Parashat Yitro 5784

1 February 2024 – 22 Shevat 5784

Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander


In the past few years, a major part of my work has been with people choosing to become Jewish. It is a privilege to be the guardian of one of myriad gates into our community. Trusting in the experiences and studies that inspire me, I try to connect students who are at a particular stage of a personal journey – seeing their paths from an individual perspective – to the concept of peoplehood as a central aspect of Jewish life.

As Moses teaches at the end of the Torah1, the soul of every Jew was present at Mount Sinai to receive revelation. It is usually a surprise to those studying for conversion that this includes them, no matter where they may have been earlier in their lives. Every Jew that ever was, is, and will be, stood together at the foot of the mountain on that day. It may be somewhat difficult to believe. Do you remember standing at Sinai? I certainly do not. Luckily for us all, this week’s Torah portion gives a visceral description of the event.

It’s easy to read the words of the text. How, though, may we connect with them? A multitude of people, pressed together down below. In the darkness, they hold onto each other as they wait, anxious with anticipation. The sun begins to rise. They hear roars of thunder, and see lightning flashing all around. The shape of a dense cloud is becoming visible at the top of the mountain, and you can hear the sound of a shofar blasting so loudly it could blow you all away, and you are trembling with the largeness and the intensity and the power you can feel. O my God, there is fire and smoke, and the mountain itself is shaking – will it fall on top of us?… and the shofar blasts, they are getting louder and louder. Adonai is here! The urge to draw nearer is irresistible. You are carried along as everyone pushes forwards. Moses is speaking, and that thunder, could it be, is that the voice of Adonai?

This is not a guided meditation. We. Were. There. It says so. But we have forgotten. That was a personal memory, that came to me as I read chapter 19. This week we all have an opportunity to remember. To recall how, as a people, we spoke as one and said, “All that Adonai has spoken, we will do!”2 How we took the step from the slavery that had been imposed on us,

to the free choice we made that day. We will read these words together, and remember what it felt like. We will recollect how inspired we felt to stand together with our loved ones, our friends, our peers; and make this commitment. As we rise to hear the Ten Commandments this Shabbat we will travel through time and space filled with the beating hearts of the Children of Israel. Every Jew that was, is, and will be is standing with us.

And when we return to our everyday life, to face the slings and arrows currently cast in our direction, will we forget it all again? Or might we recall the strength that comes from unity – including all who consciously choose to join the Jewish people – and use its power for tikkun olam, to repair and heal our world.

1 “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God יהוה and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:13-14)
2 Exodus 19:8

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