This Week in Torah
Shabbat Yitro 5774
Exodus 18:1-20.23 & Isaiah 6:1-7.6, 9:5-6 (Sephardic 6:1-13)
From Midian & Sinai
Our Parashah is divided into two apparently separate narratives, Yitro’s visit and the beginning of Matan Torah – Revelation of Torah.
Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, is a “Kohain Midian” – Priest of Midian. The stated purpose of Yitro’s mission is to return Zipporah and her children, Gershom and Eliezer, who had been left in Yitro’s care to Moses, their husband and father. Revelation established Torah as the ‘constitution’ of the People of Israel and God’s special gift, through which, in its broadest definition, we learn to conduct our lives and obtain Divine Favor.
Yitro finds his son-in-law exhausted and ineffective as he tries to single handedly govern the Hebrews. Yitro quickly points out that no good can come of this, neither for Moses, nor for his people. Yitro, whose name derives from yeter (something added or additional), acting as an early “consultant” taught Moses a workable administrative system. He created added value – taking a good, practical idea from the non-Hebrew world, adapting it and using it for our betterment.
Then, the Revelation of Torah begins. Not just the Five Books but, according to our faith, the totality of the still unfolding basis of our relationship with God is transmitted through Moses, to the generation at Sinai and onward through us and into the future. Torah is our “owner’s manual” for the world, the source of answers to our daily struggles and existential questions.
Two sources of truth are clearly at work in this parashah, one Divine and the other distinctly human. One is a pagan priest whose worldly and universally available wisdom becomes a blessing to us and, presumably, to anyone. Torah is a particular, unique gift to a Singular People, making us who we are and ought to be.
Which one is right? Both! Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch z”l, the philosophical founder of Modern Orthodoxy, taught that Torah and science are both important. Others have recognized that Judaism survives by adherence to Torah along with adapting and adopting the ‘best practices’ of the world beyond our communities.
The challenge is finding the right balance. Sociological surveys, business models and modern communication methods help our Jewish institutions stay up-to-date, and remain as good stewards of communal resources. We should clearly take advantage of each of them. But we err if we allow ‘Yitro’s’ modern contributions to replace Torah at the center of our lives and social media to supplant the spirit of community. Being informed by both, with primary loyalty to Torah, is the ‘secret’ of our survival.
Rabbi Steve Denker
This week Rabbi Denker’s message was also printed in the Cleveland Jewish News.