Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Yitro

Religion has been lying to us for thousands of years, and the results have polarized the world. On the one hand, it provides amazing and life affirming opportunities for growth. On the other hand, it rips the world apart at the seams. The entirety of this conundrum comes from this week’s Torah portion.

Ok, maybe that was a little over dramatic, but one need only look at this week’s text to see the blessings and curses that religion allow us to share with each other. There are two main foci I draw from this text:

1) Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law, and because the portion begins with a vignette about him, the portion is named “Yitro” (Jethro in English). Jethro is a Midianite sheikh; a foreign chieftan (a.k.a. clergy of a different religion). Upon hearing of the wonders that Israel experienced with God (the Exodus), through Moses’ leadership, he brought Moses’ wife and children to the encampment and meet him. Moses had left them at home when he left Midian to free Israel from Pharaoh. So thrilled was “dad,” that he praised God, brought an offering to God, celebrated his family, and then set about giving Moses “fatherly” advice on how to best take care of the judicial disputes between members of the tribes. Quite clearly from the text, Jethro thinks he has a great son-in-law whose work is so important that “dad” wants to keep him from burning out. Also, quite clearly, Moses had no problem having his non-Israelite foreign … other religion priest … making an offering on the Israelite altar. The only acknowledgment Jethro and Moses made was how wonderful God is, and they did it with the very same prayer at the same altar. Yes, two different religions … an interfaith family … one common prayer. What a beautiful statement, and, yet, how many wars have we fought to prove that we really do not share in God … God loves only one group and not the other. How many lines have we drawn around our own traditions that serve to keep people away from us?

2)Near the end of this portion, Moses receives the Ten Commandments atop Mt. Sinai. Well, actually he really does not. He gets the “Ha-aseret Hadibrot” which literally translates as “The ten things that were said.” There is a huge difference between a command and an ethical instruction or guiding thought. Every time I find myself in a conversation on this text, I am reminded of the bumper sticker that reads, “God wrote the King James Bible, don’t be confused with that Hebrew translation.” I cannot begin to count the number of people who argue with me, holding fast to the notion that it does not matter what the Hebrew says … “These are God’s Ten Commandments!” In truth, it is a list of ten ideas that are incredibly important to communal life.

The Torah has a total of 613 of these statements. Some of them are redundant, and some are contradictory of others on the list. There is no hierarchy in our tradition. There is no minor mitzvah or major mitzvah; they are all important. The list of ten we get from Exodus 20 are symbolic of all 613 because each speaks to a different way in which we are supposed to honor the source of creation and each piece of creation. We are not to abuse each other’s rights to life, liberty, and property … and yes, the framers of our nation used this text as a foundation for deciding what it meant to be an American. Life is sacred. Personal time and space is sacred. Relationships are sacred. These are universal and inalienable, and yet, different religions have pursued crusades, filed lawsuits and waged wars to exclude all others from the blessing and protection of these ethical precepts, or to impose their own narrow rendering of the text on everyone around them.

This portion instructs us on how to love and engage each other in a way that honors each of our faiths. It should remind us that the love for our family is shared in God, even under different labels. The text should lead us to understand each other’s rights and dignities in holistic ways. The bottom line, faith sustains relationships, and we know that relationships sustain the world. How is it that we turned these incredible messages into tools of destruction where some are welcomed and other are not; where we treat a very rich text as our personal mandate to wield power over others? It is time for a reset. It is time to remember that we share this world … and this text and its teachings with so many others … equally. Quite literally, It is time for Shabbat, as respite from the world’s madness: a chance to taste the blessings available to all in the world. God, I pray to be faithful, and I hope being religious does not get in the way. Shabbat shalom.