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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat Yitro 5766
Exodus 18:1–20:23
February 18, 2006     20 Shevat 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Rose, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Har Shalom, Potomac, Maryland

We are each a product of the stories that we carry within us. The mystery and awesome power of God's revelation at Mount Sinai described in this week's parashah, Yitro, is central to the Jewish story we each hold. The encounter with God that occurred at that mountain in the wilderness is the grand climax of the Exodus story. The going out of Mitzrayim and the splitting of the sea was our birth as a nation; but we were babies until we received the Torah, our instruction manual for Jewish living. The experience of Sinai united us not only then. Even today it unites us as one people with a direction and purpose. Wrote Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut: "As long as the people as a continuing organism in history keep alive the consciousness of Sinai, each Jew can find his [or her] roots... Each generation should regard itself as standing at Sinai" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 530). It is our story.

According to tradition, we were all there at Sinai. At that crowning moment when God revealed God's self to the people of Israel, not only were the newly released slaves present, but also each and every one of us, and all future generations of the Jewish people, were in attendance. Twice each year, when we stand in synagogue as the aseret ha-dibrot, the Decalogue, are chanted, I try to imagine myself standing with the multitude at the foot of Sinai. Imagine with me.

There is a crush of people around us. We are frightened. We are in awe. As the morning sun dawns over the mountain top, there is thunder and lightning. The shofar blasts make us tremble. Mt. Sinai, we see, is covered in smoke. The whole mountain is trembling violently and the voice of God is heard. Some of us hear God's voice declaring all ten of the commandments, the divine utterances; others, according to tradition, hear God say just the first syllable, the first sound, and then hear Moses recite the rest of the commandments. Let us stand before Sinai and let us hear the words of the commandments amongst the trembling, the shofar blasts, and the smoke. The divine words ring out — I am Adonai who brought you out from Egypt. You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not swear falsely. Remember Shabbat. Honor your father and mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet.

We were all there 3,500 years ago. And we are all today reaffirming this covenant to live our lives bound by these words. What does this covenant mean in our lives? How does it shape our actions? How does each of us plan on perpetuating this covenant, ensuring that it is followed by future generations? We can do so by responding as we responded at Sinai: "na'aseh, v'nishma (we will do and we will heed)!" "We will do" is the key. Our Jewish future depends on our putting our story into action.

As we stand in synagogue this Shabbat reenacting that moment when we first experienced the revelation at Sinai, we can each ask ourselves: "What does this covenant mean in my life? How do I plan on perpetuating this covenant, ensuring that it is followed by future generations? How does it shape my actions?"

Let me make some suggestions, focusing on three of the commandments, three of the mitzvot.

"Honor your father and mother." During the next days, let's express our love and respect, our thanks to our parents. Let us visit with them, let us call. And for those of us who have lost a parent or both of our parents, let us share a story or two of their lives, in their honor, with our children, with others around us.

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." The Shabbath is a time to reflect, to relax, to focus, to refocus, to stop what we're doing so that we can see what we have done and plan what we have yet to do. Take some time this Shabbat to relax, to reflect, to focus. Let us each act to make the seventh day a unique, special time; a time set aside.

"You shall not steal." We usually do not think of the negative mitzvot as requiring conscious action, but our rabbis expanded this command to include gnaivat daat, stealing someone's knowledge or understanding. Meaning that we must speak clearly, we must express ourselves in ways that are understood by others. That we must be truthful in all that we say and all that we do. Let us watch our words to fulfill this mitzvah as well.

Three mitzvot: honor our parents, sanctify Shabbat, do not steal/be honest with our words. These are just three ways to put our shared Jewish story into action. Focusing on these sacred acts, or any of the other jewels of Jewish life, unites us as one people throughout time, living one story. We reaffirm the covenant of Sinai when it shapes our deeds. We live the story that is within each of us by committing ourselves to Jewish actions. The covenant at Sinai was not only made by our ancestors, but also can be recreated by each of us day after day. See you at Sinai!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi David Rose


The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Yitro are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.