Monday, February 9, 2009

Yitro, the good father-in-law

The weekly reading portion "Yithro" is the happy end and restart of Shemot/Exodus - Part 1. Moses meets with Yithro, his father-in-law, his wife Zipporah and their two children, Gershom and Eliezer. The people of Israel were dwelling under tents and were meeting with Moses every day from the morning until sunset". "Vayeshev Moshe lishpot ha'am\וישב משה לשפוט העם - and Moses was sitting to magistrate the people, nation". The word has a large lexical scope. Its root is rather funny and diverting at first glance: "shafat\שפט = "to divide, decree, decide, judge, criticize", as "it was a generation that judged its judges" (Bava Bathra15b ) as " shifta\שיפטא (Aramaic) = childish" are linked to Aramaic: "patata\פטטא" = gossip, confusing speech, from "patat\פטט" = to break, to talk flippant.

The typical "patata\פטטא" example is when a person repeats things again and again, like in the Talmud: "God be with you" (Leviticus Rabba 32). It should be noted that actions that involve judging, deciding or ruling were viewed as the consequence, or at least, comparable to childlike and even childish activities. You know the same as when children play to be rulers, physicians in a hospital, lawyers - jobs that Jews love to exercise as professionals and after years of studies. The Oriental way of judging makes it also very vivid, psychedelic at times.

Moshe Rabbenu was a nice man. Very obedient to Yithro, his father-in-law, a pagan priest of Madian. Grandpa Yithro maybe considered as the first righteous among the nations. He saved Moses, gave him his daughter Zipporah. A thoughtful wife: she has proven to be an adult ever since they met and reminded her husband to circumcise their kids. This weekly portion is significant in many constant aspects that are essential for the spirit of Judaism : Shemot 18:1-20:23. The haftarot (prophetic readings) are from Isaiah 6:1-7.9:5.6(Ashkenazim, Yemenites); 6:1-13 (Sephardim).

Nowadays, we love sessions and run from one yeshivah to other meetings, workshops, video online conferences and discussions. This stress is utterly maddening and insane, what! Yithro had a serious talk with his son-in-law. Of course, it was normal at that time for people to meet constantly outside the tents; at least, Moses was sitting and "regulating" the situation. The result, by the way, can be even more profitable than all these online overseas video-meetings. Wilderness and oral culture people know how to resolve things much quicker than we do. But our ancestors could not eat properly, wash, pray or take care of their wives and children with normal refreshing kisses.

Thus, Yithro said to Moshe: "What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit as a magistrate alone while all the people stand about you from morning from evening?" Moses replied: "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God (chukei HaElohim vetoratav\חוקי אלהים ותורתיו)" (Shemot 18:16). Yithro said: "You do not do the right thing; you will surely wear you out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone... You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God... You shall also seek out from among the people capable men - anshey chayil who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs... let them judge at all times... make it easier for yourself by sharing the burden with you" Moses did so and heeded his father-in-law". This is the first major event in the process of management after the exodus. Frankly, Moses did not look like some self-centered, power-thirsty supreme guide. He just delivered the Israelites from the worse sort of despotic slavery and led them to freedom. Yithro introduced with Moses the rule that "courage"(sic) and "adult subject of the Law" qualifyfor freedom under condition of anonymity and the prejudice of others? This is a moral question right now among a lot of other related issues of co-responsibility. Prejudice and responsibility presuppose the existence of at least two people... free from bondage and "subject of the law", i.e. open.

But the point is to know to which laws and teachings Moses was referring during these long sessions. The question is that the Israelites - as Moses - never had experienced power or any ruling administration system. They just had fled from Egypt with Pharaoh's temporary consent. This has been an immutable law for the Jews throughout history to do things in accordance with the Nations' acquiescence. This does not rely upon any consent of Christians or Muslims, just Non-Jews. Cyrus of Persia - a pagan Messiah for the Jewish tradition - allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. In 1947, in totally different conditions and the matter is still a slant, the United Nations agreed for the creation of the State of Israel, thus the return of the Jews to Eretz Israel. Thus, who counseled Moses to set up a "governing body of judges"? His father-in-law, the pagan priest of Madian, did. He was the second non-Jew, with Pharaoh's daughter, who had saved Moshe.

Moses chose "capable men = anshey chayil\אנשי חיל" as we have "eshet chayil\אשת חיל - women of virtue". Israel is not based on power or might. It is called to function with judgment, brains, wisdom, discernment between what is right or wrong, good or evil. Yithro showed that "governmental" capacities belong to natural Law and had been erased from the slaves' memory. On the other hand, God's free bond allows the Jews not to rule but exert justice. King (and Messiah) David, his son Solomon lost their minds and broke the seal of the Commandments by their ethical and spiritual misconducts. This shows that we are facing - maybe right now - the same problem: how society, disputes, judges and God can get to an agreement in order to comply with righteousness? Is it accidentally if a free State of the Jews only existed twice and for short periods.

Yithro's counsel to Moshe is still pending: to find the required "anshey chayil\אנשי חיל", those capable to regulate and administrate the people and bring forth true rectitude to the Nations. God's words are the same as in the wilderness: "All the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh\ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש" - Shemot 19:2-6).

Then Moses and the Israelites leave Yithro and come to Mount Sinai. They will hear and listen to the Ten Paroles/Divrot-דיברות. There is a special move that should be noted: Moshe was "judging" without any written law, but quoting God's teachings. The first Giving of the Ten Commandments is at the heart of the Jewish moral and spiritual attitudes between man and humans and humans with God. They ram all the Mitzvot into a compact way of living. God repeatedly addressed the humans and, in this portion, the Israelites with principles that are parallel to the Seven Noahide Laws. In the Ten Commandments, the two first were directly heard by all the Israelites. But the people were scared and Moses heard the other eight Paroles and transmitted them to the children of Israel. All the Commandments deal with justice and presuppose the existence of a "court - din/mishpat-דין\משפט". This is a major specification of the Noahide laws not to harm an animal and to judge in court.

In many places in the world, justice can be exercised either by professionals or by ordinary citizens or mixed courts/justices. They can refer to habits and customs or special laws, legal articles. The Sumerian civilization had developed the first known legal code of justice that deeply influenced the TaNaKh and the Talmud. Which system had been in use in Egypt, then in the wilderness? Oral Law that presupposed the compliance with a written law did not exist at that time for the Israelites. Or then, a wilderness oral (natural) law accompanied by the oral Giving of the Ten Commandments? "One thing God had spoken (achat dibber Elohim\אחת דבר אלהים); two things have I heard (shtayim-zu shama'ti\שתים-זו שמעתי (Psalm 62:12). This is what the Pirkey Avot\פרקי אבות (Sayings of the Fathers) confirms: Oral Law was given to Moses at the Sinai along with the Written One. For the moment, this week, we are in full oral speech which signals a birth point. Oral law is tracing back to "early ages if not primitive times" of basic wisdom and allow to sytematize, organize, regulate and govern with insights and not through the prism of blurring smokes.

The Oral Law has accompanied Judaism throughout its dispersion. The selection of the canonical books of the Bible have varied from the Jewish decisions at Yavneh (Jamnia) till the Early Church that spread and split into different jurisdictions and Creeds. The Oral Torah has poorly been comprehended by most Churches as a part of the Giving of the Law at the Sinai. The Eastern Orthodox Churches replaced it by the "Tradition of the (Christian) Fathers". But both the "Ten Paroles" and the Gospel have been preceded by a long time of oral teaching that it would be convenient to revitalize.

Moses, as Jesus of Nazareth, called their people not to be afraid: "al-tira'u\אל תיראו have not fear". Different sorts of fears (pachadim\פחדים) constitute a set of psychological symptoms that may alert us about our reactions to all the events we have to face or cope with. Dialogue is a way to cure this. God is One and cannot be divided. This Week corresponds to the difficult travail that set up a pagan priest and Moses to show how redemption can make sense in a society.

It should be noted that Moses always humbled himself and listened most of the people he encountered and gave him insightful advices. This is considered as a part of true faith. It implies that a person of faith is able to be open to opinions he would have thought of, not he had to hear them uttered by others. We live in a society of "services" and consultancy constitutes a big part of such professional activity. It may be very suspicious and dangerous. Many consultants and advisers only look for more profits. Most companies hire consultants that often drift them aside from a straight or consistent line or orientation. In times of great turbulence, discernment requires time, patience and some feeling for long-term resolutions.

This is also the key purpose of the weekly Eastern Orthodox reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector (a sinner). It is definitely very difficult to condemn the attitude of the Phariseee: he is just or explains how does follow the requirements of the Law. We often can hear a lot of true Christian who would justify their position the same way. Do they believe or not in God or who would dare say that God does not trust them?

The position of the tax collectors is different. He aliened himself as a tax collector and taking the money to hand it over to a foreign administration. Millions of souls are in such a tragic and very provocative human, political and social position. Thus, it is much more challenging to step down and ask for God's mercy. Just as Moses accepted to humble himself and be constantly assisted throughout his task.

av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)

February 8, 2009 - 14 deShvat 5769 - י"ד דשבט תשס"ט

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