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The Ten Commandments Opening Act Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, February 7, 2015

If you have ever gone to a rock concert, you know that before the big name performer comes on stage, there’s always an opening act. It’s another artist, often one who is trying to climb up the ladder of success, who comes on to warm up the crowd. It’s like that with comedians too, there’s usually someone else who comes on first before the headliner. Now the more famous the big name is, the greater an honor it is to be able to say, I was the warm up for that artist. For example, in our own community, Meeka Simmerly, the cantor at Temple Emanu-El was once the warm up for Joan Baez, back in the day, and I am sure that during her career as a performer that was part of her resume.

This morning’s Torah portion is one of the biggest acts in the entire Torah, in fact in all of Jewish history, the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and so it’s particularly interesting that the warm up act, as it were, is Jethro, a Midianite priest. How did he get that great honor, which comes also with having the Torah portion named for him?

From a modern perspective we might expect this week’s very important Torah portion to have a name that points to its contents in some way. If we were giving it a name today, we might call it Revelation or the Ten Commandments, but certainly not Jethro. Actually when weekly Torah portions were given their names, they were not given by topic, but from the first word or words of the portion. Still if the portion had begun with the story of the giving of the Torah, it could have ended up with a name like Mount Sinai, or after three days, not the name of someone who wasn’t even an Israelite.

Now if you tell me, this is all just coincidence, it happened that Jethro came to visit Moses right before the giving of the Ten Commandments, so our tradition had no choice—think again. There is evidence in the Torah that Jethro came to visit Moses after the giving of the Ten Commandments. And there are other stories in the Torah that come out of order, like that of the Golden Calf. The ancient rabbis, who were the first Biblical commentators, noted this. They explained that, first, Jethro finds the Israelites encamped at the mountain, where they are after giving of the Ten Commandments. Second, the altar which we are told by the Torah was built just after the giving of the Ten Commandments is used by Jethro to make an offering to Adonai, and finally, Jethro refers to Moses having been given laws and teachings. What could that be other than the Torah given at Sinai?

So if that’s the case, if Jethro actually visited after the giving of the Ten Commandments, then the question becomes even more pressing.

Why go to all this trouble to tell a story out of order just so as to have the Torah portion which includes the Ten Commandments named for the priest of a foreign god?

The answer, given by our tradition to this question, relates to its understanding of the giving of the Torah in the desert rather than in the land of Israel.  Our tradition teaches that while the Torah is a special responsibility of the Jewish people, it is not solely a gift to us. The Torah was given in the wilderness to remind us that it is a gift to the entire world; it is meant to be accessible to all.

And just as we are to remember that our Torah is meant to be shared with others,  the placement of Jethro just before the giving of the Torah reminds us that good ideas and important teachings can come from sources outside our own tradition. Jethro brings Moses wisdom he has gained in his years of service as a leader of his community. The lesson he teaches about involving others and sharing the burden of leadership, is a valuable lesson. Remember Moses had lived with Jethro when he was on the run from Pharaoh so perhaps he was Moses’ role model even before this. Certainly Moses’ willingness to accept criticism and instruction from Jethro would be consistent with his having previously been in a mentor, mentee relationship. Further, the commentaries tell us, Moses’ openness to learning from Jethro was the model for the Israelites openness to learn from God in the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The Tzena Urena, a Yiddish commentary created for women and less learned men several centuries ago, sees a Messianic theme in Moses learning from Jethro. Could it be that in the Messianic age, we will all learn from each other, without distinctions, we will learn even from those we considered our enemies? A contemporary rabbi Arthur Waskow put it differently- in that perfect world, we will be open to calling each other Holy Brother and Holy Sister, recognizing a valuable teaching, whatever the status of its source.

When Isaiah and Sam first met their Bar Mitzvah portion, they each chose a different section that they wanted to read. Sam wanted to read from the story of Jethro and Isaiah from the preparations for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and so this morning we have read from a little bit of each of these sections of the parshah. But I hope we now we see that this was not just a concession to Isaiah and Sam’s preferences, but a great way of reminding ourselves about how intertwined these two stories really are, how learning from other faiths and their leaders can contribute to our better understanding of our own faith and to the building of ties that lead to the creation of a better world.


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