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A Quantum of Holiness

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1—20:23), more than any other passage in the Torah, contains the most transformative and eternal moment in the entire history of the People in Israel. It is in this portion that the People of Israel receive the Ten Commandments.

Yitro, after whom the portion is named, is Moses’s father-in-law. Years earlier, after killing an abusive Egyptian slave master and arousing Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses fled to the wilderness. There he meets Jethro and marries one of his daughters, Zipporah. Years later, no longer a fugitive but rather now leader of the redeemed People of Israel, Moses returns to the wilderness. Jethro comes out to meet him, and the two greet one another warmly.

Yitro observes Moses as he struggles from early in the morning and deep into the night, trying to bring law and justice to the Israelites. A wise leader in his own right, Yitro offers Moses sound advice on how to organize, regroup, govern and judge the unruly mass that the Israelites are at this point in their journey.

Had our development stopped right there, I doubt we would still be here today, more than 3000 years later. Many civilizations had developed law codes, established courts, judges and a magistrate system. Precious little remains of them today. But Israel was destined to do something greater than that, and if for that reason alone, it is still here.

Israel is to be a unique people in all history, a people that stands alone and apart from all other nations, and moreover, a people that exists in a unique and special relationship with God.

In its relationships with other nations, Israel will find itself navigating uncharted waters. On one shore, the one we left behind, is Egypt. On the other side lies the Promised Land. On its journey from the one shore to the other, Israel will encounter many nations and peoples. Some will want to see us cursed or destroyed; others on the other hand, will be of help, sustenance and support. Moses understands that for the sake of physical survival, Israel needs to be organized along well-defined lines. Existential dangers lie along the way, including a people called Amalek, a people who will come to symbolize all that is evil and dangerous in the world.

But if, in addition to simple survival, Israel is to accomplish the high spiritual goals that God has envisioned for us, there has to be more. And so, with due courtesy and affection, Moses sends his father-in-law, Yitro, back home, while he and the People of Israel turn eastward and take their first steps toward their promised home.

Almost immediately, however, they arrive at, and encamp, before a mountain the Torah calls the Mountain of God. It is here that they enter into the Covenant with God, the Covenant that will ensure not only Israel’s physical survival, but also its spiritual legacy, its special charge of being a Holy People, a “light unto the nations.”

Certainly there are many reasons to climb mountains. When Sir Edmund Hillary returned from his famous ascent to the peak of Mt. Everest, he was asked why he climbed the dangerous mountain. His often-quoted reply was, “Because it was there.” Without a doubt, mountains present physical as well as spiritual challenges. Mysterious but beautiful, ever since the dawn of humanity mountains were seen as the dwelling place of the gods.

It was at this very mountain, the Mountain of God in the Sinai Wilderness, where Moses first encountered a vision of God, appearing in the burning bush. Now it was Israel’s turn.

Unlike other religions, whose founders were alone when their god appeared to them, the Revelation at Sinai was for the entire People of Israel to behold. Forewarned not to touch the sacred mountain, the people felt nevertheless drawn closer and closer to it, as though through some powerful force that they could not understand. This force was God’s presence, appearing in fire and smoke, accompanied by a loud blast of a shofar, a sound that—according to the ancient rabbis—reverberated from one end of the world to the other. God’s voice rose louder and louder, calling out, singling the People of Israel out from all other nations, inviting us—challenging us—to be God’s Chosen People.

Frightened, the people ask Moses to intercede, for him to speak God’s words with his voice, a voice that they could understand and absorb. And so the Ten Commandments come to be our legacy, a moment that transcends history and time. At that moment, Israel ceased being a nation like all other nations, and became a force acting with God, in partnership with God, a people whose survival would be warranted not only by physical strength, but also by spiritual power.

But along with the more famous and often quoted (and misquoted) Ten Commandments, there is actually another, an eleventh commandment that we Jews have taken to heart. Whereas the Ten Commandments embody what is good and holy, the 11th commandment addresses evil.

Among the many people and tribes that the Israelites meet along their journey in the wilderness, one tribe stands out for its viciousness and cruelty: Amalek. Amalek is actually the first tribe that engages the Israelites in battle, immediately after the Exodus. It is a hard battle, and not immediately won. During the forty years that Israel wanders in the Sinai Wilderness, the Amalekites will attack again and again, earning a curse from God, who swears to eradicate not only the people but also its very name and memory. Following one of those battles with the Amalekites, Moses issues a commandment: “Zachor,” he says, “Remember that which Amalek has done to you when you came out of Egypt.”

To some of us, this Zachor, this commandment to remember the people who tried to kill us, who concentrated all their evil on the weak and defenseless among our nation, has become the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt never again allow your enemies to slaughter you unprotected.”

The Midrash relates that “When God gave the Law, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Seraphim ceased from saying ‘Holy, holy,’ the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the Divine voice said, ‘I am Adonai your God’” [Ex. Rabba, Yitro, XXIX, 9]. We have been hearing those words ever since then; they are still reverberating within our hearts and souls today.

Israel’s survival through the ages has depended on these Commandments. The Revelation at Sinai proved a force that has kept us unified despite the vicissitudes of our existence, despite our long history of exile, destruction and rebuilding. In days of glory and peace, our Covenant with God has enabled us to enjoy life with all its pleasures and gifts. During the long and dark nights of oppression and persecution, it gave us light, comfort, sustenance and hope.

But most of all, what these Ten Utterances—‘aseret ha-dib’rot—have done was to instill into our hearts a quantum of holiness. With the light we perceived then, we can still find meaning and purpose for our existence now. Listening, hearing, discussing and obeying the Commandments, we find new strength to continue; the fire within us rekindles, and we can make new progress along our journey of 3600 years, bringing light and hope to all corners of the world and the universe around us.

Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, may have contributed rules and regulations to the nascent nation of Israel; but what Moses and God did was to give us eternal life. It’s the gift of holiness.

May the light of holiness, the light we saw at the moment of the Revelation at Sinai, continue to shine within us on this Shabbat and throughout the days and nights of our lives.

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The Moral Obligations of Freedom

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon For Shabbat “Bo” 5777

The Exodus is one of the most breathtaking stories in the entire Torah. Visually spectacular, it is also intensely dramatic, so much so that it has been turned into opera, several Hollywood movies, and at least one musical.

But aside from that, this story really has many important lessons for us even today, more than 3000 years after the events it recounts took place.

Here are some of the lessons I got from it.

First, I learned how easy it is for people to forget—or at least not to learn from—their own history. “A new Pharaoh arose,” the Torah says; one that “knew not Joseph;” who forgot how Joseph had, not too long ago, saved all Egypt from a devastating famine; how, instead, he helped Egypt turn into a world power; and how, along the way, he enriched Pharaoh’s own, private coffers. Forgetting all these contributions, Pharaoh in return, turns the Jews into slaves, persecutes them and ultimately even resorts to genocide. Pharaoh commands that all male Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile River.

Secondly, I learned about heroism. Despite the harsh decrees and cruel oppression, the Jewish People refused to give up. Encouraged by teachers and visionaries like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the Jews struggled under their burden, yet heroically they held on to their faith, never losing hope that God would eventually redeem them and lead them back to their own land, the Promised Land.

We often think of heroes as men, but in the Exodus story women take their rightful place among the saviors of our people. There were the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who proudly resisted Pharaoh and refused to obey his orders, which they saw as unjust, cruel and inhumane. Then there were also the ones who acted in secret, such as Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who took pity on her child and refused to hand him over to the assassins. There was Miriam, who watched as her baby brother was put in a tiny basket and allowed to drift among the reeds that lined the shores of the Nile River. And there was, of course, the Daughter of Pharaoh, who openly flouted her father’s orders, rescued the baby from the water, and raised him as her own.

Reading between the lines, I understood that there must have been an Underground Railroad, a secret, hidden passageway meant to save Jewish babies; and that Miriam, her mother Yocheved, and even Pharaoh’s daughter were probably part of this secret, sacred alliance

The Ten Plagues—whether you read them literally or as symbolic metaphors—were the means by which God intervened in history, with the result that a new nation was created, one that still lives to this day, the Jewish People.

The Plagues were terrifying then—and are still so today. I remember from my childhood days in Israel when a huge, black cloud of locust descended on the land. They covered up the sky almost completely, causing a huge amount of agricultural damage, before the wind—and us kids going out in the fields, banging pots and other noisy implements—finally drove them out.

When the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” came out nearly two decades ago, I remember seeing it in the theater. As the tenth and final plague, The Death of the Firstborn, was about to be unleashed, in the tense and ominous moments that made you hold your breath in fear and anticipation, suddenly a young child’s voice rose from a few rows behind where I was sitting. “Can we go home now??” the child cried out.

I learned that when God does intervene in history, to rescue the afflicted and uplift the oppressed, God does so with the most terrifying power, power that blows away like so much chaff the most haughty and proud of tyrants.

But if cruelty leads to downfall and destruction, it is compassion that leads to redemption.

Pharaoh’s ultimate defeat was not only due to his tyrannical rule. It wasn’t only that his glory and the glory of his entire civilization were founded on the backs of suffering slaves. It was his lack of pity and compassion. When the Hebrew slaves complained, he increased their burden; when they continued to flourish and increase despite all his harsh decrees, he ordered them killed. Pharaoh watched as children were thrown into the Nile; he didn’t flinch as they flailed in the water; he didn’t blink an eye as their desperate cries grew silent, one by one.

The compassion of the Hebrew midwives infuriated Pharaoh. He was powerless before them. But his ultimate downfall was ensured by his own daughter, who refused to obey his orders, obeying her own heart instead, when she did show compassion, taking pity on one small child and rescuing him from the water. This child grew to be the man who gave us the Ten Commandments and led us to the Promised Land, Moses.

One of the most important lessons of the Exodus story is not to forget. Pharaoh had forgotten Joseph; what we must do now is to remember. It’s important to remember the good times, yes. But we must also remember our past and what we had to endure to remain Jews. Not only because it’s part of our history, but also because it reminds us of our moral obligations. The Torah commands us, “Thou shalt neither trouble a stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Jews have always interpreted this commandment as having compassion for the homeless, for the dispossessed, for refugees and newly arrived immigrants; for those whose rights are all too often infringed upon; who are too often taken advantage of; and who daily face ridicule and disparagement—just as we did, in ancient Egypt and throughout our history.

The memory of slavery and suffering are etched in our minds and souls. And so we become socially and politically active whenever we see taken away the rights of other people, people of different skin color or religion, of a different gender or gender identification, immigrants, refugees, the marginalized of our society.

The key to our existence is memory, and over the many centuries and millennia that have passed since the Exodus, we have not forgotten. Every year, at our Passover seders, we remind ourselves. We repeat the story, one generation retelling it to the next, obeying the commandment we find in this week’s portion, והגדת לבנך, “And you shall speak these words to your children.”

Who knows, perhaps it is for this reason and purpose that we were redeemed by the Almighty, so that we could pick up where God left off, and bring freedom, joy and light to every corner of God’s world.

May we find the faith, the courage and strength to make this broken world whole again, to make it a better place for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the downtrodden, so that we too, along with our children—or perhaps our children’s children—might one day enter the Promised Land just as the ancient Israelites did thousands of years ago.

Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.