August 19, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

PARSHA: YITRO, Exodus 19:4-6

“‘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 among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.’”

Rabbi Gail Labovitz
American Jewish University

There’s a saying about politics: “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” But before the Revelation at Sinai, God uses both prose and poetry to seek loyalty and commitment from the Israelites.

God begins with a statement of fact: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians.” As Rashi comments, this is not just a handed-down tradition, not just words, not just someone else’s testimony. For the Israelites, this should be as “objective” as it gets: You, yourselves, actually saw the Nile become blood, saw frogs and lice and locusts, saw Egyptians drowned at the sea.

But then God shifts into metaphor to describe what God has done for the Israelites: “I carried you on eagles’ wings.” Some commentators want to make this, too, somewhat more “literal,” attempting to determine exactly when, and to where, God carried the Israelites: from scattered across Egypt to a single location in the wilderness? Across the sea? To Sinai? But others embrace the metaphor, focusing on God’s protection and caring more generally, as also in Deuteronomy 32:11: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He (God) spread His wings and take him (Israel), bear him along on His pinions.”

What “actually” happened and what it means are separate things. Miracles and their implications would seem hard to ignore, but we know human beings are — we know our own ancestors were — fully capable of doing so. History can happen in prose. But God’s love for us can reveal its poetry.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

This week’s Torah portion is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). It is curious that the Torah portion in which the Israelites are elected as God’s treasured people, are elevated to a kingdom of priests and receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, is named after Yitro, a Midianite priest.

In the Torah portion, Yitro counsels Moses on how to organize, delegate and empower this ragged group of fugitives. Dare we say that it was Yitro, a non-Jew, who enabled the Israelites to receive The Law? Do we attribute the Revelation of Torah to the loving intervention of a foreign priest? Yes! The name of the very portion that declares our chosenness is reminding us of the purpose of our sacred post. Just as a Midianite priest served to help our people, we must, as a nation of priests, serve to help the strangers of other nations. We are a “light unto the nations,” and in the same way a lighthouse is not there to serve itself, we are here to help the ships of other peoples to safe harbors. We are God’s partners in the world, apprentices to the Master Artisan, seeking to integrate every thread into one beautiful tapestry

Rabbi Arielle Hanien
International Trauma-Healing Institute

What technicolor depictions of our people and of God! God is depicted as a force that punishes oppressors; as a protective eagle, shielding its vulnerable young as it soars; as a voice of authority, prescribing roles and rules; and as a sovereign, to whom we are like a beloved jewel.

The rabbis say these descriptions — with their differing visual, emotional and didactic content — were intended for different ears: the House of Jacob and the Children of Israel, respectively, referred to in the preceding verse.

God, who knows the manifold nature of truth, models an understanding that people — mothers nursing their young, wise elders, youth reveling in newfound freedom, men and women who are willful, frightened or discerning in any given moment — will be receptive to different aspects of the fluid, infinitely complex truth.

Hearing (or listening) is a leitmotif of this Torah portion, which contains the identity-defining moment of the Jewish people at Sinai. Indeed, it opens with “Yitro heard,” words that moved the rabbis to name this Torah portion after the Midianite priest, Moses’ father-in-law.

Having heard of our travails and triumphs, Yitro responds with wonder and support. “Blessed be God,” Yitro says — of our God. “Thus we know,” teaches the Midrash, “that the ear connects directly to the heart.”

When Yitro later offers Moses advice, Moses heeds it. Perhaps people who are good at listening are better able to speak in ways that can be heard. Perhaps this is something God teaches us to do, as well — God who hears us and reminds us to listen.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, Washington, D.C.

When I think of wings of eagles, I think of the heroic manner in which Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses and Solomon. In 1991, as part of Operation Solomon, Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews and brought them to Israel. In doing so, Israel crammed so many people onto a 747 that they set the world record for the passenger load of a single flight. How beautiful were the wings on that plane!

Those operations represent Israel at its best — and the recognition that Israel has responsibility to represent the Jewish state to the world. Whereas other countries went to Africa to abduct humans and sell them as slaves, Israel went to Africa to rescue Jews and bring them home as citizens. In doing so, it demonstrated to the world that Judaism is colorblind.

And yet the work is far from over. The verses also urge us to remember how we were once carried and to use that memory to be a holy nation.

With that in mind, I pray for the nearly 38,000 Africa asylees from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan who currently are seeking refuge in Israel. Israel reportedly would like to deport them forcibly to African countries, where they have been greatly mistreated and exposed to existential dangers. I pray that the Israeli government reverses course on this policy matter. Indeed, to expel refugees from Israel would be an eternal blemish on our holy nation.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md.

In this most succinct summary of the Exodus, the Torah presents us not only with the past but with the desired future goal: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a unique nation. The role of the priests in antiquity was to be teachers and spiritual leaders. In other nations, priests were the mediators with the gods, their spokespeople and keepers of the gates of the underworld. Israelite priests, in contrast, served in the Temple only a fraction of the year, and were not allowed to touch dead bodies. That allowed them to be accessible to the people whenever they were needed, as described by the prophet Malachi (2:7): “The priest’s lips will guard wisdom, and they will seek the knowledge of Torah of him, for he is a messenger of God.”

The Torah labels the Israelites a Nation of Priests, meaning that the Israelites should serve as a guiding light to humanity by spreading knowledge, in the vein of the fourth chapter of Micah, where the prophets describe the nations flocking to Jerusalem to study Torah.

I translate the second part of the future title of the Israelites as “unique nation” because the root Q-D-SH in Hebrew means set aside, distinct. In Leviticus (19:2), the Torah encourages us to be unique individuals, just as God is unique, and here the Torah suggests that each nation should have a unique characteristic, or diversity within unity.