Wednesday, 30 Jan 2013

Written by Daniel Lichman

Parashat Yitro, which include s the highest moment of the Torah, revelation at Sinai, begins with the simple act of listening: Vayishma yitro: ‘And Jethro heard all that God did when the Eternal brought Israel out from Egypt.’

What is it telling us about this act of hearing and the parallel process of being heard?

Jethro’s hearing of the narrative of the Exodus has a profound effect on him. This priest of another god rejoices in, and blesses, the God of Israel.

The Midrash presents Jethro as something of a spiritual searcher – he had worshipped before every idol possible and then it was vayishma, hearing – not experiencing, seeing or worshipping – but hearing a story that brought him on his way to Moses and to becoming, according to rabbinic tradition, the first proselyte.

In Jethro’s hearing we discover that the narrative of the Exodus works: it is effective at motivating and inspiring even those who were not present: which of course was the whole point.

Throughout the Exodus narrative the text reflects not just on the events themselves but on how the events will be told. Consideration of how the events will be recounted seems to cause them to unfold in the way that they do.

Earlier in the book of Exodus, the counter-intuitive and morally repugnant moments when God deliberately hardens Pharaoh’s heart are explained as being so ‘…that you may recount in the hearing of your children and grandchildren…in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’ (10:1-2). The recounting of the story by Moses inspires Jethro, who hears it long before there can be future generations to tell it to: as Jethro blesses the Eternal we know that the narrative has fulfilled its goal.

Whilst Jethro has narrative to inspire him, the Israelites only have experience. We might think that experience of God’s wonders would be even more powerful, convincing and motivating than hearing a story about them but it seems that the opposite is the case: the fear, doubt and uncertainty that come at different points during the experience remain.
This is seen famously in the episode of the Golden Calf. The faith that one would think the Israelites have in God after experiencing his wonders, is absent. They, who experienced God, seem unable to trust in God. We can see it too in our portion in a different way.

Some midrashic readings understand the Jethro episode to take place chronologically after the revelation at Sinai (bZevachim 116a). This explains Moses’ role as a magistrate adjudicating the cases of the people according to revealed law and in moments of uncertainty in consultation with God.

Jethro sees this system and is shocked. In putting revealed law into practice, Moses, who experienced revelation directly, is unable to reflect on and change what he is doing. Jethro says to him ‘The thing you are doing is not right! You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.’ (18:17-18) Jethro goes on to suggest a full re-structure of the Israelite judicial system.

Jethro, having listened to the story of the Israelites, is able to act from inside the Israelite narrative, yet not be rendered inert by living the experience the narrative describes. Instead he is able to help them profoundly change how they do things.

Jethro here embodies the redemptive power of a narrative to counter the inertia and loneliness that can be felt in our extreme experiences.

Here in Parashat Yitro, after a series of powerful experiences, Jethro is inspired by Moses’ story and then is able to help Moses by offering his own insights. As we begin to talk about significant occurrences and difficult experiences in our lives we can rely on others to offer us support and insights from their reflections on our stories. With time we can derive resilience, motivation and enrichment from the recounting of our own stories.

Caught up in moments of emotion arising from experiences, the Torah reminds us to make a narrative of them; to find ways to tell and retell our stories to others and ourselves in order to find the inspiration that is inside them.

Daniel Lichman
January 2013

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.