Yitro: Giving Permission

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Yitro : Shmot/Exodus 18:1-20:23

In Yitro, Moshe begins his leadership of a people in transition and brings them to Sinai, where they have a tremendous revelation of Torah.

Shalom Friends!

Here’s hoping those mid-Atlantic-seaboard readers are not going to be unduly stressed by the snow- something that is, at least on the East Coast, temporary. (Snow melts, after all, especially in Maryland, if childhood memories are accurate.)

Well, snow falls from the heavens to the earth but our haftarah this week has an image going the other direction. As the Torah portion, Yitro, tells the story of the revelation at Sinai, the haftarah tells the story of the prophet Yeshayahu [Isaiah] who was commissioned amidst a vision of the heavenly Throne:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple.  Seraphs stood in attendance on the Holy One. . Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other:

‘Holy, holy, holy!
The Lord of Hosts!
God’s presence fills all the earth! ” (Yeshayahu 6:1-3)

Many readers will recognize this phrase from the morning and afternoon prayers: it is a key phrase of the kedushah part of the Amidah [standing prayer], and is also quoted earlier in the morning liturgy, before the Shma. In that earlier section, Yeshayahu’s vision of the angels calling to each other is richly imagined as choruses of expansive praise, during which they:
. . . . ” accept from each other the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and give each other permission to to praise their Creator, with open spirit, pure speech and sacred song.” [Translation mine.]

Now, why would we describe the angels as encouraging each other before calling out to God as “holy, holy, holy?” What’s the point of imagining angelic religious sociology in the middle of our davenning? [Yiddish for praying the liturgy.]

To some, this passage may be a praise of the heavens but I think it’s all about what happens here on Earth- for aren’t we, the earthly community, the ones calling out “holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of God’s glory?” That is- the image of the angels is really about creating sacred communities among humans, who too often put each other down for being “too religious” rather than “giving permission” for each person to praise in their own pure song. To me, the image of the heavenly chorus is all about getting us to think about the real live people sitting in the seats of the sanctuary- how do we give or take away permission to pray deeply and authentically?

How do we- each of us in the synagogue- offer each other and accept from each other the spiritual orientation that Judaism calls “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven?” Are we humble enough to accept it from another, and are we generous enough to offer it?

These questions, to me, link the Torah portion- in which the Israelites receive Torah at Sinai- to our haftarah and our prayerbook, because ultimately Torah is only received among particular people in real communities. We can, if we wish, be like the angels in creating communities unafraid of spiritual vitality- communities in which we see the Divine Presence “filling the earth” precisely because we begin by seeing it in each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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