The Vort – Mission Statement: Jewish People. Parashat Yitro
This week’s parasha, Yitro, is a classic. A righteous father-in law dropping solid leadership advice. The Big 10 Commandments. Psychedelic prophecy. My highlight though is the following verse. I like it so much because, for me, it’s like the Jewish people’s theological mission statement in 17 words. Let’s me try and break it down. First, the verse:
ועתה אם שמוע תשמעו בקלי ושמרתם את בריתי והייתם לי סגלה מכל העמים כי לי כל הארץ
“And now, if you hear my voice and keep my covenant, you will be for me a treasure from among the nations, for all the world belongs to me. Exodus, 19:5” Now, the breakdown.
Be Here Now
“ועתה And now”
Our purpose on this earth as Jews is happening in this very moment. It’s not sealed in history, and it’s not waiting for us in a next world. It’s happening now, and it’s real.
The Search for God
“אם שמוע תשמעו בקלי If you hear my voice”
Implicit in these words is that God is speaking. It’s our job to try and tune in and hear. It might come obviously, in flames and smoke, or it might come still and small, in the cries of the poor and the sick, in a silent cave, in the question of a child. But it’s there. Waiting.
The Power of Relationship
“ושמרתם את בריתי And keep my covenant”
The primacy of relationships, to God, parents, family, and strangers, and more are an absolute fundamental to Judaism. Our relationship to God is a primary model of that. We have many covenants with God, covenants about land, about justice, about how we treat others, how we treat ourselves. What I believe was so revolutionary about Judaism is not that there is a single force in the world responsible for its creation, but that every human being can be in relationship with that force. You, yes you, can be in relationship with the creator of the universe! How sweet is that!? But there’s expectations that come with it. Of course, we understand those expectations and that relationship differently. I believe that relationship, and those expectations, are expressed to the Jewish people through Torah.
Love and Destiny
“והייתם לי סגלה מכל העמים- And you will be for me a treasure among all the nations”
Ah, here we get to the stickiest one to our enlightened post-modern ears. Particularism! Ethno-centrism! Racism!
This is how it works for me. Let me know in comments if you feel differently…
I love my friends because of the unique things that make them who they are. Their sensitivities. Their quirks. Their stubbornness. Their brilliance.
As individuals, but also as a people, Jews have a relationship with the creator and nurturer of the world. God loves us. But God’s love is so big, bigger than we can understand. And we certainly don’t have a monopoly on that love, nor do we deserve it. The fact that we are a treasure doesn’t mean we’re better or worse than anyone else. But we are unique, and that’s alright. The Jewish people have played a special role in and out of history. We’ve born witness to the horrible power of evil and persecution, and we’ve been at the forefront of many efforts to end it. Our people have generated some of the most important ideas and religions of the world. And whatever your politics, there’s something holy and humbling about the story of the Jewish people’s return to Israel after 2000 years of exile. Those are some of the things that make us a treasure. I know these kinds of sweeping generalities make some of us uncomfortable, but I’m comfortable saying that my friends are unique and have different things to contribute to this planet. So to with the nations of the world. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it well:
“If God is the reality of the personal, then God loves the way a person loves, each one separately, for their differences, not their sameness.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A letter in the scroll, pp 92-93
This love, and our status, is not a right, nor is it end. It is a beginning and a responsibility. It is a call to strive higher and sanctify God’s name through love and justice, chessed and tzedek in the world.
The End of Ego
“For all the world belongs to me – כי לי כל הארץ”
This might be the most important part. What we think is ours in this world: the land, resources, possessions, egos, problems, dramas, states, are not really ours. They belong to the ever-sustaining, ever generating, ineffable wellspring of life and possibility we like to call God. ּBy that force’s grace, we allowed a little bit of time to partner with it, enjoy it, sanctify it, and make it better. Shabbat Shalom.