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Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-2:23)

“All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’
And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.” (Exodus 19:8)

Parashat Yitro (named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, a Midianite priest) describes the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, affirming the brit, God’s covenant with Abraham, with the entire Israelite people. Hidden within aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, however, is a tension reverberating through Jewish life to this very day.

The commandment, “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” (Ex. 20:3) introduces monotheism, a radical break with, and abandonment of, existing theologies of the time. This is a revolutionary Judaism. But then God commands, “Honor your father and mother, so you may long endure on the land the Lord your God is assigning you.” (Ex. 20:12) This commandment is usually applied to the individual, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; German rabbi considered the father of modern Orthodox Judaism) reads it as an imperative to the collective: honor your ancestors, so the Jewish people may live forever. Ancestors are the conduit for the received traditions of the people, so the commandment is saying the key to survival is to maintain faithfully the traditions passed on to you by previous generations. This is a conservative Judaism. And so the tension between tradition (our obligation to the old) and change (our embrace of the new) butt up against one another.

The present is always a negotiation between the past and the future; the tension between them is a constant. Jewish practice has never remained static; every generation, every community, every individual, chooses its loyalties and has done so since the revelation at Sinai. The real question is how do you choose?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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