to seek God (Exodus 18:13-15), Yitro said, “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out. You, as well as this people that is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Moses outlived his entire generation, it was not as if he was going to become weak in his strength to govern or adjudicate law. It seems more likely that Yitro was concerned that the people would grow tired, or worse not get timely access. I am sure we can all relate.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my patience for a dial-up internet connection–let alone snail mail!—is almost non-existent since the advent of high speed web access. In a time of instant connection and searchable information, we are simply unwilling to wait in line.

In his book, Six Pixels of Separation, Mitch Joel (our keynote speaker at Leaders Assembly) asked his readers to meditate on two concepts:

1. How do you make your business’s tribal knowledge accessible to all (the people) on your team?

2. How do you extend that shared wisdom to your customers and evangelists? (p. 232)

His suggestion echoes Yitro’s advice for Moses. Many of us recognize that our current information-sharing system is inefficient. Much of our knowledge floats around our industry and our offices, but is never documented or discussed. For the sake of the Jewish people, we need to rethink how we share our “tribal” knowledge—our camp knowledge. We need to rethink how we communicate with our camp families, campers, staff, and alumni.

Come join in this conversation at Leaders Assembly 2010, March 14-15, where Mitch Joel will share his insights on how the Jewish camp field might utilize innovate digital marketing strategies. Just as Yitro radically changed how Moses thought about sharing Torah, Mitch Joel will guide our exploration of connecting our networks and knowledge online—call it Jewish Camp 2.0.

– Another take on the Parsha – reprinted from FJC Blog


In Yitro,this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s reunion with his family and the giving of the Torah. In between these two events, we are privy to the advice which Yitro gives to his son-in-law, Moshe. Moshe was sitting from morning until night listening to the people who had come to seek God (Exodus 18:13-15). Yitro said , “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out- you as well as this people who is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Moshe outlived his entire generation, it was not as if he was going to become weak in his strength to govern or adjudicate law. Maybe Yitro was concerned that people would grow tired. It is also possible that Yitro was worried that Moshe would grow corrupt without a system of checks and balances in place. If Moshe ruled alone he would become worn out by his own ego.

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack. “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” Even if the idea of God is very distant, we can realize the deepest Torah in knowing that none of us are God. Being a religious person in a secular environment makes it easy to slip from seeing oneself as a beneficiary of God’s message to judging everyone who does not live according to your lifestyle.

The greatness of a person is his or her ability to become aware of his or her own privileges and limitations. While Moshe was great in his comprehension of the law, he earned his place in history in his ability to give up that throne. It takes a unique character to communicate that message, and a truly remarkable person who is able to listen to that message.

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