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Parashat Yitro, 5778

February 2, 2018

A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD


As I write this, I am thinking of a particular moment in my life, when I was about to lead a large ceremony.  A few years prior at the same ceremony, I’d been dehydrated and nearly passed out while giving a D’var Torah.  So I was nervous. Things were running late, which made me even more nervous. As preparations concluded and the moment to begin arrived, I must have looked very anxious indeed.  An elder—a wise rabbi who had led many rituals—came over to me and looked me up and down.  “You’re going to be fine,” she said.  And I was.

I am wondering if Yitro came to Moshe in the wilderness, just before Moshe’s big moment, for that very same reason: to tell him he was going to be fine. Every year, as the liturgical cycle turns to the book of Exodus, I think often about Yitro, the Midianite priest who gave Moshe a home for many years and became Moshe’s father-in-law.  At the beginning of the parashah, Yitro comes to Moshe, along with Moshe’s wife Tziporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer.  There are many midrashim about how Moshe’s Midianite family hears what had happened in Egypt, and about why they come to Sinai; some say they come to receive Torah along with the people.  Some say they come so Moshe and his wife and children can be reunited.  I notice that the family arrives just before Moshe’s big moment, and I wonder whether they come to teach him something important about how to be at Sinai.  In fact, the Or haHaim commentary on Exodus 18:5 suggests that Yitro knows where to find Moshe because he already knows where the holy mountain is; Moshe has shared that information with him long before.

If we look closely, we notice that the people seem to arrive at Sinai twice.  When Jethro and family arrive, they come “to the wilderness, where he was camping where God’s mountain was”– el hamidbar asher hu honeh sham har ha’elohim (Exodus 18:5).  Later, on the third new moon, “they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain”– vayavo’u midbar sinai vayahanu bamidbar vayahen sham neged hahar (Exodus 19:2).  Both verses describe the camp of the people in relationship to the mountain.  Both verses contain the word sham, “there,” as if calling up for us the physical presence of the mountain. In both verses the verb in proximity to sham is hanah, to camp, and is conjugated in the singular: “honeh sham” and “vayihen sham.”  The Sages comment on Exodus 19:2, noting that vayahanu shifts to vayihen, showing that the people become unified at Sinai (Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael 19:2).  But I could find no comment regarding the relationship of honeh and vayihen.

So here is my thought. It is when Yitro comes, bringing Tziporah, Gershom, and Eliezer, that Moshe camps in the present: hu honeh. At the moment of Sinai, we see the verb for to camp in the past tense: vayihen.  In the collective moment, Moshe is aware of the impact of Sinai on history.  But the presence of Yitro brings Moshe into the present, into his own experience: hu honeh. Even when Moses has his greatest moment of leadership, his own presence in his experience, in his body, is crucial.  So too, the Yitro figures in my life have helped me come into the present and pay attention to the moment.  One of the names for Yitro is Re’uel: “See God!” (Rashi on Exodus 18:1) Yitro’s presence at Sinai is a reminder that leaders of others, to be authentic, need to recognize and claim their own experience—to remember to see the Divine for themselves.

Like Elijah, Yitro circulates through the world. The elder I mentioned at the beginning of this D’var Torah didn’t only tell me I was going to be fine.  Later on, she gave me the same advice Yitro gave Moshe—that I had to let other people do things, so that I didn’t exhaust myself, so I could be more present, and so others were empowered to lead and to grow.  Three thousand years later, it was still good advice.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.