7 Haiku for Parsha Yitro (it’s the really big show)

At Mount Sinai, a
family reunion. The
whole story is retold.

You can’t do it all
Jethro tells Moses.
Learn to delegate.

Moses chose men of
substance so they could judge the
people at all times.

We’re finally at
the mountain, this kingdom of
princes and holies.

Are we prepared for
the thunder and lightning
of revelation?

The big show begins.
We get a top ten list to
end all top ten lists.

The sound and light show
left us shaken and afraid.
We were not prepared.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Torah portion: Balancing our priestly lives

I have particular fondness for Parshat Yitro. While it contains some of the defining moments of Israelite religion — the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Decalogue and the injunction that we should become “a kingdom of priests” — my delight is in the tale that precedes these epiphanous moments. 

Shortly after the jubilation following the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Yitro, the Midianite priest who is Moses’ father-in-law and spiritual mentor, arrives at Moses’ camp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Yitro brings his daughter, Zipporah, who is Moses’ wife, and their two sons to reunite with the man who led the Israelites out of slavery. 

By delivering his family, Yitro begins his instruction to Moses regarding self-care as an essential component of the life of a leader. Certainly family life can be an important corrective for the dangers of self-aggrandizement and burnout that can accompany the role of the charismatic leader.

It’s a refreshing view of Moses. He hangs with his father-in-law, and the two guys marvel at the amazing things that have happened since their last meeting: the confrontations with Pharaoh, the plagues, the Exodus, the splitting of the sea. I imagine Moses taking a deep breath, letting down his guard with his beloved teacher and saying: “Wow, Dad … Can you believe it?!” Yitro delights in his protege’s accomplishments, which he had heard about way back in Midian. But then things turn serious.

“Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said … ‘Why do you act alone? … The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone’ ”  (Exodus 18:13-18). 

Moses confides to his mentor the burden of his role as leader as each Israelite comes to him to “L’drosh YHVH/Inquire about God” (Exodus 18:15). The medieval biblical commentator Nachmanides (the Ramban) interprets this phrase as referring to the custom of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), saying, “The people came to Moshe to ask him to pray to God on their behalf. Moshe devoted much of his day to praying for the sick.”

This implies that people came to Moses with the same questions that contemporary spiritual caregivers encounter when we care for the vulnerable. Inquiring about God is what people do when they come to me, my students and colleagues from any Sea of Reeds in their lives — both before and after the sea has parted, in moments of vulnerability and of exhilaration. They ask the existential questions: Why me? What does it mean to be human? What kind of God would do this? 

These are the profound questions about the nature of life that ultimately allow us to make peace both with human mortality and God’s great mystery. They direct our lives to something beyond material existence.

Being present to these questions is the work of “the kingdom of priests.” However, it is taxing, and Yitro’ s concern for Moses is appropriate. We are subject to burnout. Yitro offers a suggestion. He essentially says, man-to-man, “Dude, you’re doing too much! It’s going to wear you out! You’ve got to delegate!” 

Yitro’s advice to Moses is certainly relevant to our culture’s reverence of workaholism. His instruction to Moses on the art of self-care is strategically placed between the two epiphanies in the Jewish narrative: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the giving of the Torah. It is a statement about what we must do between the peaks in our lives if we are to assimilate their meaning and ground them in life’s practicalities.

Yitro’s advice to Moses is a statement about the price of leadership, too. It establishes a hierarchy through which Moses “shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear G-d … Set these over them as chiefs … and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you” (Exodus 21-22).

This plan presents a framework that is a step down from the despotism of a pharaonic system in the direction of the more egalitarian organization of society mandated later. I love that Yitro’s life-giving plan is in Chapter 18, a number synonymous with “life” in Hebrew.

And how brilliant it is that while many Jewish days of observance take place at the full moon, Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving Torah at Sinai (described later in Parshat Yitro), takes place a few days before then. It reserves the brighter light for the descent from the holy moment on the mountain. It provides a guiding beacon for the way down and protects us from a fall. 

We need such protection. After the peak moments, with which we are blessed, we need some soft moonlight to guide us home. May Shabbat’s promise of refreshment and joy be especially soothing this week, as we read Parshat Yitro and its concern for balance and self-care in our lives. 

Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual adviser, is professor of ritual and human development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She is also the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Before and after

While studying this Torah portion several years ago, I enjoyed one of those peculiar delights vouchsafed to those who learn to study great Jewish texts in the Hebrew original — the discovery a great mistranslation. The concept is “ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah” — usually mistranslated as “the Torah [often] is not written in chronological order,” or more literally, “there is no before and after in the Torah.”

The term is used when Torah scholars, in their careful analysis of passages from the Torah, see that certain events seem out of order. They often resolve this problem by teaching that the way the Torah presents a series of events or teachings is often by an inner logic other than chronological (for those of you who like non-linear thinking, this is a concept for you).

We see this concept of “no chronological order” displayed well in our parashah, Yitro. In Exodus 18, the b’nei Yisrael arrive at Har Sinai, and Moshe is greeted by his father-in-law, Yitro, the Midianite priest. Yitro blesses God for all good done for the people Israel; Yitro makes offerings to God, and Moshe, his brother Aharon and all the elders feast with Yitro (verses 18:1-12). Starting in verse 13, we see Yitro correcting Moshe for trying to judge all the people by himself, all day long, making known one by one “the statutes of God and God’s teachings.” Yitro has Moshe appoint a judiciary, saying that Moshe will impart “the statutes and the teachings … the path they should follow, the deeds they should do,” but that those whom Moshe will appoint will decide the lesser cases. The problem is, Moshe is adjudicating legal cases, making known the statutes and teachings of God in Exodus chapter 18, but the Ten Commandments aren’t given until Exodus chapter 20, and the main body of the laws of the Torah until after that.

Most traditional commentators agree that Exodus 18:12-27 is a narrative that actually took place where we see Exodus chapter 35 today — when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the second tablets. It is hard for the tradition to conceive of Moshe teaching law before the law was given — hence ” ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah.” But in today’s spoken Hebrew, the phrase would be understood as “there is nothing early or late in the Torah.” In other words, things happen right on time. So if things happen right on time, why does the Torah want us to know that Moshe was teaching law right before the Torah was given?

First of all, they had to know law already, and virtually all the Ten Commandments. We already know murder is wrong, because we know that Cain killing Abel was wrong. We already know you don’t steal, hence the protestations of Jacob’s brothers that they did not steal Joseph’s divining cup. We already know you don’t commit adultery — witness God’s displeasure when a Pharaoh in Genesis wants to sleep with Sarah. In short, the main contours of the law were already known — promulgated into the heart of every moral and rational human being.

Here is what was happening, in my mind. After the brutality of slavery — imagine the pent-up rage for justice, the need to settle scores, the rage to finally get your own. Imagine the moral chaos that was taking shape. One thing I have learned from counseling others is that wounded people wound people — and in some way, we are all wounded. What stops wounded people, who are only trying to get some justice in their lives, from clawing at others with whom they have conflict? Only the prior commitment to virtue, to principle, a commitment that overrides the wounds we suffer in life.

I imagine a crisis. I imagine Moshe suddenly discovering the pent-up moral rupture and the outpouring of people seeking redress. Moshe follows his father-in-law’s advice and appoints others to help him. And I imagine a tragedy that every counselor has seen — a person so hurt, or better put, a person so conscious of only their own hurt, that the law makes no difference to them. A commitment to virtue and principle becomes an obstruction, an abstraction, a mere impediment to saying or doing whatever they feel. “Teaching the path that they should follow” does little good.

When does transformation occur? I know from my own experience and from working with others that true transformation happens when a teaching becomes an epiphany, a light shining through from within. I can teach over and over again — “it doesn’t matter what the other person said; what matters is this: what kind of person do you want to be?” — and it will do no good until a person experiences a moment of enlightenment and knows what kind of person they want to become.

I imagine the people, people like us, not able to hear the teachings of Moshe and the judges he has appointed; I imagine a welling sea of moral chaos beginning to erupt into a storm (as it did in the story of Molten Calf, the story of the Spies, the story of Korach….) when God forces an epiphany through creating a Theophany — the Divine shining through. “The way in which we should go” is not advice we can accept or reject; it is a divine law that will guide us into our realization as human beings. The law becomes Revelation — the Divine yearning its way into our hearts.

Our work as Jews is to evoke that holy light that rests in Torah and coax it out into our lives, a light that can guide us to our fulfilled nature as human beings.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and provost and professor of mysticism and liturgy at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus.