Always Watching – Parshat Yitro 5779

Leading by Example

We’ve all had those moments – the ones that make you either exceedingly proud or exceedingly sad. As a parent, the proud moments are when my children show compassion to others and use the words and actions we’ve tried to teach them since the day of their birth. That’s when my heart explodes in joy. The sad moments are  when they’re hard on themselves or have difficulty maintaining control. But let’s face it, that’s going to happen – they’re kids. I still have the rare out-of-control moment when I get really frustrated, and my heart breaks knowing that for better or worse, our traits are handed down not only in DNA, but by modeling behavior. Our children are always watching. They see how we act and react and know when we’re proud of ourselves or when we’ve done something wrong, and they learn how to exist in the world based on our examples.

The choices we make, whether as parents, teachers, or citizens, have repercussions for those in our community and beyond. That’s how we’re aware of the harm we’ve done to the planet, how we take control of our spending and savings, and how we set boundaries. Setting a good example also means setting up the next generation up for success, and hopefully not punishing them for our own misdeeds.

The Torah reminds us of this in Parshat Yitro. The central piece of the portion is the giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free people outside of slavery. But before the Torah gives us these laws, it reminds us of the family relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system.

As God is giving the 10 Commandments to the nation, we receive this reminder: “For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children.” That’s right, God holds a grudge. More so, God remembers the ways in which we behave, both good and bad, and reminds us that what we do now does indeed affect the future of humanity.

The 10 Commandments are the essential elements that God puts forth to guide us in creating a positive, caring, civil society. These are the rules we are to teach our children. Why? Because they’re always watching, and they will always remember. It is our duty to teach them by showing the ways in which we are to treat one another and build community. Everything we do will live on throughout generations – our failures and our successes.

All I Ask – Parshat Yitro 5778

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Last year as Shiri rounded the corner of three-and-a-half, we realized we were in for trouble. She’s a wonderful, energetic, and fairly typical kid, which means big emotions, a strong will, and a pretty strong desire for autonomy. Any one of these qualities is a lot to handle in an emerging human who doesn’t quite yet possess the ability to self soothe or hear the word “no.” Now put them all together, and Duncan and I were exhausted and at a loss as to how to reign in this behavior.

After a particularly stressful week when we felt like all of the boundaries and rules we thought we had set were at best ineffective and at worst causing more harm than good, we sought outside help. We discussed the situation with her preschool teachers. Their suggestion? Create a list of expectations together as a family and mount them on the wall.

It was brilliant advice, and it was helpful to hear it from another source even if I’d thought of it myself a hundred times before putting it into practice. The Torah this week offers the same brilliant advice. This week we read Parshat Yitro, perhaps one of the most famous portions in the entire Torah. The central piece of the portion is the giving of the Ten Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a people living outside the confines of slavery.

Parshat Yitro comes as the Israelites are still adjusting to their newfound freedom. Their attitudes and behaviors aren’t that far from a very strong-willed three-year-old. There are outbursts at perceived injustices, complaints at the choices that don’t seem to cater to their needs, and a whole lot of whining. God invites them to unify under ten simple rules on which to build their society, and the expectations were set and mounted for all to see. And it’s not really about the number. Ten might seem like a lot of rules or barely enough, depending on how you look at it. The one overall theme is about taking responsibility for our actions.

Perhaps the personal struggle I mentioned brings back memories of raising your own children or reminds you of a challenging moment as a teacher or friend. The bottom line is sometimes we need to be told to make good choices . . . and a visual aid never hurts.

Laws and In-Laws – Parshat Yitro 5777

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Marriage isn’t just a union of two people, it’s a union of two families. One of the challenging parts of getting married is establishing a new relationship with your partner’s family. Best case, your new in-laws are supportive, but considerate and respectful of your boundaries. Or you may have in-laws who mean well, but are unaware of their overbearing, overreaching presence. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle, and just as we have with our own parents, there are wonderful, close moments and moments when we need space.

Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite nation, is tested with the ultimate in in-law relationships in this week’s Torah portion. This week we read Parshat Yitro, perhaps one of the most famous portions in the entire Torah. The central piece of the portion is the giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moshe and the People Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free, self-governed people outside of slavery. But before the Torah gives us these laws, it reminds us of the family relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system.

Moshe is the leader of a nation, attempting to please the people and God, and the last thing he needs is a nosey, bossy father-in-law to tell him how he should be running the nation. Turns out that is exactly what he gets. When it comes to adjudicating the nation’s problems, Moshe is still somewhat lacking. Unfortunately, he has created a system of long lines and dissatisfied customers. In comes Yitro, his father-in-law, with a plan, a plan that ultimately works to perfection and helps save Moshe as the leader of the nation.

For this to have worked, Moshe needed to have in place a trusting – or at the very least honest – relationship with Yitro. Clearly, there was some work that went into building this relationship for the situation to play out the way it did.

All family relationships have their fair share of difficulties, and sometimes in-law relationships can be some of the most stressful, simply because of the number of people to please and appease. However, if Moshe, the great leader of the Israelites, with all the stresses he must have endured could have this level of partnership with his in-law, certainly there’s hope – and room to grow – for all of us.

Do It Or Else – Parshat Yitro 5776

Do It Or Else

Raising my “threenager” (though she won’t be three until September, I’m pretty sure this term applies), I am constantly straddling the line between coercion and freedom of choice. In some circumstances it’s totally acceptable for my daughter to have the final say. Does it really make a difference if she wears the purple socks or the rainbow socks to shul? No, not as long as she’s wearing socks.

Of course there are times when Mommy has to put her foot down. As parents, we have to have our bottom lines. I’ve made peace with this, and I don’t mind standing firm on an issue that’s for my child’s own good. Rather, it’s the persuasion game that I don’t care for. We each develop our own bag of tricks (and threats) to use in cases when you need your child to do something you know she doesn’t want to do. I can tell myself a thousand times that I have her best interests at heart, but I often end up feeling guilty when I’ve tricked or threatened my toddler into following the rules.

Our Torah portion this week, parshat Yitro, paints a familiar picture of God as the parent. The text begins with the Israelites arriving at Mount Sinai and the preparations for the presenting and accepting of the commandments. As a side note, this event is sometimes called a “theophany,” which is a term of Greek origin to describe a manifestation of God. Following this momentous event, the Israelites are able to move on in their journey in the desert, now in possession of the laws meant to help them build a healthy society.

Chapter 19, verses 7-8 read: “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s word to the Lord.” It sounds simple enough; Moses as the messenger shares God’s word with the people and they agree to follow it. But hidden in this simple encounter lies an unusual occurrence: the people all answered as one. Is it possible that the hundreds of thousands of Israelites standing at the bottom of the mountain all opened their mouths at the same time without arguing and agreed, together as a people? That seems more than a bit unusual.

The Talmud explains this phenomenon as God compelling them to answer by lifting the mountain over their heads, threatening to crush them with it unless they accept the Torah. That sounds to me like anything but free will. Another tradition likens this moment to God suspending the mountain not as a threat to crush the people, but to create a huppah, a wedding canopy, so that God and the Israelite nation are joined together in the covenant. While these two interpretations of God’s intent are polar opposites, it makes complete sense that an event of this magnitude would mix both joy and fear, the extremes which are illustrated.

Let us extend this idea further. Being a part of the Jewish community and living a Jewish life means that we have moments of intense joy and intense sadness. With as many life cycle events and holidays as we have, it comes with the territory. In either case these moments compel us to stick together and to speak as one. Furthermore, you may want to follow a strict Pesach kashrut practice, but decide on a less traditional Shabbat observance if that works for your family. If we’re always building, learning, and growing together as a people, the color of your socks – so to speak – is up to you.