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An Epiphany of love – Parshat Yitro 5774

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The Significance of Revelation?

When I taught at a school in London many years ago, students would often proclaim in very certain terms, that if they witnessed God splitting the sea and revealing himself in fire and brimstone, they would immediately believe in Him and take on a life of torah and mitzvoth without delay. My answer was always the same;  ‘What of the generation that stood at Har Sinai and just a few weeks later created a golden calf to bow down to? Revelation and open miracles do not beget faith”.

Faith is not something that can be coerced, it is something that must be found and experienced.  Faith begins not in acts of the fire that God brings down to man (Har Sinai) but in the fire man brings to God (sacrifices).  Faith of a free person is found in what we do for God not what God does for us.

Richard Elliot Friedman in his fascinating book ‘The Disappearance of God’ discusses the development of God in the Bible. What he insightfully points out is that if we track God in the Bible he slowly disappears, leaving man to play the central role.  We move from a God orientated world to a world dominated by men, who act for God. He writes:

“God disappears in the Bible.  Both religious and non religious readers should find this impressive and intriguing, each for his or her own reasons.  Speaking for myself I find it astounding.  The Bible begins, as nearly everyone knows, with a world in which God is actively visibly involved, but it does not end that way.  Gradually through the course of the Hebrew Bible, the deity appears less and less to humans, speaks less and less.  Miracles, angels and all other signs of divine presence become rarer and finally cease…..

These latter books (Esther, Ezra Nehemiah) are simply different.  They feel different.  They do not convey the sense of awe, of wonder, or power and of mystery that the earlier books of the Bible do.  Leon Wieseltier, in a remarkably insightful essay, refers to the scene of the book of Esther as a ‘post revelation world’…….The text never says that the Deity ceases to exists, to care, or to affect the world.  It only conveys that these things are no longer publically visible at the end of the story in the way that they are the beginning.  One might still conceive of the Deity as being present and involved in undetected ways.

The disappearance of God in the Bible goes hand in hand with the shift in the divine-human balance, in which men and women must take greater responsibility for their lives…..

It seems to me part of the solution lies in the fact that the disappearance of God also involves the growing up of humankind.”[1]

Two thousand years earlier the Rabbis expressed the self same idea in the famous paragraph found in Gemara Shabbat 88a:

“And they stood under the mount” (Shemot 19:17). Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial. Raba says even so, the generation at the time of Achashverosh accepted the Torah willingly as the pasuk says ‘ קיימו וקיבלוthey fulfilled and accepted’.  They accepted the Torah that had been given already.”

Why is the acceptance of the torah greater at the time of Esther than it was at the time of Matan Torah?  Very simply, because the people accepted it of their own free will. There was no fire and lightening, no splitting of the sea, no pillar of fire and cloud and no slave mentality of absolute dependence.  They had to find the inner strength and courage to act for God from within.[2]

A non Jewish Priest and Divine Revelation:

This week’s Parasha is called ‘Yitro’, after the Midianite Priest and father in law of Moshe.  It is also the Parasha in which we recall the greatest epiphany of God to man ever in history.  However, every year whilst reading it, I find myself asking, “Why in the subconscious of Am Yisrael, is the greatest moment of revelation linked with a non-Jewish priest?  What is the significance of this association? Why is it so important that ‘Yitro’ be tied eternally to Matan Torah?”  Rashi’s commentary deepens the question further.  He suggests in his commentary that Yitro’s arrival occurred only after Matan Torah, but was placed preceding the event for thematic purposes.[3]  In order to unravel the significance of the Yitro association we must look at the narrative in more detail.

א וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן, חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקים לְמֹשֶׁה, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ:  כִּי-הוֹצִיא ה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.  ב וַיִּקַּח, יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-צִפֹּרָה, אֵשֶׁת מֹשֶׁה–אַחַר, שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ.  ג וְאֵת, שְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ:  אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאֶחָד, גֵּרְשֹׁם–כִּי אָמַר, גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה.  ד וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד, אֱלִיעֶזֶר–כִּי-אֱלֹקי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה.  ה וַיָּבֹא יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ–אֶל-מֹשֶׁה:  אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר, אֲשֶׁר-הוּא חֹנֶה שָׁם–הַר הָאֱלֹהקים.  ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֲנִי חֹתֶנְךָ יִתְרוֹ, בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וְאִשְׁתְּךָ–וּשְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ, עִמָּהּ.  ז וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה לִקְרַאת חֹתְנוֹ, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ-לְרֵעֵהוּ, לְשָׁלוֹם; וַיָּבֹאוּ, הָאֹהֱלָה.  ח וַיְסַפֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה לְפַרְעֹה וּלְמִצְרַיִם, עַל אוֹדֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֵת כָּל-הַתְּלָאָה אֲשֶׁר מְצָאָתַם בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיַּצִּלֵם ה.  ט וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ–עַל כָּל-הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲשֶׁר הִצִּילוֹ, מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם.  י וַיֹּאמֶר, יִתְרוֹ, בָּרוּךְ ה, אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעֹה:  אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶת-הָעָם, מִתַּחַת יַד-מִצְרָיִם.  יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-גָדוֹל ה מִכָּל-הָאֱלֹהִים:  כִּי בַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם.  יב וַיִּקַּח יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, עֹלָה וּזְבָחִים–לֵאלֹקים; וַיָּבֹא אַהֲרֹן וְכֹל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם עִם-חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה–לִפְנֵי הָאֱלקים.  יג וַיְהִי, מִמָּחֳרָת, וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב.

1 Now Jethro, 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. 2 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her away, 3 and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’; 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ 5 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God; 6 and he said unto Moses: ‘I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.’ 7 And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent. 8 And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them. 9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 And Jethro said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them.’ 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God. 13 And it came to pass on the morrow that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.

No less than five times we are told that Yitro was Moshe’s father in law.  Coupled with the repeated emphasis on his family, wife and his sons, there is little doubt that the Torah is expressing an idea.  I want to suggest that there is a pattern that emerges with regard to Yitro and his encounter with Moshe and the people of Israel.  Immediately preceding Moshe’s encounter with God at the burning Bush, we have a narrative that describes the meeting between Moshe and Yitro. There again, a strong emphasis on relationship is found.  Moshe is called upon by the Midianite Priest to sit with him, eat with him, and subsequently marry his daughter.  Both accounts of open revelation in Shemot are preceded by narratives focusing on relationships.

In the epiphany narratives, both Moshe’s individual revelation and the national one, the opposite is true.  There are strong motifs of disengagement. Moshe is told to remove his shoes and he turns his face away from the Divine.[4]  The people of Israel are commanded time after time to keep away from the mountain, not to touch the mountain, and to remove themselves from their wives.[5]  The imagery denotes a complete disengagement from the other.

Yitro offers us a different paradigm.  Moshe is previously portrayed as a loner, someone who fails in relationships with others.  In the two episodes we read in Egypt with both the Egyptians and the Jews, he fails to convince, persuade or even talk to others.  That is until he meets Yitro who draws him into a relationship and pushes him to marry Tziporah.  With the birth of Gershom he expresses his personal development by showing recognition of his sense of loneliness in Egypt before he found ‘the other’.[6] Only once he has found himself and his relationship to the ‘other’ does God appear to him. And even this revelatory experience is a call by God to desist from focusing on himself and hence withdrawing from the world, but rather to ‘leave’ the desert, engage in the world and go redeem the people of Israel from their suffering.

The Revelation at Matan Torah is the same but with differences. The people have just left Egypt, they are slaves, there is no sense of self, let alone connection with the community. With their exodus from Egypt God implements a psychological plan to allow them to reconnect to the group – to the other. Korban Pesach, Recounting the story to their children etc. [7]

The two central epiphanies in the book of Shemot, and perhaps in the history of our people, are preceded by narratives that emphasise the centrality of the human encounter.  It is not by chance that the Torah presents these two paradigms side by side.  At Matan Torah the people famously accept God’s proposition without analysis, discussion, forethought, an almost blind acceptance of a covenant with a foreboding God.

Yitro, by contrast, is portrayed both through Peshat and Drash as a quintessential truth seeker.[8]  Yitro, no stranger to idol worship, has grown to understand through his tumultuous life journey, that the only ‘real’ relationship exists through a paradigm of covenant.  Not a forced, coerced relationship of power, but rather, a relationship based on the dignity and responsibility of one to the other.  A relationship based on love, trust and hope.

Revelation was essential to our origins as a people.  It is the foundation of our relationship with God and the basis to the written law.   However it is not sustainable. A relationship must develop, not based on coercion, but on covenant, not on power, but on respect.  God Himself expresses this idea clearly in Sefer Devarim 18, when Moshe recalls for the second generation the events at Har Sinai:

טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי, יָקִים לְךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ:  אֵלָיו, תִּשְׁמָעוּן.  טז כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-שָׁאַלְתָּ מֵעִם ה אֱלֹקיךָ, בְּחֹרֵב, בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל, לֵאמֹר:  לֹא אֹסֵף, לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת-קוֹל ה אֱלֹקי, וְאֶת-הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת לֹא-אֶרְאֶה עוֹד, וְלֹא אָמוּת.  יז וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֵלָי:  הֵיטִיבוּ, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ.

15 A prophet will the LORD thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; 16 according to all that thou didst desire of the LORD thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’

The open revelation, the Divine word spoken, the fire, this is not ideal.  For God the people’s reluctance to hearing the voice of God, was deemed a good thing.  Perhaps direct revelation, open miracles and Divine discourse are after-all not ideal.  It can sustain us for a time, but then the moment has gone, vanished in a puff of smoke, and that is when doubt rears its ugly head.  And so the Torah presents us with a divergent paradigm.  One that does not couch our relationship to God through supernatural phenomena, but rather through the very human acts of relationship.

If we return to Richard Friedman’s theory of God’s disappearance in the Bible, we can begin to understand the game plan.  To a people having just been released from a civilization based on power, on the magical incarnations of their gods, God must behave in like.  He too must prove to His people His credentials, as well as to all future generations.  The Torah, the covenant, has to be embedded in an epiphany on a scale never experienced before.  The people are not developed enough to understand the subtleties and nuances of a true relationship.  This is something they must discover in time, a life journey, like that of Yitro.  Yet it must be there, lingering in the shadows of the narrative; A poignant reminder of a different vision, and a necessary one, for when God’s presence is not obvious.  At that moment man will have to make a choice, and if he chooses to maintain and sustain the relationship, then that is a true נעשה ונשמע.

An ethic of ‘otherness’ in a world devoid of open revelation:

To live in a world where God is not visually and noticeably present is no simple task.  It requires, as described by Kierkegaard and later the Kotzker Rebbe, ‘a leap of faith’.  Not blind naive faith, but the kind of faith that requires bold initiative.  Faith in ourselves and our abilities as humans, having been created in the image of God.  Faith in our responsibility to the other and to God.  Faith in the world around us.

We detect this very dichotomy that the Torah presents, between revelation and the primacy of relationship, in the world of Jewish thought.  There is an almost obsessive search by thinkers, from the late nineteenth to today, for ways in which to couch revelation in human terms.  Perhaps the influence of thinking brought about by the enlightenment, with its renewed emphasis on the individual and rationalism, and following on from the thought of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Kant, forced Jewish thinkers to reassess the notion of revelation in a world where there is no palpable evidence of a Divine power.  What is fascinating is that many Jewish thinkers, predominantly the dialogical philosophers[9], assert that revelation today must be found through our relationship to the other.  For Buber it was his I-Thou encounter, for Rosensweig it is expressed in his star of redemption that rests on a doctrine of Divine and subsequently human love and for Levinas it is the primacy of the ethical that reveals itself in our face to face encounter with the ‘other’. They are not alone, modern and contemporary thinkers such as Emil Fackenheim, Abraham Heschel, Rav Soloveitchik, David Hartman, Eliezer Berkovits, Irving Greenberg to name but a few, also struggle with the same dilemma, each addressing it in their own way. The fact that the Torah, thousands of years preceding these thinkers, already anticipated the question they grapple with is to my mind both astonishing and comforting.

As mentioned at the start, according to Midrashic and rabbinic commentary (and even in peshat), Yitro was not actually present for the revelation on Mount Sinai, he only ‘heard’ about it.[10]  Hence he relates most paradigmatically to us today, and all those who come after the ‘revelatory’ experience. Generations, who did not experience Sinai in its intensity, ‘hear’ about it and relive it through the covenantal acceptance of Torah and God. The fact Matan Torah is linked to Yitro is therefore no coincidence. Yitro and Rut[11] are two people whose search for and finding of God come not through the thunder and lightning of revelation, but rather through the subtle yet intensely powerful form of relationship which sustains even after the fire and lightening have been forgotten. Revealed truth is important as a foundation to any religion but it is not its essence; as I said to my students, open miracles cannot sustain a relationship.

This idea is revealed to Eliyahu in one of the most poignant narratives of Nach.  Immediately following his ‘thunder and lightning’ show at Har Carmel, where he demonstrates God’s power over that of the ‘Baalim’ through supernatural means, he flees to the desert.  There he receives an epiphany, with a message that challenges the very theology he espoused at Har Carmel.

יא וַיֹּאמֶר, צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי ה, וְהִנֵּה ה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי ה, לֹא בָרוּחַ ה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ ה.  יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ ה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.

11 And He said: ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.’ And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (Melachim 1, 19:11)

An enduring relationship says God to Eliyahu cannot be established through supernatural epiphanies.  It must be sought through ‘hearing’ the other and listening to their voice, even if it is still and thin and almost silent.  One must be open to the encounter, between man and man, and man and God, ready to act for man and God in order to fulfil the covenantal obligations we accepted at Har Sinai.

I will finish with the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, a leading teacher and thinker of this century:

“There is no trace of freedom or creatorship for man in the biblical encounter.  The essential experience there is human worthlessness and powerlessness that, nevertheless, is redeemed by the love of God.  Man may stand upright in the encounter because he is held up; he may hear because the spirit from God sustains him; he can speak because the dew from God revives him.  The situation is not a dialogical one.  Man is not a partner of God in the actuality of the I-Thou.  He is altogether a creature, if ever there was one.  As long as the actuality of the revelation lasts, man has no freedom……For revelation at Sinai to be revelation for me, it must be addressed to me.  And so the covenant had to be concluded with all generations…..we may now say that while the encounter is the foundation of religion, faith is its edifice.  Without the encounter, we could not know the God of religion, the God who is concerned about us and our world.  With the encounter alone, we could not face the contradiction between what is conveyed in the encounter, which is Gods concern, and what often follows after it, namely, his apparent indifference.  Faith in keeping the truth communicated in the encounter alive at all times, is the answer to the contradiction….Religion does not reduce man to being a puppet of God, it elevates him to his highest dignity by enabling him to acknowledge God in free commitment.  The ‘fellowship’ is initiated by God in the encounter; it is sustained after the encounter in the ever renewed act of faith by man.”[12]

Shabbat Shalom



[1] Richard Elliot Friedman: The Disappearance of God

[2] See last week’s sheet – היש ה בקרבינו עם אין

[3] See Rashi 18:13 who bases his opinion on a discussion in Gemara Zevachim 116a

[4] Shemot 3:6

[5] Shemot 19:12,15,23

[6] By naming his son Gershom – ‘I was a stranger גר in a foreign land’, we detect his loneliness and self search preceding his time in Midian.

‘The other’ refers to the dialogical philosophers, Buber, Rosensweig, Levinas, who place specific emphasis on man’s relationship with other as the source of our relationship with God.  This idea will be developed later.

[7] The laws of the Korban Pesach such as not eating alone, eating as part of a family and the repetative command by Moshe for the people to recount the story to their sons, forces the people to ‘reengage’ with ‘the other’.

[8] See Shemot 18:11, Rashi.  Mechilta Yitro 1:11 ‘They say there was no idol worship in the whole world that Yitro did not do.’

Mechilta 1:3 ‘At the time when Moshe said to Yitro ‘give me your daughter as a wife’, Yitro said to him, ‘If you take upon yourself this one thing that I will tell you then you can take my daughter as your wife.’ Moshe said ‘what is it?’. He said, ‘when you have a child, he first has to be exposed to idol worship and from then onwards he can focus on God’.  Moshe accepted this matter and swore on it.’

[9] Martin Buber, Franz Rosensweig and Immanuel Levinas

[10] Hence the words at the start of the Parasha וישמע יתרו Yitro heard’.

[11] Whom we read about at Shavuot – the festival of Torah giving, and whom was also a non-Jew

[12] Eliezer Berkovits: Essential Essays on Judaism: God, Man and History p30 – 42

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