Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Yitro

The Torah cycle spans a calendar year. Our tradition divides the text into weekly portions so that we work through the entire text each year. Excepting specific holiday readings, we read it straight through. Because we don’t alter the order of the text, we read stories in the timeline of the text and not necessarily in the context of how we use included stories for holiday celebrations. For example, we read about the Exodus story over the last couple of weeks, even while Passover is not for another almost three months. This week, we read about the epiphany at Sinai – the foundation of the holiday of Shavuot, which we won’t observe until June. Scripture provides us with the teachings and challenges for everyday life, not simply justifying holiday or event commemorations.

Understanding this dichotomy allows us two important insights into our faith traditions’ origins and ongoing purpose. Holidays celebrate events. The moral or ethical lessons from the context of the stories help us figure out how to celebrate appropriately. Torah’s context should also teach us that for any holiday celebration, our celebration is OUR celebration, not necessarily THE celebration.

On Yom Kippur (also in its place in the cycle), we read from Deuteronomy 29:14-15, “I (God) am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of Adonai, our God but also with those who are not here today.” In short – the covenant exists with everyone who had been, who is, and who will be – everyone. Two thousand plus years ago, the sages asked the question, “Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel?”

Throughout many generations, the answer they gave remains unchanged, “… SO that no one (including Israel) might say: “In my territory, God gave the Torah.” Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one.” (M’chilta Bachodesh 5)

Everyone owns the teachings and stories found in our sacred texts. The Torah’s structure teaches us this lesson, too. Six of the weekly portions include the names of Biblical personalities. Two of these people are not members of the people Israel (the pagan king Balak and Moses’ father-in-law Yitro). We must pay special attention this week. In this week’s portion, “Yitro,” God reveals the 10 Commandments, the representative foundation of all Torah. The portion begins with Yitro coming to meet Moses after the parting of the Sea, along the journey towards Sinai. He explains to his son-in-law that the people need new rules for community building. The portion crescendos with God’s revelation of these new rules atop Sinai.

Essential to who we are is the mandate to respect our take on these sacred texts even as we dignify how it leads other people to faith. Deciding that Torah is exclusively ours flies in the face of our tradition’s core teaching that the Messianic Age of Peace can’t happen so long as we demean another’s dignity – especially the dignity of their relationship with the same God to Whom we pray and serve.

It is time to return to the roots of faith that transcend sectarian religious separation. This one document spawns the divergent religions of the western world and mirrors the even more ancient traditions from the east. How different would the world be if we were secure enough in our own faith tradition that we could celebrate other people who have different deeply rooted faith traditions, as well?

I submit that most religious violence comes from people’s lack of faith, utterly antithetical to any sacred teaching of the religion they seek to defend. Let’s get to know each other, become more secure in faith, and celebrate that “sacred” comes in lots of flavors because we do, too. God should be open to all of our diversity.

Shabbat Shalom.