Blessings: Our Lives and the Lives of Others

Rabbi Joel Fleekop

Saturday, February 14, 2009

As Brian and Isaac will surely agree, important things often come in pairs.

That is certainly the case with this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, where two important events take place in the life of Moses.

One of these events is widely recognized: the divine pyrotechnics of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Tradition teaches that encountering God left Moses glowing with beams of light. But Moses is transformed in more significant ways than just appearance. Representing the Israelites, at their fear-filled insistence, Moses is firmly established as not only the leader of the Israelites but their preeminent prophet, the conduit through which they will receive God’s instructions.

Mt. Sinai changes Moses’ role in the community, but of course the significance of Mt. Sinai extends well beyond any individual. This moment of revelation par-excellence is one of the most important in the Bible and, one can safely argue, in the narrative of western civilization.

In sharp contrast, the events that begin the portion are intensely personal. As the name suggests, our parshah begins with the arrival to the Israelite camp of a man named Yitro. Yitro, as Isaac pointed out earlier, is Moses’ father-in-law. He is escorting Moses’ wife Tzipporah and sons, Gershon and Eliezer, as they are reunited with their father following a long period of separation.

We often overlook this section, jumping ahead in the weekly reading to Yitro’s advice for the division of judicial responsibilities and of course the giving of the Ten Commandments. But for Moses and his loved ones, the reunification of family was certainly a very significant and powerful event – a sentiment our congregation was reminded of last night as we welcomed home one of our members from a deployment in Iraq, and one I know the Hartman family feels intensely as they share Brian and Isaac becoming Bnai Mitzvah surrounded by family from both near and far.

As part of the biblical reunification scene, Yitro offers a prayer to the Eternal, acknowledging God’s role in making the family’s coming together possible.

In Exodus 18:10 we read, “Blessed be the Eternal, Jethro said, who saved you from hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who saved the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. – Vayomer Yitro, Baruch Adonai Asher Hi-tzil Etchem M’yad Mitzrayim um’yad Pharaoh asher Hi’tzil et Ha’am Mi’tachat Yad Mitzrayim.”

Yitro’s prayer seems relatively insignificant. It is the following verse, where Yitro acknowledges the supremacy of God, which usually catches the reader’s attention, as it did in ages past – drawing copious comment from Judaism’s great sages.

But Yitro’s prayer does not go unnoticed by the rabbis. In Masechet Sanhedrein of the Talmud, it is taught in the name of Rav Pappias that with his simple prayer, Yitro was the first to bless God for the miracle of the Exodus, doing so before Moses and the 600,000 who had themselves been emancipated.

Subsequent generations of rabbis have been troubled by Rav Pappias’ teaching. Surely the Israelites praised God with the Song of the Sea – the biblical poem in last week’s parshah from which our Mi Chamocha prayer is taken. So what, the rabbi’s wonder, is the innovation in Yitro’s prayer of which Rav Pappias speaks?

Keeping with the idea that good things come in a pair, two explanations stand out.

Rabbi Ya’akov Israel Beifus, a Contemporary Orthodox rabbi and disciple of Israel Salanter’s Mussar movement, teaches that Yitro’s innovation was not praising God, but rather the specific subject matter of Yitro’s blessing. In his work, Yalkut Le’kach Tov, Beifus explains, that in the Song of the Sea the Israelites proclaim God’s power and wonders. Spiritually elevated by the miracles they witnessed, they spoke about God’s greatness and triumph over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. But at the same time, their transcendent spirituality kept them from internalizing what they had experienced.

And so, not until Yitro set the example with his simple prayer, did the Israelites praise and thank God for how they were personally affected by the miracles around them.

Shlomo Rodomsk, a 19th century Chassidic Rabbi from Poland, offers a very different explanation, focusing not on the subject of the prayer but rather by whom the prayer was offered. In a collection of teachings known as Iturei Torah – Crowns of Torah we read -- Rav Shlomo teaches, “Yitro was the innovator of a new form of expressing thanks to God. . . . Yitro praised the Eternal for God’s deliverance of others. It was in this area that Yitro was first.”

Isaac and Brian, as you become Bnai Mitzvah as a pair, but also as individuals, I hope you will each learn from the pair of teachings shared by Rabbi Ya’akov Beifus and Rav Shlomo Rodomsk – teachings that each have a unique message.

From Rabbi Beifus, may you remember that you are individually and personally affected by God’s wonders and miracles: the beautiful world we have been given – a world I know you enjoy exploring on both foot and snowboard, the kindness and compassion of others – as the love of friends and family is amongst God’s most precious of gifts, and the message and guidance of our tradition -- a tradition you have embraced, a tradition to which you formally commit yourselves this morning.

And from Rav Slomo, may you be reminded that our awareness of God’s blessings and God’s world must not end with ourselves. We learn of God from the blessings bestowed on others. And we become God’s partner by working to make the world a better place.

In Parshat Yitro, two important and holy events happen in the life of Moses, one private and one communal. Brian and Isaac, as you, and all of us, go forward, may holy and significant moments, both private and communal, continue to fill our lives, and the lives of those we love. Let us offer praise for the blessings we receive, and let us, as Yitro did before us, offer praise for the blessings bestowed on others.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s will.