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.

Commandment of Choice – Parshat Yitro 5775


When I was in middle school my grandmother gave me a sweatshirt that read: “God created man before woman, but then you always create a rough draft before you create a masterpiece.” It was a funny one-liner, and at that time in my life when the differences between boys and girls were becoming more and more pronounced and when they were starting to notice those differences, this sweatshirt quickly became my favorite.

I wasn’t your average twelve-year-old girl. I craved religion and a leadership role in the synagogue.   But in my home congregation, women were not counted in a minyan or allowed to lead any service other than Kabbalat Shabbat or Psukei d’zimra. Many women didn’t wear tallitot, and I’d never seen any wear tefillin. But at twelve years old, I wanted it all.

I begged to lead as much of the service as they’d allow, and my mind was made up that I was going to wear tefillin. I don’t know what it was about those little black boxes with leather straps, but I was drawn to them. The boys and the other girls made fun of me because of it. The older men in the congregation thought it was wrong. Many of them stared. I didn’t care; I absolutely loved putting on my tefillin in the morning. I chose the mitzvah, and I didn’t care what anybody else thought. Looking back on that experience, I know in my heart that my attachment came partly from being raised in a family that loved being Jewish and partly from my ability to choose to take on this responsibility.

Our parshah this week, parshat Yitro, continues the narrative of Moshe as the new leader of a newly freed nation of Israel. After generations of slavery, the freedom of choice was not a familiar concept. And as the people were learning to discover freedom, Moshe learned every day what it meant to be a leader. Even Moses, the great leader of the Israelites, didn’t really choose that title. He insisted that he was the wrong person for the job, and God would hear none of it. We see Moses the leader struggling to find the passion in doing something he’s been told to do.

It can be difficult to love a job if you aren’t free to choose whether or not you want to do it. It happens all the time with adults and children. A student will write beautiful poetry . . . right up until poetry becomes an assignment, and the student shuts down. I hated carrots growing up, but I was required to eat my carrots at dinner. Years later, when no one was waiting for me to finish the vegetables on my plate, I actually found that I didn’t hate carrots at all. I just hated being told to eat them.

In parshat Yitro, God utters ten phrases that are often viewed as the be all and end all, ten demands and obligations upon us as Jews. But I believe that each one presents us with a choice. These utterances give us the choice to decide how we will act. Some come with explicit consequences attached, others leave it up to the individual to understand, but each one presents an opportunity.

  1. “I am the Lord your God.” Right at the start we are given the choice to believe and move forward on this Jewish path or walk away from faith.
  2. “Have no other Gods but me, and make no images.” Here we learn that apparently less is more, and the choice is ours to unbind ourselves from the physical and give meaning to the spiritual.
  3. “Do not use the name of God in vain.” Choose your words wisely and make each one count.
  4. “Remember Shabbat and make it holy.” You are in control of how you use your time. If you choose Shabbat, that holiness becomes a weekly part of life.
  5. “Honor your father and mother.” Choose to keep family and loved ones close or choose a life of solitude.
  6. “Do not murder.” Choose to sustain and maintain life.
  7. “Do not commit adultery.” As we tell children, choose to keep your hands to yourself.
  8. “Do not steal.” Choose to consider what you take away from others and what you give to them.
  9. “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Choose an honest life, do the right thing, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
  10. “Do not covet.” Choose to accept and appreciate what you have, and choose to find balance in the material and the spiritual.

These mitzvot seem universal to us, so it’s odd to think of any of these ten having exemptions, but the world of Jewish responsibility is a tricky one. Some of our other mitzvot, like wearing tefillin six mornings a week, are time-bound obligations for men, while women are exempt. When I was twelve, I’m not sure I knew what “exempt” meant, but I knew I had a choice.

I’ve been asked, “What’s it like to be a female rabbi?” or “What can you offer as a female rabbi that a male rabbi cannot?” Truthfully, I believe that each human being offers something that no other human can, regardless of gender. But when I stop to think about it, as a female rabbi – and a female Jew for that matter – I have a distinct advantage. Besides being able to build and bridge relationships from a new perspective and serve as a positive Jewish role model for both men and women, I have an enormous opportunity. I have choice.

For me, the most powerful answer to the question of being a female rabbi comes from our parshah this week. At the beginning of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law asks Moshe about this Israelite religion, and then chooses to become a part of it. He chooses to join our people on their journey and chooses to accept the Ten Commandments and Jewish living not because he is obligated to, but because he wants to.

As a female rabbi and as a Jewish woman, I have the unique advantage of approaching my Jewish prayer, ritual, and life from the perspective of choice. I put on my tallit and tefillin not only because the text tells me to or because someone made me or even asked me to. I put them on because I want to, because I was able to explore their meaning and find my own connection. When I put on my tallit and tefillin, it is out of a passionate love for the traditions that bind me to my past, to God, and to the Jewish people.

Watching the younger children in services is heartwarming. They love tefillot, they are excited about the prayers, especially when they finally learn that one that they’ve been struggling with. You see, no one has told them yet that in just a few years they’ll be obligated to pray. When the students become b’nai mitzvah age, suddenly Judaism becomes a chore. Someone’s telling me I have to do this, therefore it must not be fun.

Living a Jewish life, especially when you’re in middle school, is often presented as a have to, a must, and not a choice. When we explain to teenagers the obligations we expect of them, sometimes the message we’re really sending is “It’s a good thing we’re making you do this, otherwise you wouldn’t want to.” For example, when we end the discussion of kashrut by simply saying that we keep these laws because God said so, we lose a precious opportunity to explain that we observe because we are asked to, but also because it fills every day with the recognition that we are a part of something bigger.

Choice is a pretty powerful thing. And if we can empower each other with the idea of living Jewish tradition by choice, regardless of age or gender, together we’re creating a masterpiece.

Everything Old is New Again – Parshat Yitro 5774

Think about the last time you watched your favorite movie.  You’ve probably seen it 100 times, yet each time you watch it you find something new to enjoy like foreshadowing that wasn’t obvious before or minute aspects of an intimate relationship that were easy to overlook.  Your experience and love of the movie isn’t diminished because you’ve seen it again and again; it’s enriched.  In the school world, at a certain point students realize that review is a part of the necessary work during the year.  At the beginning of the year, review is especially helpful to get the brain turned back on to learning and to help the students draw upon information they previously learned.  Later in the year, it’s helpful for students to look back and see what they’ve learned.

Review, the process of going over something again and again, also serves a deeper purpose.  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 towards being a people outside of slavery.  But, before the Torah instructs us in these laws, it reminds us of the family relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system.

In chapter 19, verse 1, the Torah subtly reminds Moshe (and the modern reader) of the importance of being present.  The text reads, “On the third day of the children of Israel’s going out from Egypt, on that day they came to the wilderness of Sinai.”  The medieval commentator Rashi notices, on a closer read, that the text is redundant.  Why does it give us the date and then say again, “on that day”?  It would have been sufficient to just give either the date or say on that day.  Rashi answers his question by teaching that the Torah uses this phraseology to remind us that this day was unique, and moreover, every day is unique.

Rashi expands his comment to the Ten Commandments that come after this.  We read the Commandments for the first time in this parshah, but read them again in Deuteronomy as the Torah narrative comes to an end.  The Torah includes the Commandments twice because we read the words anew each time our brain processes them.  Rashi explains that “on this day” means that each day, every day, is a day when we accept Torah, and each reading should be like we’re hearing it in a new way for a new time.

Using this logic we learn that while we may read the Torah over and over again, it is always something new.  While we might have to review our multiplication facts before moving on to other math functions, we know that taking the time to review it means solidifying the knowledge and making a new connection to it.  Rashi asks us to view the Torah similarly to how we would a favorite book or movie.  To read it over and over again is a way of renewing our covenant, our promise to follow through and to see our heritage with fresh eyes.  Most importantly, parshat Yitro reminds us to truly see each day as an opportunity to learn something new, each experience, no matter how mundane or repetitive, as a worthwhile connection to knowing ourselves and our world deeper.

Never Any Time – Parshat Yitro 5773

I grew up watching “Saved by the Bell,” that classic afternoon sitcom featuring tanned California teens as they navigated those troublesome – and endlessly comical – teenage years.  Ask any adult of my generation which episode comes to mind first, and the answer will likely be the episode in which Jessie, the perfect, straight A head of student council, feels overburdened by the pressure to get everything done.  She becomes addicted to caffeine pills and has a nervous breakdown in which she professes “There’s no time, there’s never any time!”  Jessie struggles with the familiar problem of having so much to do and no time to do it.  I think this episode stuck with me all these years because it’s easy to relate to the out-of-control feeling that comes when there are overwhelming deadlines to meet.  And we tend to punish ourselves by skipping a meal, staying home instead of going out with a friend, and just driving ourselves mad with frustration.

We often get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, of wanting everything to get done, that we forget to take care of ourselves.  Our parshah this week, Yitro, sends us this important reminder.  We read about Moshe, the leader of the Israelite nation, struggling to do it all on his own.  Just when Moshe appears to be dealing with – among other things – time management issues, God sends down the Ten Commandments.  When God gives us the ten holy utterances, they serve as a blueprint for our own lives.  They focus on balancing belief and spirituality with physical needs and relationships with our neighbors. 
Specifically, commandment number four reminds us of the importance of taking a break.  Chapter 20, verses 8-11 instruct us to have Shabbat: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy.  Six days you should work, and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Shabbat of God your God; in it you shall not do any work…”  God commands us to take a break, and ends this commandment by teaching that even God, the all-powerful creator of the world, needed a break once a week. 
We are often striving for more: to do more, be more, learn more, but we forget to reflect on the cost of trying to pack our lives with wall-to-wall activity.  It’s especially tough when we reach new stages in our lives to find the balance.  As a first year rabbinical student, I struggled with getting all of my work done and getting good grades, along with staying on top of my personal life.  I was pretty much a wreck until one of my teachers sat me down and taught me Rashi’s comment on the 6th commandment: everyone needs a day of rest.  Rashi teaches us that the work we get done is the work we are meant to finish.  If it isn’t done, then we weren’t meant to get there.  Rashi urges us beyond our fear of losing control and asks us to recognize our imperfect mortality.  Shabbat is a time not only to kindle Shabbos candles, but to rekindle the relationships, traditions, and connections that truly make us human.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Some people and communities support “commerce-free days” to encourage people to take a short break from shopping and digital life in order to recharge and refocus. Sounds a lot like Shabbat, doesn’t it?

photo credit: Ma Got Sole via photopin cc