Musing at the Mountain: Thoughts on Yitro, and Freedom

We arrive at Sinai. We stand, each one of us, at a location that tradition refuses to name or describe. We have arrived at the “wilderness of Sinai.” We have encamped at “the mountain.” Moses climbs high, then higher, YHVH calling to him as he rises.

The Talmud says that we should understand this very scene as figurative, not literal: “Moses went up” is be read as “Moses was raised high.” And indeed, God reminds Moses that the God Godself raised up the people, lifting them up on eagle’s wings to be born out of pain and anguish, out of oppression and depression, out of slavery and bondage. Now, we may fly free; now, we may find our strength and our power.

Who does not love this verse? Who does not feel their heart lift, rising into the promise of flight and freedom? Finally, we are out of Egypt, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression.

And yet: Innocents everywhere suffered and died—and not only among our people. The plague that took lives of the first born passed by Israelite homes; we must have walked by the ravaged fields of Egyptian farmers on our way to freedom. This story is marked by violence, devastation, and sorrow on all sides.

“I have lifted you up. I have brought you back to me,” YHVH says after unleashing one plague after another before Pharaoh—proving, without a doubt, who was boss of the world. Do I excuse the divine horrors inflicted on Egypt by insisting that any people who oppresses another people must, in the end, be held accountable? How do I reconcile the beauty of liberation with the cost? Was there no other way to achieve our freedom? Was there no other way to escape, and fly? How do I live with the death of the first born?

Every year I find myself adrift, lost in the quagmire of a narrative that insists that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened—by godly intervention, no less—so that the tyrant’s humiliation would be complete.

It is a challenging guidebook, this Torah of ours. To read it is to engage in a delicate and difficult balancing act, holding the pain and the joy even in a single verse.

If I strive for the best possible interpretation, I will land in places that feel safe to me. Rabbi Ishmael says that Torah was not given in the Promised Land but in a wilderness for a reason. Torah given in a no-man’s land is Torah for every man (and woman).

YHVH lifts us up, tells us we can be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. The rabbis tell us that the role we are asked to take on is conditional, however. To be a nation of priests means fulfilling the law, devoting ourselves to creating a world suffused with righteousness, holiness, and love.

It is true: I feel more comfortable with universalizing principles. I feel safe when I am told that I must earn any position I might claim.

The Hebrew in Exodus 19:5 uses an infinitive absolute together with a regularly conjugated form of the verb shinn-mem-ayin, the three letters most of us know well in their command form, in the Shema. Im shamoa tishm’u b’koli, we read: “if you can truly obey me.” Or more gently? “If you really, really listen to what I am saying…”

Rashi explains: If you will but once hearken, you will continue to hearken. The gift of flight depends, above all, on my ability to listen to the words that will rush toward me from that mountain, my ability to take them in, to believe in their mandate, to act on the obligations they impose.

The Israelites commit before they know what they are committing to. They accept the law before they even receive it. All that YHVH has said, we will do. Then, we will get it, and by the doing, too (Exodus 24:7).

Freedom cannot be won without commitment to doing our part to make it, create it, sustain it, and strengthen it. We must ask ourselves: what must we do to fly?

All the earth is mine, says YHVH. And all the earth is ours. May we hearken so that we may hearken yet more, hear yet more, understand yet more. Listen, and do. Then, we may fly.

Upon delivering a version of these musings at services this past Shabbat, I suggested that the members of my havurah write down what they felt they could do in concrete terms, make a paper airplane out of the paper they wrote on, and fly it around their homes. I flew my own down a dark hallway and into the light a couple of times this weekend.

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