Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Yitro

Two weeks back, Monmouth Reform Temple extended my contract for five years. I am blessed to serve in this community. In a short two and a half years, we have accomplished some amazing things together. We welcomed 20 new students into our religious school this year. Our calendar is beyond full with a variety of educational, social, social action, worship, celebration, and all sorts of activities. I am blessed to serve here because people love our community and make the commitment to growing our Jewish capacity and faithful soul. For whatever I add to the mix, the work that people do and the love that they share wraps around each other. We are not all involved in everything, but everything that some do in one venue here empowers and adds value to everything else that everyone else does in our other arenas of activity. As I grow into this community, I am held and pushed by many to continue my own growth and the growth of our mission. With faithful partners in our lay leadership, our Cantor Gaby Clissold, and our Educator Stephanie Fields, we fulfill Torah’s command to facilitate each other’s spiritual journey.

These thoughts are not platitudes that I offer in thanks for the new contract; they are the very reason I sought the extension. Our faith tradition roots in our commitment to each other. One cannot be faithful simply by religiously walking through rituals. In fact, our Biblical Prophets routinely rail against people who jump through all of the ritual hoops, expecting to please a pagan God who delights in abject obedience. Rather, our charge is to make justice roll like a mighty stream; care for the widow the orphan and the stranger; redeem the oppressed; make peace where strife has reigned; and all the things that the prophets tell us is a “must do” to preserve a communal family. Most importantly we do this with and for each other.

This “command” manifests with this week’s Torah portion. Freed from Egypt and saved from Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots, we find ourselves at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God calls to the people and reminds them to cleanse themselves before God prepares to pass on the most sacred teachings. What follows is intriguing. God tried directly giving all the people the “rules” together, but they claimed God’s voice is too tough to hear. God then has Moses go up the mountain to get them and bring them back. His function is to facilitate people creating a relationship with divinity.

While we make a big deal out of Moses as the leader, chieftain, and prophet, his real function was simply facilitating relationships. As Moshe Rabbaenu (Our Teacher Moses), his greatest legacy is not that he led us out of Egypt or across the wilderness. His greatest teaching legacy is that he taught us to help each other. Our job, in faith, is to help people find a pathway to faith that makes sense for them. As Moses learned, sometimes that pathway was in line with his own and sometimes quite divergent from it. His success is measured by how many people have found a way into faith and not by which pathway got the most numbers.

Our tradition absolutely affirms the veracity of this idea Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rashbi) reminds us that God gave the Torah in the wilderness; in a place owned by no one. Contrary to the popularly held beliefs of many modern religious traditions, no group or person has a stronger claim of ownership on Torah than anyone else in the world. Further, the first word of self-introduction from God to the people is not proper Hebrew, but an Egyptian derivative of the first person singular pronoun. The people, having lived in Egypt for so long, spoke the language of Egypt. Moses is an Egyptian name. Martin Buber argues that the word “Anochi” (with which the 10 Commandments begin) is Egyptian vernacular for the Hebrew “Ani.” In his posthumously published work “Towards a Meaningful Life,” the late Lubavitcher Rebbe affirmed these teachings, arguing that Torah is the possession of the whole world, how we use it to find God differs from each other, but no one has a superior claim on it.

So, to everyone fighting over who owns God’s message, and who represents God most truthfully in this world, perhaps it is time for us to get over ourselves, appreciate in how many different languages Torah speaks, and start living the message of helping each other celebrate faith … each of us … our own faith … in the very same God. It seems to me that this is the surest pathway to making this a Shabbat Shalom.