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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Yitro 5759
Exodus 18:1-20:24
February 6, 1999    20 Shvat 5759

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Martin Buber tells the story of an unexpected visit by an elderly English clergyman in the spring of 1914. A simple Christian of deep faith, he had done much good for the nascent Zionist movement in the days of Theodor Herzl and Buber knew him well. What brought him to Buber that particular day was his foreboding of an imminent outbreak of war worldwide, based not on any public or secret sources of information, but on his own careful recalculation of the age-old prophecies of Daniel. When the presentation ended, Buber took his guest back to the railroad station. Before they parted, the clergyman grasped Buber's arm and said to him with utmost gravity: "Dear friend, we are living in a great time. Tell me: Do you believe in God?"

Discomfited by the naivete of his visitor, Buber could muster only an awkward and evasive answer that left neither man satisfied. A few months later, traveling on a train, Buber was struck with the answer he would have liked to have given to his friend at the time: "If believing in God means being able to speak of Him in the third person, then I probably do not believe in God; or at least, I do not know if it is permissible for me to say that I believe in God. For I know, when I speak of him in the third person, whenever it happens, and it has to happen again and again, there is no other way, then my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth so quickly that one cannot even call it speech (Rivka Horwitz, Buber's Way to "I and Thou," p. 105)."

I can think of no finer comment on the First Commandment of the Decalogue than this quintessential Buberian tale. To be real, activating and redemptive, our faith in God must be grounded in personal experience. Short of that, it can be no more than derivative, speculative and passive, a relationship that Buber was to denigrate with the term "I-It." In accord with that profound insight, the Decalogue opens with a resounding experiential statement: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2)." Everything that follows is undergirded by the immediacy of that overwhelming reality.

Medieval commentators anticipated Buber's insight and sharpened it. Both Abraham Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi, Sefardic polymaths of the twelfth century, asked why the preamble of the Decalogue was not cast in terms of God the creator of heaven and earth. And their answers suggest they fully appreciated that the issue was not one of God's grandeur but God's attentiveness and responsiveness. Experience trumped theory. No one standing at Sinai had witnessed the birth of the cosmos. Indeed, ancient philosophers tended to dispute the very idea that the cosmos had a beginning. But every Israelite at Sinai had experienced the indisputable evidence that God existed and cared manifestly for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is for this reason that the Decalogue explodes with the affirmation of God's role in the exodus rather than creation. To confront God's presence face to face is the only seedbed of an I-Thou relationship (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:1; Kuzari, 1:25).

Rabbinic midrash took aim at the same truth, asking why the Torah did not begin with the Ten Commandments. It is only natural to lead off with that which we deem to be most important. As is often its wont, the midrash responds with a parable. Imagine a foreign ruler who comes to a realm and offers to conduct its affairs. The natives are justifiably skeptical. "What have you ever done for us that we should place our confidence in you?" The stranger backs off and sets about to prove himself. He constructs an aqueduct for badly needed water and defeats the enemies of the realm on the battlefield. Then, and only then, are the natives ready to accept his leadership.

Analogously, had God come unannounced and unknown to Israel demanding adherence to a way of life that puts a premium on self-discipline, it would have surely demurred. Only after the experience of the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the provision of food and water in the wilderness and the defeat of the Amalekites was Israel primed to accept and submit to God's stern guidance (Mechilta ed. By H.S. Horovitz, p. 219).

This midrash tries to account for the narrative framework of the Sinaitic legislation. Psychologically, redemption had to precede revelation for the latter to take. The experience of God's saving power was inestimably deepened by the darkness of inescapable suffering. Bondage forged an I-Thou relationship to which Israel would ever remain faithful, despite lapses in purity and intensity. The centrality of the exodus in Jewish prayer reflects the formative role of this bedrock experience.

Thus is it no accident that the jubilant song of Moses at the sea, read last week, is recited daily in the synagogue service. Judaism, in the spirit of the Torah, embraced history and not nature as the most vivid manifestation of God's love, and the liturgy perpetuates the memory of that first divine intervention in the fate of Israel. The past foreshadows things to come individually and nationally.

What we recall is God in the third person. Our challenge is to internalize that memory and transform it into an experience of God in the second person. The text of the poem is marvelously suggestive: "This is my God, to whom I give glory, my ancestor's God whom I exalt (Exodus 15:2)." The sequence says it all. While our incipient knowledge and experience of God may come from others, we must appropriate and enliven and personalize God for ourselves. There is great comfort in knowing that this God was also worshiped by our ancestors, but without unceasing effort, that supreme being will be only a relic and not a felt force in our own lives.

To drive home the same point that transmission is not enough, the silent devotion (the Amida) preserves the same order. In turning to God, we first make reference to our intimately personal God rather than the more remote God of our ancestors: "Praised are You Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors..."

We can pray to God only in the second person. But when we do, we discover, in the words of Shalom Spiegel, that the act itself is part of the answer we seek (Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 850).

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Yitro are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld