Parashat Yitro

Friday, January 21, 2022/19 Shevat, 5782
Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1–20:23

Dear Friends,

Forty-five days elapsed between the Israelites’ escape from Egypt to their arrival at Mt. Sinai. Those early days included too many trials, from fighting off the Amalekites to learning how to find the food and water they needed to sustain themselves. The Israelites were just beginning to figure out what it meant to be a unified autonomous people. With each step forward, the Israelites grew closer.

The Torah writes of the Israelites’ journey, saying, “Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped in front of Mount [Sinai].” (Exodus 19:2)

I had read this verse a hundred times before, but only this year did I notice something significant going on in its language. The verse begins with verbs conjugated in the plural. Yayisu, they traveled. Vayavo’u, they came, Yayahanu, they camped. However, at the end of the verse, we read yavichan sham Yisrael, Israel camped (in the singular).

Midrash d’Rabbi Yishmael explains, “Any time that it says “they” traveled or “they camped,” it describes how they traveled or camped while not united. But here (at Mount Sinai), the people were united with a single heart.”

At Mount Sinai, one of the most spiritually significant moments of our history would take place, but it couldn’t until the Israelites were one.

There are times in our lives when we recognize just how important community is. This past weekend was one of them. As a gunman held Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three community members hostage, we held our breath and offered fervent prayers for their safety. We felt united with Congregation Beth Israel and Jews throughout the world who shared our same fears, concerns, and hopes. On Saturday night, I quickly decided to create an interfaith healing service for our community. On an hour’s notice, dozens of us put aside our plans to show up for words of prayer, reflection, and music. Six separate interfaith leaders joined us, adding their prayers to our own. We were united.

After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting three years ago, the larger community stood with us, combatting hatred and offering support. The Shabbat after the attack, we showed up in high numbers. Being there was a sign of resilience and pride in our Jewish identity. Services provided us with the comfort and community we sought.

This week, too, we need Shabbat. We need the joy and the succor it brings. Shabbat invites us to be present for one another, connect with the prayers of Jews all over the world, and the support of the greater community. I was touched that Assembly member Al Maratsuchi asked to speak tonight, and I am looking forward to hearing his words. Tonight, we, like the Israelites, have the opportunity to stand united and find the holiness that surrounds us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail