We arrive this week at Yitro. We have come through the sea, singing songs of triumph and dancing with joy. Now the work of becoming a people begins.
Our tradition encourages us to study the Torah with something like a zoom lens: We begin with one focus, then adjust our vision and pull back in order to see the action in a larger context.
By changing our perspective, we discover connections and nuances that were not immediately evident in the text. Our study reveals the deeper narrative, the primal, pulsating energy that animates our sacred text.
Yitro has several parts. As we pull back, we see the story as part of a larger story of revelation. As we move in close, we can consider some of the gems in the larger narrative.
In Yitro, our people is working towards the establishment of a sacred partnership. What is the particular message for us of this singular Torah portion?
Yitro is about listening and responding; we read here about building new relationships — between human beings, and between each human being and God. The portion begins with a relationship between an individual and the parent of an intimate partner.
Moses and Yitro are connected by Zipporah. Yitro, Zipporah’s father, is invested in Moses’ success, for the well being of his daughter and his grandchildren depends on Moses.
Yitro advises Moses with the care and experience of an elder. Moses listens to Yitro, and follows his advice to delegate responsibility and use his own energies with greater intention.
When God calls to Moses again, Moses listens with attention; Yitro has helped him gain perspective as a leader in this story of redemption. Moses has led a traumatized people through a harrowing escape. Our ancestors’ song, now ours, rocked the heavens.
Moses and the people stand in a wilderness, with mountains in the distance. When Moses lifts his eyes, he sees the vast sky and majestic birds whose flight reminds him of his own.
God speaks to Moses and to the people: “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 … ”
The people do not hesitate. They respond with open, overflowing hearts: “All that God has said, we will do.” But God’s words have just begun to flow. The sea is behind them but the sea of words is just beginning; the portion concludes with the first recitation of the Ten Commandments, the core of God’s direction to our people, the words that have guided us from Sinai until now.
Like Moses, each of us needs partners who will share their own hard-won wisdom, teachers who will work with us, mentors who will guide us. Like our people, all of us have come through narrow passages and, again and again, we turn our faces to the sky in hope.
When God reaches out to us, as God reached toward our ancestors with a promise of connection, are we, like our ancestors, able to say, “We will do?” Even before we know the full challenge, even before the revelation, can we say, “Yes,” to one another, to our people, to hope?
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .