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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