I Swear, I Promise – Parshat Yitro 5782

How many chances are too many chances for someone to learn a lesson or make a change? On the one hand, I want to believe a person when they say, “I swear, I’ll never do that again.” On the other hand, experience tells me that for some people, keeping these types of promises is a struggle that’s deep and not easily overcome. 

It’s harder for children to grasp the concept of lasting behavioral change, but we hope and anticipate that it comes with maturity. How many times do parents hear the plea, “I promise I’ll listen this time,” only to have the promise broken again? 

Promises, and the consequences of breaking them, are outlined in the Torah. As early as Abraham’s time, promises were made between nations. These promises were usually sworn upon a man’s thigh, the direct link to his future. Abraham didn’t “swear on his mother’s grave,” but he did make promises based on the future of his progeny. This is likely why our Torah portion this week, Parshat Yitro, includes promises and swearing on God’s name in the ten central commandments of our nation. 

The giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel means we now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free people outside of slavery. Specifically in chapter 20, verse 7, we read in the fourth commandment, “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.” Another translation suggests that you shouldn’t resort to using God’s name to make your lies more plausible. Either way, the commandment is clear that using God’s name as proof that you’re telling the truth is not something we’re supposed to do.

I can almost imagine the Israelite nation at the mountain, receiving the commandments, knowing that God, their God, was stronger than all the others and formulating plans to use that to their advantage when other nations threatened them. God understood this human instinct and so put this commandment in place for us.

This particular commandment reminds us of both the power of our words and the strength of our convictions. Is it worth swearing or promising if there’s a chance you can’t keep that promise? And is there a better chance of keeping the promise if you know that you, and you alone, are responsible? Perhaps the reason that changes in behavior are so challenging is because when we swear to or on God, we remove the burden from ourselves to keep the promise. Parshat Yitro, among its many famous lessons, teaches that there is only one person responsible for making the changes we want to see in ourselves.

Snow Plow Dreams – Parshat Yitro 5781

I have been traumatized by snow ever since moving to Portland. I grew up in Michigan where snow wasn’t really a big deal. It snowed most of the winter, but since that was the norm, the city was built to deal with it. We had ample snow plows and systems in place to keep roads safe. At 3:00 a.m. on snowy mornings I’d often be woken up by the sound of the plows clearing driveways and streets, knowing we’d have school that day.

When it snows in Portland, the city shuts down. We don’t currently own a car with all-wheel drive, and we live at the bottom of two slightly sloping hills in our neighborhood, so when it snows, we’re stuck until it melts. The longest we’ve stuck at home was seven complete days, back when we had a 3-year-old and 3-month-old. To say it was traumatizing is an understatement. Now every time they predict snow, I run to the store to stock up on essentials (and then some) so we won’t be stuck without. My stomach ties in knots just thinking about the first flakes falling to the ground. The weird thing is on the few snowy days we have, I’ll still wake up in the middle of the night because I think I hear a snow plow whisk through our street, pushing a path to freedom.

Why do our brains do this? Why do certain smells or sounds trick us at our most vulnerable moments? I can’t explain the biology of it, but I can tell you this happens in the Torah too, especially in our parshah this week, Yitro.

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 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. And the end encapsulates the experience of intensity of being at Sinai, but in an odd way.

Chapter 20, verse 15 reads, “All the people saw the thunder and the blare of the horn.” Why is the wrong verb used here? We don’t see thunder and hear lightning, we hear thunder and see lightning. Why the reversal? A common interpretation is that the experience was so intense and so overwhelming that their senses were all in a tizzy and they experienced something beyond what they knew as reality. And the key is it doesn’t matter if the thunder was actually visible in some miraculous way, only that it seemed that way to the Israelites. It’s not necessarily that the scrambling of the senses caused an intense experience, but perhaps that the intense experience caused the scrambling of the senses.

What a fitting reminder about this past year – the pandemic has our sense of reality and time all confused. How many times have you heard someone joke about not knowing what day it is or feeling like it’s the same day over and over again? The human mind is amazing at adapting and solving problems, but it can also trip us up and cause even more problems. Your trigger might not be snow flurries, but we can still rely on each other for the mental and emotional support we need as we plow ahead together.

Louder and Louder – Parshat Yitro 5780

louder.jpg

There are certain phrases my parents repeated when I was a child that stick with me to this day. At certain life moments they ring in my head, just as loudly as they did when I was a child. “You’ll do this willingly or unwillingly.” “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.” “Bedtime for Bonzo.” (Although looking back, maybe it was a little weird that my parents were referencing a Ronald Reagan movie.)

Like muscle memory, I repeat these phrases when I’m in certain situations with my own children, and they are equally meaningful to me now as they were then. Some lessons in life resonate long after we’ve walked through the original experience. They don’t fade away with the gift of time; instead, they continue to push their way into our daily existence. 

The Torah, in a way, plays the same role as those phrases. The lessons are timeless and seem to become louder or softer in the echoes of our minds, based on world events. 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, verse 19 details the atmosphere surrounding the receiving of the 10 Commandments. This is the moment the Israelites are all gathered together, and you can almost picture this awe inspiring moment: the mountain lit with lightning and the deep roll of thunder. There was awe and fear, excitement and nervousness. And in the midst of it all, there was a horn that was being blown, and as Moses spoke, that horn got louder and louder and louder. The Torah marks this moment vividly, to the extent that you can almost feel yourself present during the theophany, in that incredible moment. 

Normal sounds fade; the vibrations in the air dissipate, and they are no longer detectable. The Torah, like that horn on Mount Sinai, is different. The blare of the horn and all the other events in the Torah are meant to be louder each time we read about them. Not only are the laws and rules that were given to us still relevant now (though our interpretations might change over 3000 years), but it’s more vital than ever that their echoes never fade.

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

all-i-ask.jpg

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.