Archive for February, 2007

Yitro: Growing through the Thunder

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week we have the merit of reading the Torah portion Yitro, named for Moshe’s father-in-law,
but probably more famous for the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, or “Ten
Utterances,” or “Commandments,” as they are usually rendered in
English. The revelation at Sinai is the crucial turning point of
Jewish history, in which the God of their ancestors was understood to
be the God of their liberation, Whose Presence demanded from the
people both ethical and spiritual commitments.

The Aseret Ha-Dibrot introduce a revolutionary concept to the
Israelites: that religion is not only about power- over cosmic forces
and other people- but is primarily an orientation of the self towards
humble, ethical relationships. The Ten Utterances tell the people to
give up their idols and honor God by <not> working on the seventh day-
I can only imagine how strange that sounded to liberated slaves.

Yet the insights of Sinai, as revolutionary as they were, were not the
kind of gentle enlightenment one imagines as a result of quiet
meditation or retreat from the world. The Torah tells us that the
Revelation was brought to the people in thunder and lightening,
shaking and noise:

“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and
lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast
of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moshe
led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places
at the foot of the mountain.” (Shmot/Exodus 19:16-17)

Later, after the Ten Commandments were given, the people literally
want to back away from the place where their new laws and principles
were given:

“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of
the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they
fell back and stood at a distance.’You speak to us,’ they said to
Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ ”
(Shmot 20:15-16)

What these verses remind me is that spiritual growth can be a
profoundly unsettling experience- after all, true growth means giving
up long-held ideas and conceptions, and revisting one’s very identity
in light of the newly understood truths. A scene of earthquakes,
thunder, and clouds portrays in narrative form an oft-quoted
principle: change is hard and frightening! To learn new things is to
unlearn old ones, and thus to move into a liminal space between the
old security and the new understandings.

A stereotype of “spiritual growth” is that it happens by looking
within, in times of quietude and through the cultivation of inner
peace. Those are all excellent things, but in my own life, great
growth has also happened after the most wrenching pain and
dislocation- times when I felt my life was overwhelmed by thunder and
earthquakes. Afterwards, I could see myself more clearly, and had a
far better apprehension of where I had to go next.

Thus, a revelation accompanied by earthquakes and fire makes sense to
me, for I understand God not only to be found in moments of the
greatest peace, but also in moments of the greatest disturbing of my
peace, in which my complacency is upended and my idols revealed as
false. Sometimes, like the Israelites at Sinai, I even wanted to
retreat from the truths right in front of me, preferring to slow down
the process of spiritual unfolding rather than embracing it fearlessly.

So perhaps the amazing thing about the thunder and lightening at Sinai
is that the Israelites did not, in fact, back off completely. They may
have been afraid, they may have wanted more than once to go back to
the false security of Egypt, but they kept putting one foot in front
of the other along the long journey to the Land of Promise. As they
did, we too can journey into new and greater understandings of our
mission and purpose; it’s going to be frightening, it’s going to be
part of unsettling changes, and it’s going to lead us into amazing
places of promise and blessing.

With that, this Torah commentary is going on vacation for three weeks,
and we’ll meet up again for the portion Ki Tissa.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beshallach/Shabbat Shirah: Leaders of Song

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Winter has arrived but the Israelites are leaving- Mitzrayim/Egypt, that is, in this week’s Torah
portion, Beshallach. (Also called Shabbat Shirah, or the Shabbat of
Song, for reasons which will shortly be obvious.) The Israelites go in
a hurry but soon find themselves stuck with the Sea of Reeds in front
of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. The waters part, the
Israelites cross, and the Egyptian army is drowned when they pursue
after the fleeing slaves. Afterwards, both Moshe and his big sister
Miriam sing songs of praise to God for the great miracle of liberation:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took a timbrel in her
hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And
Miriam chanted for them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for The Almighty has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus

Miriam’s song is short but its expression is interesting. The Hebrew
says “va’ta’an l’hem,” literally, she “answered to them,” but meaning
“called out to them” or as the JPS translates it, “chanted for them.”

Our medieval friend Rashi brings an earlier midrash to explain that
both Moshe and Miriam chanted the songs out loud and the people
repeated it back to them, “answering” the leader with the words of the
song. Picking up on this, the contemporary rabbinic scholar Adin
Steinsaltz, in his book Biblical Images, suggests that because Miriam
led the women in communal chanting and song, it proves her status as a
leader of the people in her own right.

To me, it’s obvious that Miriam is prominent among the Israelites, but
what’s more interesting about this line of interpretation is its
metaphor of leadership: the leader brings the people to song, brings
out their voice and helps them articulate their words of celebration
and hope. I love the image of Miriam and Moshe composing verses and
the people chanting them in response, for it suggests that Miriam and
Moshe were worthy to be leaders precisely because of their ability and
willingness to be creative and freely expressive with the people.

This, in turn, helps bring out the pent-up emotions waiting to be
expressed after years of oppression. Miriam’s leadership consisted not
of commands but of finding her voice so that she may help others bring
out their own. Seen this way, leadership can be understood as
consciously seeking to nurture the human potential of one’s
organization or community, and is practiced not only by great
prophets, but by ordinary humans who bring forth in others the song

Shabbat Shalom,


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