Friday, January 21, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

God's Command and Yitro's Advice

Bnei Yisrael, having experienced the highs of yitziat Mitzrayim and kriyat yam suf, the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea, and the lows of their backsliding and grumbling, and the challenges of hunger, thirst, and war, are now at the verge of the climax of their journey.   They are about to experience the fullness of the Divine revelation,  to stand at Sinai, to hear God's direct word, and to receive the Torah.  The narrative, however, pauses just before this climactic moment to relate the story of Yitro - how he heard of God's wonders, came to Moshe, and advised him on how to delegate responsibility.   What is the purpose of this break in the narrative?  What is it doing here?

Perhaps because this story seems so out of place in the narrative flow, there is an opinion among the Rabbis that Yitro actually came after the Giving of the Torah.  However, this only exacerbates the problem - if it actually happened later, why introduce it here?  Is there some way that the story of Yitro frames the event of the Giving of the Torah?   How does the story of Yitro relate to the world of Torah and mitzvot that are about to follow, from the Giving of the Torah through parashat Mishpatim?

The first thing that stands out is that Yitro is drawn to Bnei Yisrael because he "heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt." (18:1).  It was not the laws the he heard - they had not been given yet - but rather the Grand Narrative - how God had acted for Israel, the idea of a personal God that transcends creation, a God of history, of a People that have a purpose and a destiny.    We have a story, a message, for the larger world, that can be seen and heard even prior to the Giving of the Law.  The Law will be an embodiment of that message, and of the relationship between us and God, but it exists within that framing, and it communicates more than just itself.  It communicates our relationship to God, and the greatness of our mission and our vision.

Thus, God Godself, before the Ten Commandments, declares to the People:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine;  And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation….
(20:4-6)

That is, the Torah that you are about to receive is built on our past relationship - "I brought you out on eagles' wings" - is an expression of our current relationship - "keep my covenant" - and points you to a larger purpose and message to bring to the world - "you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."   All the laws of the Torah must be observed with full commitment - " And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (v. 8) - but they should be done in the context of the brit, they should communicate both to us and to others our relationship to God,  and they should communicate to others what it means to be God's People.

This, then, brings us to the second theme of the Yitro narrative.  It is quite remarkable, one must admit, that God's direct communication with Israel and God's commandments  are preceded by a story of how Moshe and Israel were guided by the advice of a normal human being, and a non-Israelite at that.  And Yitro's advice is no small matter.   "If you do this thing… you shall endure, and all this people shall go to their place in peace." (18:23).  Thanks to Yitro's advice, Moshe learned the lesson that any true leader must learn - how to delegate authority and to focus one's energies on those tasks that most require his or her leadership.   This both saves the leader from "wasting away" (v. 18) and provides the people with the leadership they most desperately need.   God would give all the mitzvot, but without Yitro's advice, the mitzvot alone would not ensure the real-world success of either Moshe as a leader, or of Bnei Yisrael as a People.

Moshe, for his part, clearly recognized how important Yitro's advice was, and how important it could be in the future.  Thus, while our parsha ends with Yitro returning to his place, we find in Bamidbar that Moshe attempted to persuade him to stay.  "And he said, Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the Wilderness, and you have been for us as eyes." (Bamidbar 10:31).  Moshe needed Yitro's vision, Yitro's insight and Yitro's foresight.  God's word - even the moving of the camp which followed the movement of God's cloud - was not sufficient to lead them on the right path.  For this leadership and vision was needed.  For this, a sense of vision - the ability to realize how God's word could best be implemented in this world and how God's word could best actualize the grand vision of the Torah - for this the People needed the leadership of Moshe, and Moshe needed the advice of Yitro.

The world of mitzvot, the world of halakha, needs this shaping, this vision, this direction.   That is why, significantly, Chazal see in Yitro's advice to Moshe an emphasis on teaching the people much more than just the letter of the law:

"And you shall show them the path upon which they must walk and the action that they must do" (18:20).  'The path upon which they must walk' - this is Torah study.  'And the action they must do' - this is good acts.  These are the words of R. Yehoshua.  R. Eliezer HaModai said  'And you shall show them' - this is a livelihood.  'the path' -  this is the visiting of the sick… 'the action' - this is the law, 'that they shall do' - this is going beyond the letter of the law.
(Mekhilta on Shemot 18:20, see also Baba Metzia 30b)

A true Torah leader teaches more than technical halakhot.  A true Torah leader understands that the Torah is also about values and vision, it is about a direction, not just directives.  "The path upon which they must walk" - yelchu, the root of the word halakha, the path is defined by the halakhot, but it is ultimately guided by Torah study, by living a life of Torah values,  by living a life of "good acts."   The true path is one that takes the Torah into one's livelihood, that lives not just by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of the law as well.

To connect to this vision it does not suffice that one only master technical halakhot.  Yitro gave his critical advice without knowing halakha.  He gave it because he had "eyes," - he connected to the vision of the Torah, and was able to bring that vision to the aid of Moshe and Israel.  At the same time, Yitro understood that his advice could only be of value if it indeed was true to God's word and God's vision.  Hence, he tells Moshe clearly, "If you do this thing, and God commands you, then you will endure."   What is needed is a leader who has eyes, who can connect to the spirit of the law  by seeing what stands behind the letter of the law, who can understand the Torah's vision through Torah study, and who can bring to his leadership his perception of the larger vision of the Torah, having tested it against God's word and God's command.   This is a leadership that teaches both "the ordinances and laws," and also the path upon which they must walk."  This is a Torah that - as Israel was first commanded at Marah - combines the obligation to "diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God" with the obligation to "do that which is right in God's sight" (Shemot 15:26).  This is what it means to not just follow halakha, but to live the fullness of a life of Torah and mitzvot.

What is desperately needed is for us to understand that the Torah is more than halakha, it is Torah values, and a Torah vision, it is the fullness of Torah and mitzvot.  Are we living our Torah lives, are we embodying halakha, in a way that communicates a compelling vision, in a way that speaks to our brit with God?    Is the Torah that we embody one that would draw people near, or one that would push people away?  Let us all - as individuals and as leaders - live our lives with scrupulous attention to the finest details of halakha, and combine that precision with a grand vision.   Let us live our lives as an embodiment of our covenant with God, as part of a Grand Narrative, as an expression of a vision of a more perfect world.

Shabbat Shalom!

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