Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Yitro: The covenant revelation

This is THE parshah. By THE, I mean it's the giving of the Torah at Sinai. This is a long entry, but there's some interesting stuff re: the Zodiac and the "commandments" in here, as well as a take on "Thou shall not kill" versus "Thou shall not murder" (something I'm very, very adament about). So if anything, browse and check out the BOLD stuff, which at least might be of interest! I want to know people are actually reading this ... not that I do this for other people. It's for me and my Torah education, but it kills me to not have anyone to talk it over with. It's Torah STUDY! Not Torah ... um ... alonetime? Hah.

+ In the first seven verses of this parshah, it is emphasized FIVE times that Jethro is Moses's father-in-law. But why? Jethro, of course, is responsible for suggesting the organization of a judiciary to Moses, which is why the story of the exodus departs for this narrative. In the next five verses, his father-in-law status again is repeated over and over. ... You know, just in case we forgot.

+ Chapter 19 of Exodus goes into the encampment in the wilderness. Some of the comments on the sages thoughts on the fact that this all happened in the third month (Sivan) are interesting. Sivan falls along with the zodiacal sign Gemini, the twins. According to the comments, "The Sages ... take it as symbolizing the equal importance of the written Torah and the oral Torah." I think it's interesting that the sages saw a connection/significance enough to note such a connection. The notation is quick to point out, though, that the sages never used the zodiac to predict the future or to implicate in people's lives, but that they did appear frequently in decorations and the scales of justice (Libra) even came to signify the High Holy Days. What an interesting slice of insight into the sages ...

+ Ex. 19:1 has some more interesting notes on the emphasis that the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt when it says "on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai." Via the comments on the verse,
"The Hebrew here literally means 'on this day' ... as if to suggest that on any day when a Jew accepts the obligations of the Torah, it is as if he or she were there that day, standing at Sinai and hearing the voice of G-d."
Rashi adds that "every time a Jew reads the Torah, it should be as if for the first time." Other citations discuss further the implications of the simple "on that very day" as relating to converts and their role in Judaism, saying that when they join the nation, it is as if they, too, were standing there that very day.

+ Ex. 19:5-6 -- "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation ..."

I imagine this is probably the "hardcore" point-and-look spot for those who get all hot and bothered about the Jews being the "chosen" nation. Indeed, it says that Israel shall be the "treasured" nations among all others. I've spent a lot of time trying to explain the idea of choseness as I understand it and as Judaism understands it, but most people don't seem to take well to it, regardless of any explanation. Jews have "no monopoly on G-d," as the commentary provides. At the same time, the "treasured possession" among all the nations merely implies that the special relationship is one of the leading example. The nation of Israel is set up at this point to lead as an example that Torah is accessible and liveable, that G-d is one. It's often mistaken as a superiority complex, which I can understand, but look at the Jews, the world's oldest monotheistic group. It's quite compelling.

+ There's something interesting in the comments after discussing the special relationship Israel has with G-d: "This is true not only when the rest of the world is pagan but will also be true in the future, even after all the nations will have turned to G-d." Now, I suppose I haven't spent a lot of time studying the end of days and the appearance of Moshiach (it's something I'm sort of putting off in order to wrap my head around it all), but this sings of the basis of Christianity (aside from the whole Jesus as the son of G-d bit). This comment basically suggests that all nations should/will turn to G-d, yet does not suggest how this will happen or when this will happen. Is it an advocation of proselytizing? I suppose the requirement for Moshiach is that all people turn to G-d ... or is it? Is it just Israel? "All the nations." Torah never suggests (as far as I know) how this is to be accomplished, though. Christianity banks on the firm believe in proselytizing and recruiting. Why has this never been a policy of Jews if it is expected that all nations will turn to G-d?

+ There's an interesting take on the people's reaction to G-d's word via Moses in Ex. 19:7-8. One tradition evidently suggests that G-d was compelled to lift the mountain above the peoples' heads, threatening to crush them with it unless they accepted Torah (BT Shab. 88a). Now, there is the loving G-d and the vengeful G-d, Torah does a masterful job of displaying the two. But there's nothing in the original verse that suggests such a thing. Additionally, I don't really know that a G-d would scare his people into believing, would G-d? Personally, I prefer (most trust in) the tradition that G-d offered Torah to many other nations, yet they all rejected it for it's strictness and duty.

+ Ex. 19:15 emphasizes the importance of purity from not going near a woman prior to G-d's revelation. The revelation, however, is meant and presented to all -- men and women, alike. The comments on this stress that "despite Judaism's emphasis on family and congregation as settings for fashioning holiness, sometimes we need distance from others, even from those with whom we are most intimate, to find G-d." This, of course, reminds me of an article I read on regarding the mechitzah. (I thought I blogged on it, in fact I know I did. But I can't find it.) The article emphasizes the difficulty in praying -- even while alone, but more so when you have those you love near you. Finding focus and being able to truly focus on prayer is incredibly difficult. The mechitzah often is seen as sexist and wrong and keeping women and men divided (a sexist, segregationist philosophy, if you will). But after reading that article and reading these comments, I believe more so that the mechitzah is an incredibly positive tool for prayer, as perhaps it is one way to try so very hard to create concentration. (Now, I'm not Orthodox and don't go to an Orthodox shul, but I have attended Chabad services and found the most frustrating part of the mechitzah was being unable to see the rabbi.)

+ Ahh, the presentation of the commandments. Commandments? Wait a second. The Hebrew says aseret ha-d'varim which translates very simply as "the ten words." Commandment, or mitzvah in Hebrew, doesn't appear in the text as such. When the Jews translated the Hebrew into Greek, they used the phrase deka logoi, or decalogue. So it is probably better to refer to the "commandments" as The Decalogue.

The commentary points out that The Decalogue is unique to most other forms of law of the ancient. If you look at most legal systems, they included "If ... then ..." statements. The 10 statements were unique in that they were simply DO NOT DO THIS!

+ The commandment of Shabbat ... how torturous you are to me. I currently work Friday nights and Saturdays at 3 p.m. I've expressed my distress as such, and vowed that my next job will in no way keep me from Shabbat (the whole, full thing, damnit); it is not something with which I am willing to compromise any longer. The most heart-wrenching thing about it, though, has been highlighted in the comments of Etz Chayim: "Those whose circumstances make it impossible to keep Shabbat as they would like to, should at least find ways to remind themselves that it is Shabbat." I wish I could count the times that I'm sitting at work on a Friday night, mulling about my work, when suddenly it hits me "Blimey, it's Shabbat!" A rush of guilt and sadness rushes over me. Not guilt because it's one of those things you're SUPPOSED to do, but because it is so much a part of me that the fact that I have lost that immediate recognition of it. It's distressing and depressing and hopefully by this time next month or a little beyond that, I will once again reclaim the part of me that lives and breathes Shabbat (where there is challah, blessings, candles, shul, Torah, discussion, Havdalah).

+ My FAVORITE commandment! That is, the one I most argue, is "Thou shall not murder." Notice that it says "murder" and not "kill" ...? There is a difference, by the way. The original Hebrew translates as murder, which relates to the premeditated, unlawful killing of a person by another. Killing, on the other hand, is any act that brings about the end of someone or something's life. Many a person has tried to argue "BUT THEY ARE THE SAME!" but they are NOT. This is where my biggest opposition of placing the Ten Commandments in public places arises from. In many instances, these monuments feature symbols of Christianity and Judaism, but they always feature the words "Thou shall not kill," which is not the Jewish commandment, I'm sorry. The distinction is absolutely, positively necessary. Killing can occur from self-defense, and do those persons who commit such an action deserve one of the biggest clouds hanging over their head? The woman being raped kills her attacker after he has beat her nearly dead ... is this woman guilty of breaking a commandment? Hell no she isn't. Perhaps, yes, it is unfortunate, but in no way is the woman guilty of committing sin. She need not go to her local parish to repent or to spend the High Holy Days asking for forgiveness. At least not in my view, darn't.

+ Adultery! Martin Buber had a beautiful take on marriage and committed relationships: "G-d is found in relationships." Further, the comments say, "G-d is present when two people pledge themselves to each other; G-d is present in a home sustained by marital love."

+ I want to conclude this Torah entry (which I really could expand soooo much further on, but don't want to eat up too much space, plus it'll be things to write on in future editions, as this is going to be a forever-life-study kind of thing) by talking about the divine origin of Torah. It is, perhaps, the most difficult thing for most to deal with (aside from the prophets and G-d approaching the patriarchs and Moses). There's a great audio clip over at that discusses the divine origin of Torah, that at first seems sort of dragging and lengthy, but when it gets to the point, boy does it get to the point. The speaker goes through the creation of the world's religions and the idea behind revelation, what is plausible and what seems (by most accounts) not to be. That is, the commentator addresses the fact that Judaism (the covenant and revelation) began with G-d appearing to the masses, not merely one or two persons (Islam, Christianity, etc.).

I'm not about to say other religions are wrong or inaccurate or implausible, because if there's one thing I learned from being non-religious for the greater portion of my life, it is that there is no way to know who is right and who is wrong or whether anything we are devoted to is, in fact, the way. But it is interesting how such a long-lasting beliefs system managed to spread to all Israelites in such an amazingly efficient way that simple word-of-mouth could not have accomplished by any comprehensible, sane means. Millions of people? All who believe that there was revelation at Sinai? Such a LARGE /lie/ could not have been told.

Anyhow, it's an interesting soundbite definitely worth a huge listen. I'd be interested to talk it over with anyone, too. It helped me further formulate a belief in divine origin, even if I do have certain questions and curiosities re: the revelation.