Parshah Summary – P’shat
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro), hears of the great miracles which God performed for the Children of Israel, and comes from Midian to the Israelite camp, bringing with him Moses’ wife and two sons. Jethro advises Moses to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people.
The Children of Israel camp opposite Mount Sinai, where they are told that God has chosen them to be a “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation.” The people respond by proclaiming, “All that God has spoken, we shall do.” On the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), seven weeks after the Exodus, the entire nation of Israel assembles at the foot of Mount Sinai for the Giving of the Torah. The Presence of God descends on the mountain amidst thunder, lightning, billows of smoke and the blast of the shofar, and Moses is summoned. God proclaims the Ten Commandments, instructing the people of Israel to be aware of God, not to worship idols or take the Name in vain, to keep Shabbat, honor their parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to bear false witness or covet another’s property. The people cry out to Moses that the revelation is too intense for them to bear, begging him to receive the Torah from God and convey it to them instead…
Torah of Awakening: Jewish Meditation Teaching
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר׃
אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִ֑ים׃
God spoke all these words, saying: I am Hashem your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…
- Shemot (Exodus) 20:1, 2 Parshat Yitro
Once, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz of Peshischa (known as “the Yehudi”) was asked to examine the thirteen-year-old Hanokh in the Talmud. (Hanokh later became the rabbi of Alexander). It took the boy an hour to think over the passage which had been assigned to him before he could expound it. Once he had done so, the tzaddik cupped his hand around Hanokh’s cheek and said: “When I was thirteen I plumbed passages more difficult than this in no time at all, and when I was eighteen, I had the reputation of being a great Torah scholar. But one day it dawned on me that a person cannot attain to perfection through learning alone. I understood what is told of our father Abraham: that he explored the sun, the moon, and the stars, and he did not find God, yet in this very not-finding, the Presence of God was revealed to him. For three months I mulled over this realization. Then I explored until I too reached the truth of not-finding.”
The function of the mind is too “find” – to navigate through time by creating an inner context through which we can conceptualize who and where we are, what we are doing, and why; this is essential. But, this creates the side effect of seeing reality through the screen of that map. The mind sees the surface of things – a collection of related but separate parts, and the mind also feels itself to be separate from what it sees.
וַיְהִי֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר הוֹלֵ֖ךְ וְחָזֵ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל׃
And it was that as the voice of the shofar louder and louder, Moses spoke, God answered him in that voice…
But there comes a time when that inner map breaks down, and we are confronted by the naked present, in all its Mystery. When we are shaken from the continuity of mind-created context, and the “familiar” disappears, we step out of the Mitzrayim of the known, out of our conditioned mental patterns of separateness. This “wilderness” can be terrifying. And yet, in the unknown there is the possibility of receiving Reality in a very direct way, a way that knows Being as a Whole, as a Oneness; this is meditation.
אָֽנֹכִי יי – I am Hashem… According to our tradition, this Divine declaration of identity is the first of the Aseret Hadibrot, the “Ten Sayings,” otherwise known as the “Ten Commandments.” But what exactly is the commandment? According to Maimonides (b. 1135- d.1204 CE), in his work Sefer HaMitzvot, this first commandment is simply to believe in God.
אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם – who brought you out of the land of Egypt… But if we look at the second part of the verse, there is a deeper message that is not about mere belief, not about events of the past, but rather it is about this moment within which we now find ourselves, this moment through which we too may be brought out of Mitzrayim. אָֽנֹכִי יי – I am Hashem means that the Anokhi – the “I” – is actually Hashem – Divine. Meaning, our own inner identity, and in fact the inner identity of all things, is the Ultimate, Living Presence of Existence; that is what the Divine Name actually means.
חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לוֹ שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ט) כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.
Beloved are human beings, for they were created as images for the Divine. But they are extra beloved that it is made known to them that they are created as images for the Divine, as it is said: “for in the image of the Divine humans were made.” - Pirkei Avot, 3:18
The Israelites are shaken by the terrible awesomeness of the natural world around them, and in that heightened state, the inner identity of nature reveals Itself as their own inner identity. It is not about believing in the idea of a divine entity; it is not about adding another concept to the mind’s ideas about reality. It is about subtracting the conditioned sense of the ordinary imposed by our minds, and recognizing Existence Itself – recognizing That which the mind cannot map. This “knowing” through not finding, that is, not mapping with the mind, is itself liberation – liberation from the burden of time and conditioned identity.
וְכׇל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת – and all the people saw the voices… It does say they heard the voices, but saw! In other words, they perceived everything in a completely new way. It is a kind of awakening. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about how we can imagine our “cosmic address.” The first step is to notice we are on planet Earth. Next, we can expand our perspective to see that Earth is part of our Solar System. Then, we expand further to see that our sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Even further, we can see the family of galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs, called the Local Group. Then, even further, we expand to see the Local Group as part of a larger cluster of galaxy families, called the Virgo Supercluster. And even further, the Virgo Supercluster is one of the many clusters that make up the Observable Universe. But what comes after that?
We have come to limits of our map, beyond which is simply Mystery. Perhaps, says Tyson, our whole universe is merely a single bubble in an infinite ocean of bubbles, each one a complete universe. Now consider: where would that “ocean” of universes be? The imagination reaches out toward infinity and comes to stillness.
כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלְתִּי בֵין הַחֲכָמִים, וְלֹא מָצָאתִי לַגּוּף טוֹב אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה. וְלֹא
הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים, מֵבִיא חֵטְא:
All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the point, but practice; whoever indulges in too many words brings about great error. - Pirkei Avot, 1:17
Ultimately, we don’t and can’t know where or what or why any of this is. And yet we do know: Hinei! Here it is! This practice of finding the limits of thought, beyond which is the simple Mystery of Being, is the Path of ר Reish, of Awe, of Wonder. May our efforts in this Path add momentum to the awakening of our species from the mind-created madness that gives rise to our present plagues of violence and suffering.
Read past teachings on Yitro HERE.
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