The Big Ten

As you read this blog post, some thoughts to consider:

  1. Sometimes others can offer advice on a particularly vexing problem you are experiencing. How is it that they can see solutions when you can’t figure things out for yourself?
  2. What do you think about offering advice to others?
  3. What do you make of the fact that Yitro was an outsider? Do we accept the advice of outsiders as easily as from people more like ourselves?

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is special to me, speaking strictly personally, because it was my bat mitzvah parasha, in 1960, at a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Becoming a bat mitzvah as a 13-year-old girl was still not something taken for granted in those days. So much so that girls were only allowed to chant the haftorah (the portion from the prophets loosely linked to the Torah portion of the week).

Back in 1960 as a young adolescent, what I thought was special about parashat Yitro was that it contained the Ten Commandments — and who doesn’t know about the Big Ten? Our G-dcast narrator opens her story this week along the same lines.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Ten Commandments are pretty important. They represent one of the parts of the Torah that many folks have heard of, even if they don’t actually know the specifics of what they say. I’m guessing that most people raised in the Western world who have inherited the Judeo-Christian religious ethos can recite a few of what’s known in Hebrew as Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 Utterances). However, if you really stop and read these statements carefully you will see that not all of them are really commandments… or are they?

The lead-up to God’s Revelation at Mt. Sinai comes in Exodus chapter 19, and in chapter 20 we “hear” the voice of the Almighty commanding the tribes of Israel to observe this Decalogue.

Some of these commandments seem universal for all human communities to flourish, such as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13). Others, such as “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), seem psychologically astute. And yet others, such as “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage..” (Exodus 20:2) seem very particular, aimed at those listening in that time and space, and not even being much of a “commandment.”

The general nature of each of these utterances or commandments left the rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations of commentators with plenty of material to unpack, define, discuss, and argue about. All of the laws of Sabbath observance are derived from the simple statement in Exodus 20:8-10, by means of painstaking discussions in the Talmud. The rabbis whose oral discussions are captured by the Talmud fully understood that they were creating a new framework for how the seventh day was to be observed. Although they used the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-10), they knew that their construction of the Sabbath laws was related to the Torah verses as “…mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws…” (Chagigah 10a).

Leaving the Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments) for a moment, I want to focus on a section of the parasha that I think is equally compelling as the well-known list of laws, and that is the system of organization recommended by a non-Israelite leader, the man known as Yitro (or Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses. In fact, the parasha is named after this priest of Midian, who is not only a good listener, but also a man astute in the ways of constructing a viable society. Some call him the first person to apply the rules of organizational development to a group of people who could be regarded as a motley crew of newly liberated slaves.

In chapter 18, Yitro helps Moshe figure out how to set up a system of accountability and organization so that this rag-tag multitude can begin to resemble a society that can survive together in a sustainable way. This removes a tremendous burden from the shoulders of Moshe and allows him to lead his people to their promised land. You can read the conclusion of this whole episode in chapter 18:24-27.

How absolutely wonderful for this Midianite Priest, Yitro, to observe, diagnose, and remediate a problem that plagues many organizations, even today. And how wonderful for his son-in-law, Moshe, to take the advice of his perspicacious father-in-law to heart and to re-organize the Israelites into a viable structure for daily life. Now the tribes of Israel have both the laws by which to lead their lives (the Ten Commandments) and they have adopted a system of hearing complaints and adjudicating arguments, maybe they are ready to hear more (from God) about how to go about building a life of meaning. What do you think?

Welcome to Exodus!

This is kind of exciting: we start a new (secular) year on the calendar and start a new book of the Bible, Exodus or Sh’mot which in Hebrew means “[These Are the] Names,” taken from the opening phrase of the book.

The book begins with a very short history of how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt and these verses act as a kind of bridge from Genesis (Bereishit, “Beginnings”).

Shifra and Puah

Micography art depicting the midwives Shifra and Puah, and the first act of civil disobedience recorded in history.

We are officially leaving the fables about the “beginnings” of the world and of our ancestors, and transitioning to the birth of this new nation, going from being the Children of Israel (the person, who was also called Ya’akov/Jacob) to being the Children of Israel (the emerging nation of Israelites).

As you might expect in a well-crafted story focusing on birth, we have a bunch of female figures and some water imagery that echo what happens in the plot. And, in addition to women (and one special girl, Miriam) this week’s parasha also introduces us to another outsider, Yitro/Jethro, who becomes the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses, our great leader. Yitro, also called Re’uel, is a priest of Midian; he is portrayed as a wise and perspicacious desert-dweller who plays a key role in the story of our people’s birth. He also is the father of seven daughters (again, introducing more women into our tale).

Let’s list the women characters and a few tidbits about them:

  1. A Levite woman (Exodus 2:1) who gives birth to a son. We later find out (in Exodus 6:16-20) that her name is Yocheved and that she had 3 children: Aaron, Miriam, and Moshe.
  2. Miriam, who also is not named here, but referred to as the sister of the baby born to Yocheved (Exodus 2:4) and only named later, in chapter Exodus 15:20.
  3. The Pharaoh’s daughter who, again, is not named at all, but given a name hundreds of years later, in the Talmudic midrash (stories). She is called Batya, meaning “Daughter of God.” Batya rescues the Hebrew baby boy (Moses) from the Nile River.
  4. The seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Yitro) one of whom, Zipporah, is given to Moshe as a wife.
  5. Two Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) named Shifrah and Puah. By the way, if you are not inclined to read the whole parasha, I highly recommend reading this little episode of these two brave midwives (Exodus 1:15-22) and then join the centuries-old conversation about why these women ignore the Pharaoh’s decree. Why indeed? First, consider the following: the midwives are described in a noun phrase, which, in Hebrew, ends up being ambiguous. The phrase is m’yaldot ha-ivri’yot meaning either “the midwives who were themselves Hebrew” or “the (Egyptian) midwives who helped with the birthing of the Hebrew women slaves.” Depending on what you think about the nationality of the midwives, imagine how and why they had the courage to disobey the powerful ruler of Egypt. And how does a reward given by God (Exodus 1:20) influence your conclusion about who they really were?

Basically, this parasha brings all of this woman-energy to the foreground, as if to underscore how essential the women were in the birthing process of this nation.

The G-dcast narrator this week raises questions about another group of outliers — people with disabilities, like Moshe Rabbenu / Our Teacher Moses, who had a speech impediment.

In thinking about those who tend to be “outside” the mainstream both today and in many biblical stories, we have a trio: people with disabilities, women, and non-Israelites.

How do you think this enhances the description of the birth of the Israelite nation?

To further emphasize the birthing metaphor, we can look at the Hebrew word for Egypt: Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim also can be understood to mean “narrow straits,” probably describing the land on both sides of the life-giving waters of the Nile. The river waters are much like birth-waters; our people must make the journey down the birth canal, the narrow straits, before emerging as a brand-new nation, the Israelite nation, the People of Israel.

And so we get to the end of this blog post, without my even sharing thoughts about the burning bush, Moshe’s conversation with God, the name God gives Moshe to identify Godself, the murder of the Egyptian task-master, the fugitive status of our greatest leader, and how Moshe gets along (or doesn’t) with the Israelite slaves. Just in case this parasha whets your appetite for more, here are a couple of sources you might enjoy: