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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Yitro                              February 15, 2020 - 20 Shevat 5780

02/13/2020 12:42:40 PM


“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
--Carl Jung (1875-1961),
                                             Swiss psychoanalyst, philosopher and theologian

I’ve been following a YouTube channel for some weeks by a New York University law professor, Roy Germano.  He is exactly the kind of professor you hope to encounter in a university experience – an aging but trendy looking hipster who clearly believes that teaching is about much more than preparing future lawyers with the information and skills they will need in the profession.  He seems to genuinely want to challenge his students to think differently, be cautious of assumptions and stereotypes, and dare to be vulnerable enough to open yourself up to new people, new ideas and new experiences.  On the other hand, he also does seem to be the archetype white liberal apologist whose bleeding heart would typically place him squarely in the anti-Zionist camp.  The first video in his channel begins with him admitting that while he lives in Crown Heights, he has never had any real interaction with the orthodox Jewish community, and is completely ignorant about Judaism in general.  He befriends local Chabad Rabbi Yonatan Katz who, in the wake of rising antisemitism in the neighbourhood, had started leading non-Jewish tour groups around the Chassidic Jewish enclave in Crown Heights as a community outreach initiative.  The series is entitled, “A Non-Jewish Brooklynite visits Hasidic Crown Heights”, and we watch as a complete newbie is introduced to Jewish life, philosophy, rituals, family, customs, taboos, values, and faith.

I would have much preferred that this law professor’s first experience of Judaism would have been something a little more normative than Chabad.  It is not at all that I believe that Chabad gives Judaism a bad reputation, but only that I don’t believe that Chabad best represents typical Jewish beliefs and practices.  Then again, given the diversity of different types of Jewish communities around the world, perhaps I should be very careful judging what Jewish beliefs and practices are “typical”.  However, despite my misgivings, it was fascinating to watch and see how in a few short minutes, the entirety of Jewish experience is distilled for one person with no prior knowledge and a completely open mind.  It was revealing to see what he took away from the experience as what he understood to be the central, most fundamental ideas in Judaism.  It was quite a bit different than what I would have expected.

Of course, in this week’s Parsha, Yitro, the Torah tells us, point-blank, exactly what is most important in Judaism…  The Ten Commandments.  Some of them are basic rules for social living, such as, “do not commit murder” and “do not steal”.  Some help us establish a basic understanding of who God is, and the nature of our relationship with the Divine, “I am the Lord, your God, you shall have no other gods before Me”.  Then, there are those rules that define our basic commitment to Jewish life and ritual, “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy”.  We might imagine that the central theme of Judaism, as Professor Germano perceived it, would be among these rules, but that wasn’t the case.

The answer, in fact, was more connected to another part of the narrative in our Parsha this week, one which often gets set aside because it would simply be unconscionable to deliver a sermon about Parshat Yitro without making the Ten Commandments the central part of the discussion.  But at the beginning of the Parsha, there is a beautiful moment between Moses and his father-in-law Yitro, where Yitro sees that Moses is trying to lead the Israelites by personally adjudicating every single issue in the camp of what may have been as many as 2 million people (603,550 men age 20 and over – Ex. 38:26).  Seeing Moses’ fatigue, Yitro convinces him that in order to be a good leader, he must learn to delegate.  Demonstrating his dedication, Moses protests at first because it is not in his nature to give less than his whole self to every part of the job.  In fact, that is what Moses’ name really means.  UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis teaches that the Hebrew name “Moshe”, comes from the root word which means “draw out”, because Pharoah’s daughter “drew him out” of the Nile.  But if he were really named for that event, his name should have been “Mashu’i” – “the one who was drawn out”, when in fact, the name “Moshe” more accurately means “the one who draws out [for others]”.  It is a subtle difference, but one that very much defines Moses’ character as the devoted, hands-on, leader who not only draws out the Israelites from Egypt, but also bestows law, spirituality, morality, and a national identity upon a people who had known nothing but slavery.  Moshe drive to give the maximum of what he is able to physically muster, is a recurrence of the most noble character trait that our ancient heroes have had since Avraham.  After experiencing a Jewish community for the first time, seeing how Jews care for one another and the world around them, Professor Germano concludes that “giving” is what Judaism is really all about.  And he’s absolutely correct.  The theme of giving, has been the constant purpose of Jewish existence, to effect the world in a positive way, one action at a time.  It is what we give to benefit the world that fulfills our life’s purpose as the Jewish people, to be a Light Unto The Nations.  It is by means of giving that we fulfill the purpose of life itself, God’s intention for the earth, for mankind to elevate it in holiness.  As Germano interprets this idea, “if we focus on this idea of making the world a better place, not only does that help us lead a good life… but if everybody thinks like that, there will be a ripple effect”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781