Parashat Yitro

Friday, February 14, 2020/19 Shevat, 5780
Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23

Dear Friends,

There are five short chapters between liberation and revelation. Whereas in last week’s Torah portion, we rejoiced in our freedom from the land of Egypt, this week we receive Ten Commandments. It is no small miracle that we were able to become a nation with laws, rules, and guidelines in less than three months of wandering in the desert.

Then again, these were no ordinary times. As a people, we bonded because of a shared history. We bond each year over the shared narrative we tell about the journey from slavery to redemption. “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today,” explains author and writing instructor Robert McKee. The stories we tell shape our identities, and our community. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari puts it in starker terms. He explains that human beings are not stronger or better than other animals. The contrary is often true. Human beings took over the world for one reason alone – because we are storytellers, and through our stories we are united.

Our very identity as a nation became a possibility, because of our shared story as a people yearning for freedom, independence, and a relationship with God. It isn’t until this week’s Torah portion, however, that our identity is fully formed.

As the people prepare to receive God’s words of Torah, Moses summons the elders and leaders, judges and law enforcers. He places them before the nation of Israel. Before Moses can even ask the people to accept the Torah, everyone responds in unity כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה, “all that God has said we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Considering the truth of the old adage “Two Jews, Three opinions” it is remarkable that every single Israelite responded in agreement and unity. It is even more remarkable taking into account the midrashim, which teach that everyone who identifies with People Israel was present at Sinai, all of those alive at the time, Jews of generations gone by, and of generations to come.

The Torah makes a point of saying ויענו כל העם יחדו, “all the people answered simultaneously” Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher (1269-1343) explains that the people were so eager to accept Torah as a nation “that they interrupted Moses to indicate their ready acceptance.”

We bonded by our shared experiences, and a shared narrative, but we became a people in this moment when we responded in unison, using the word “we.” In this pivotal moment in our story, we announced that the laws and teachings of our Torah are the underpinnings of our Jewish values, and perhaps even more importantly, that we are in this together. That is the true meaning of community.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail