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I was supposed to write this week's d'var Torah for the wonderful parsha Yitro, which includes the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Words, or Commandments. Obviously, I didn't do it when it should have been done, and I apologize, even more so as it was my Bat Mitzvah parsha a few years ago, and I asked to do it.

So I am writing a few words about it, though not a complete d'var Torah.

At my Bat Mitzvah, I asked the question, why is this parsha, which contains the defining event in Jewish history, named for Moses' father-in-law?

Moses' life is generally broken into three periods - 40 years as a prince in Egypt, 40 years of exile, where is lives with Jethro as a shepherd and marries Jethro's daughter Zipporah, and 40 years leading the Israelites. Now, Egyptian royalty were often considered as demigods so in his first 40 years he was apart from ordinary people. And the period of leading the Israelites is also marked by his closeness to God as a prophet, also separated from most of the people surrounding him.

Only during the years he spent with Jethro was he allowed to be simply human, simply himself. I think this was the only time in his life that he was happy. Here he was husband, father, son. The focus of his life was on important relationships with family.

When Jethro hears of the exodus and the victories over enemies along the way, he brings Moses' wife and sons to him. I can here him saying to himself, "that sounds like a man who needs his wife." Jethro experiences the revelation with the Israelites and adopts the belief in God, but leaves to return home.

Moses prepares for the revelation and for going up the mountain by washing and staying away from his wife for three nights, like the other Israelites. But before he can ascend to meet God, he needs to be reminded of his humanity, of the people he loves and who love him. This is the real reason for the name of this parsha.

Since Shabbat is over, I wish you all Shavuot tov - a good week.

Originally posted to ramara on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 08:17 PM PST.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (12+ / 0-)

    Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

    by ramara on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 08:17:11 PM PST

  •  More instances of "forty" (8+ / 0-)

    I asked a rabbi about why the number forty turns up so much in the Torah.  It turns out that the number is not usually a literal value.  Rather, it is the colloquial Hebrew term for "many".  Think of its as "your fingers and toes, twice!"  So when it rained for forty days and nights, or we wandered in the desert for forty years, or Moses spent forty years in Egypt, it was not precisely 2^3*5.  It was many days or years.

    This is certainly not a concept understood by biblical literalists, especially among fundamentalist Christians.  Hebrew can be poetic and evocative, not always literal, and Torah can be poetry and metaphor.  That teaches a lesson better than a literal history can.  And the lesson in this d'var is clear without needing literalness.

    •  I've Also Read... (7+ / 0-)

      I've also read that the number 40 was symbolic of completion; so when Scriptures speak of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, or of Elijah traveling through the desert for 40 days, or the rains of the Deluge coming down for 40 days and 40 nights, or even in the New Testament when Jesus fasts in the desert for 40 days, that the number is intended to represent the amount of time to accomplish the purpose.  Or, as another passage from the New Testament puts it: "In the fullness of time..."

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 08:38:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That ties in nicely with a lot of uses of 40 (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ramara

        in midrash, including one in Yitro: the notion that there are 40 levels of spiritual purity/impurity, and that at the time of the Exodus the Israelites had sunk to the 39th level, and needed the time between the Exodus and Sinai to bring themselves back up to the first level, i.e. a state of complete purity.

        I had an interesting discussion on this midrash once, regarding whether that "first level of purity" is meant to represent the highest possible spiritual state -- or rather a sort of neutral ground state, from which one can rise further.

        •  An interesting question. (0+ / 0-)

          Did you reach any decision?

          Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

          by ramara on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 11:19:39 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  No real conclusion as such, no ... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            ramara

            ... but I find myself leaning toward the "neutral ground state" idea.

            Purity isn't the same thing as righteousness, or spiritual growth, or understanding of God.  I think those are all things we achieve, while purity is a default state -- one we inevitably lose and have to restore, but not one we have to struggle to attain in the first place.

            There is no practice in Judaism of ritually purifying a newborn infant.  We are born pure.  Impurity is something that happens to us, either through our own actions or through the actions of others or through plain dumb accident; purity is a state we can always come back to, because it's where we started.

            I think this interpretation of the midrash makes far more sense in light of the sin of the Golden Calf.  If the first level of purity is spiritual perfection, how can we reconcile the nation achieving this first level -- and then almost immediately committing the sin of idolatry?  If the first level is a kind of blank slate, though, it's easy to understand; the thing about a blank slate is that anything can be written on it.

        •  Aaaand I must sheepishly confess (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ramara

          that I misremembered: the number of levels of purity/impurity is given as 50, not 40.

    •  Chinese has a similar concept... (4+ / 0-)

      ...using wan (10,000) to express the idea that something is a very great number or innumerable.  The word wansui (10,000 years) is used to express "long life" (e.g., "Long live the Emperor").

      Muslims and tigers and bears, oh my!

      by JDsg on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 11:25:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Ooo! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Eowyn9, ramara

      Now I'm really glad I stopped in for a read!

      Thanks for sharing that!

      I'd wondered about the #40.

      “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”

      by Marko the Werelynx on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 01:40:47 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  This is of course only one opinion (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ramara, Eowyn9

      and there are those (not only strict literalists) who consider the use of 40 to mean actually four-times-ten, and not just "lots".

      But most of the time it isn't necessarily significant whether the text means that precise number or not.

  •  Good Point (6+ / 0-)
    Only during the years he spent with Jethro was he allowed to be simply human, simply himself. I think this was the only time in his life that he was happy. Here he was husband, father, son. The focus of his life was on important relationships with family.
    I think you're right.

    Another thing about Jethro.  Every once in a while in the biblical narrative, we come across these people who turn up out of nowhere, who have no connection to the Line of Abraham, and yet seem to know and worship the same God.  Melchizadek is one of them; Jethro, the priest of Midian is another.

    Not sure if there's a deep lesson to be learned from this; but it's something I find interesting.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 08:33:13 PM PST

  •  Shavuot tov, and (6+ / 0-)

    thank you, ramara.

    "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass... it is about learning to dance in the rain." ~ Vivanne Grenne

    by remembrance on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 09:55:28 PM PST

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