Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Yitro

Believe part of what you see and less of what you hear. We know the age-old adage that admonishes folks to investigate matters for themselves. The adage is as true today as it ever was – perhaps even more so today because of the abuse of social media. When I first got to Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, KY, I taught a course in Jewish studies at the University of Kentucky. Coincident in time, an email circled the globe accusing the university of caving in to Muslim demands, cancelling all Jewish Studies courses. It was “fake news.” I was teaching one of many such courses at the university at that time. It took very little research to realize that it was “spam” that originated in Europe. “UK” was not the University of Kentucky, it was the United Kingdom – oh and by the way, it never happened, anyway. The Muslim community was castigated for something it didn’t do. The university was, as well. Fear mongering kept raising its ugly head. No one bothered to check if the email was truth or not – it just kept getting forwarded. Over my eleven years in Kentucky, the email cycled through at least five times … with similar results and a similar response to undo its damage. The sardonic corollary to the above truth of communication is, “If I read it on the internet, it has to be true.”

The mentality that allows us to believe anything we see or hear becomes dangerous when we limit the sources from which we are willing to hear or read. Outrageous fake statements become gospel by lemming-like blind faith followers of the right or the left. We hear pieces of stories that strike our emotions and throw all reason out the window. We then defend what we have taken to heart as gospel – at all costs –even if it means breaking apart lifetime relationships.

We get a glimpse of this behavior in Torah this week. God assembles the people at the foot of Sinai to give them the “10 Commandments” (or something like that). God starts to speak, and despite God’s recent track record of saving people time and again, they are in such fear of God that they tell Moses to go get the words and bring them back. God’s awesomeness in the story has always been pro “God’s people” and yet, the people remain skeptical and lacking trust. As we will read over the next few weeks, after telling Moses to go up the mountain, the people will become so afraid that they return to idolatry. The reality of God’s salvation can never be as important to them as their manufactured fear.

Even the way we speak about the “10 Commandments” becomes problematic. The Hebrew does call them commands. They are not the Aseret Hamitzvot (10 Commandments). They are the Aseret Hadibrot (10 things that were said). Somehow, even though Moses destroyed these and God replaced them (Exodus 34) with a new set, we cling to these as though they were the top ten of everything. They are not even the first set of “10 things God says” in the Torah. Creation is 10 commands. The Exodus 34 list sometimes barely resembles the list from this week’s portion. It doesn’t matter, though, because generations have taught that this week’s “top ten” are the most important. They are very important, but in truth, our tradition teaches that there are no minor or major mitzvot.

No differently, in life, all citizens of a nation have the same rights – there are no first or second class citizens. Our founding documents go even further than citizenship. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There are no more or less important people; all people hold the same dignity. This principle is the cornerstone upon which our nation came into existence. No, we have not yet measured up to this truth, but it is the prophecy of righteousness for a nation.

Today, we seek to discount citizens from citizenship rights and deny people the inalienable rights our founding document guarantees them. I can point out that the 5th Amendment to our Constitution says that due process is guaranteed to all people (and not just citizens) – which it does, and people will tell me I am wrong. When I ask them to read the Constitution, they respond that they know what is in it and don’t have to.

As we continue to devolve our nation’s decency, someone needs to take a step back and pay attention beyond what we think we know. No differently, our sages argue that someone should have told Israel, “God’s voice is awesome – not scary – let’s listen and be in awe!” We have so much to offer each other in growing our nation; let’s stop squandering it by destroying each other. Take Shabbat seriously, take a break from everything you think you know and listen to each other – start by dignifying each other and then listen. Shabbat Shalom.