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Yit'ro Sh’mot/Exodus 18.1 – 20.23 Summary and Commentary with a Social Justice and Reflective Lens

Yit'ro is the fifth parashah of Sh'mot, the seventeenth of the Torah, and the shortest of all the parshiyot. It begins with the return of Moshe's wife, two sons, and his father-in-law, Yit'ro[1], for whom the parashah is named.

Word spreads through the camp that Yit'ro, the high priest of Mid'yan and Moshe's father-in-law, is coming with his daughter (Moshe's wife), Tziporah, and his grandchildren (Moshe and Tziporah's sons) Ger'shom and Eliezer. Moshe goes to meet them. Yit'ro and Moshe warmly greet each other and go into Moshe's tent. Moshe recounts to Yit'ro all that The Eternal did against the Egyptians for our sake, including the spectacular events at the Sea of Reeds. He also shares the struggles of the journey and the kindnesses demonstrated by The Eternal such as the quail and מנא (m'na, manna). Yit'ro, praises and blesses יהוה , makes a burnt offering, and sacrifices to The Eternal. Aharon and the Elders partake of the festive meal with Moshe and Yit'ro, in honor of his conversion. (18.1-12)

We all have taken note of the length of time Moshe spends discerning and deciding on issues with us whenever we are stopped. At the end of his first full day in camp, Yit'ro encourages Moshe to choose:

מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; (18.21)

“from all the people of Israel, persons of valor with awe/fear of Elohim, persons of truth – haters of injustice[2]” and set them as deciders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to judge the people at all time; to share Moshe's burden. Moshe would only decide the most difficult issues. The Eternal must have blessed this advice, for Moshe successfully implements it, making things easier on all of us. (18.13-27)

We continue to follow The Eternal. On the third new moon since leaving Egypt, we finally set camp in the wilderness of Sinai; the wilderness of The Eternal's mountain.

Sometime after we arrive, Moshe gathers the elders and shares The Eternal's proposed covenant. To a person, male and female, we all accept. Our acceptance pleases The Eternal and we are instructed to prepare to hear directly from יהוה. We are to stay pure, meaning no sexual contact with our spouses, and we are to wash our clothes which means we also get to bathe as part of readying ourselves for the occasion. We set boundaries around the mountain so that our children, elderly, and animals will not accidently touch the mountain and die.

The third morning arrives with thunder and lightning, intensifying our excitement and worries. A dense cloud covers the mountain; the top no longer visible. A shofar blasts and we are startled as the sound moves through us. Still, when he signals, we follow Moshe out of the camp toward The Eternal, taking our places all around the foot of Sinai. The Mountain appears to be completely covered in smoke as the fire of The Eternal comes down upon it and does not burn us. The ground trembles and we do not fall. The shofar becomes louder and we feel them in our bodies. Our senses are mingling. We see the thunder. We hear the lightning. We cannot fully distinguish between our own feelings and the feelings of all. It's thrilling and terrifying. Moshe goes up the Mountain and after a bit of time returns to us. (19.1-25)

The Eternal speaks all these things, all these words, and our encounters are as vast as we. The experience is overwhelming and calming. Our senses continue to betray us, even as continue to try and discern the experience:

I am The Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of enslavement. You will have no other gods besides Me.

You will not make any graven image (idol), nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. You will not bow down to nor (worship) them. I, The Eternal, your God am a wholehearted God, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children through the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me; and making mercy to the thousandth generation of those who love Me, and keep My commandments.

You will not take the name of The Eternal your God in vain; for The Eternal will not hold guiltless the person those who take God’s name in vain.

Remember The Shabbat, and keep it holy. Six days you will labor and do all your work. The seventh day is a (rest day) for The Eternal your God. On it you will not do any manner of work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your ass. Nor your stranger that is within your gates. In six days The Eternal made heaven and earth, the sea and all within them. Then, The Eternal rested on the seventh day. The Eternal blessed and sanctified the seventh day.

Honor your father and your mother, allowing your days to be lengthened upon the land which The Eternal your God gives you.

You will not murder. You will not commit adultery. You will not steal. You will not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You will not yearn for your neighbor's house. You will not yearn for your neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor's.

Some of us seek to be closer and are held back by those who fear we will be destroyed. Many draw back, terrified. A large group demands that Moshe speak to us, and we will obey his instructions; fearing what might happen if The Eternal directly speaks to us again. Moshe assures us all that The Eternal only seeks to test us; to cause us to be in awe/fear of God so that we will not go astray whether we are the ones who crave this closeness, or we are the ones who fear this closeness. (20.1-23)

Shining Light on Our Time

Police officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a nine-year-old child.

Police officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a nine-year-old child.

Police officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a nine-year-old child.

A male-officer asked her why she was acting like a child? And though she said, “I am a child!” that was not enough to wake any of them up to the fact that they had handcuffed and intended to pepper-spray a nine-year-old child because the child is a Black girl child.

In Judaism, children are our specific (Parent/Guardian) and universal (the known and unknown universe[s]) future. Why would anyone treat a distressed child with anything less than compassion. Yes, that is not a question. It is an assertion that apparently is painfully necessary to assert in the year two thousand and twenty-one because

police officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a nine-year-old Black-girl-child.

Regardless of what human courts may do. Regardless of the rationalizations that have and will be made of such a heinous act, The Eternal sees and weeps with all of us weeping, and the fate of each of those officers is written and sealed. The Talmud tells us that there are certain acts which are so appalling to The Eternal that such actions are a desecration; taking The Name of All That Is Holy in vain. Regardless of the business of human courts, they do not have the final say. Only The Eternal. That gives me peace because I cannot depend on laws steeped in White Supremacy to deliver justice for a stressed out nine-year-old girl child who wanted to see her dad, and was handcuffed, then pepper-sprayed by a White female and several White male police officers who failed to see her humanity, and could not recognize her as a

nine-year-old child.

This Week's Lessons, Reflections, and Practices

Elohim Spoke All These Words

Sinai is a collective and individual experience. Even reading and discussing the Divine Utterances (also called the Ten Commandments, Ex. 20:1-13) can produce fascinating conversations because of our personal framing. This first version comes directly from the Divine speaking to all ready to hear, discern, and accept; which many of us, according to legend and text, are – and are not – ready.

Practice 1: Examine your relationship to these statements today. How do they influence:

  • Your thoughts and your relationship to your thoughts?

  • Your behaviors and your relationship to your behaviors?

  • Your assessments, opinions, and judgements of others; and your relationship to your assessment, opinions, and judgements?

Remember: The point of the practice is to notice. There is nothing to fix.

Practice 2: In Deuteronomy, Moshe revisits and revises this revelation for a generation that mostly did not have the direct experience of hearing the original. How would you, alone or with others, write a "new" or "revised" revelation? Feel free to share!

Remembering Shabbat and Keeping It Holy

I love Shabbat, even as it is often a day of work for me. I'm still surprised when I hear people complain about the obligation of Shabbat. I love the structure and the freedom it gives me to prioritize friends who are like family, making a nice meal just for me on a working Shabbat; being fed emotionally, spiritually and physically by the rhythms and encounters within the Shabbat container. Last week, in Practice 4, I encouraged you to notice your relationship to Shabbat from the moment you begin to prepare through how you close. If you are ready, below is a practice to add to this next week of noticing.

Practice 3: Continue to notice about your relationship to your feelings, thoughts, and experiences of Shabbat. What, if anything, draws you to remembering Shabbat? What, if anything, draws you to own its holiness? What, if any, are the other feelings, thoughts, and experiences that occur?

יהוה Fear, Awe, Dread and God

I love translating because it is difficult to precisely translate the concepts of one language into another. I share this because I often experience a dissonance when reading the English translation of something in Torah I've just read in Hebrew. One of the English words that often stops me is fear as the dominant translation for ירא . Hebrew is a language that seeks to transmit concepts, including paradoxes, whereas English prefers preciseness. While the Hebrew of Torah when God is speaking conveys intimacy, the English often conveys aloofness. The Hebrew frequently appears to convey "this-and-that" paradox and/or complexity of meaning/idea, while the translator mostly conveys one idea. If we are only afraid, in fear of God, we lose the intimacy that the Hebrew infers that God seeks. If we are only in awe, we miss the boundaries that God has set. This is the tension I know through being in deep relationship with Divine Oneness, especially at the moment I notice I'm at the threshold of transformation. I can stop and run away from what is occurring, which I now know means the lesson will be harder next time I face it. Or, I can own the fear as my rite of passage to awe and who I become by moving through the situation.

Reflection A: How would you describe your relationship to The Eternal? Think about moments of awe. Think about moments of fear. Think about moments of anger. Think about moments of delight. How do you hold these potentially competing experiences?



[1] In the Torah, Yitro/Jethro is first introduced to us as R’u’el/Reuel (2.18), then as Yeter/Jether (4.18). In rabbinic literature, he has three more names. [2] My translation.

The original commentary and summary with a reflective lens appeared on the website of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality 5780/2020.

© Sabrina Sojourner 2021


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