Parsha Yitro: Growing up with the Almighty

As we begin our third year of Derech Tsofeh, we feature a guest d’var Torah by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, of the iCenter for Israel Education. He is an Eagle Scout and was national chief of the Order of the Arrow in 1995.

Parshat Yitro brings us to one of the most important moments in the life of the Jewish people: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. After ten plagues and the splitting and crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites come to the Sinai desert and camp at the foot of the mountain. After three days of preparation, speaks to the entire community and makes a covenant, a special agreement, with them: If you observe the mitzvot and live up to your calling as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” then you will be My special people.

Yet the rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) noticed something troubling in this story. After all that God had done for them, how could the people freely choose whether or not to accept God’s offer? God had freed them from 210 years of slavery, and had shown such awesome power in humiliating the Egyptians, that there was no way the Israelites could say “No”!

Here’s how the Talmud puts it: “Rav Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: The Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over them and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, it is good; but if not, then you will be buried [under the mountain].’”
Raba, another rabbi of the Talmud, responds that it’s true—the people couldn’t couldn’t be totally free in accepting the Torah under such conditions. But they re-accepted the Torah more freely hundreds of years later during the time of Queen Esther. God was less visibly involved in the world at that time (the Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible in which the name of God doesn’t appear even once), yet the Jewish people re-affirmed their commitment to be God’s partners in the covenant.

My own teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, taught me that what the Talmud is saying here is that, over time, the Jewish people has grown up. At first, we needed to see awesome signs and wonders like the Ten Plagues or the Splitting of the Sea to believe that God exists. But gradually, our relationship deepened, and we came to understand that God is the driving force in the world even when it isn’t so obvious. And even more than this, by not doing such obvious miracles, God is inviting us to take greater responsibility for our lives and for repairing the world. It can’t all be up to God.

As Scouts, we go through a similar process of growing up. At first, we may need a lot of direct instruction from our leaders as we learn the skills and values of Scouting: first aid, swimming, camping, and the like, but also how to plan and lead a patrol meeting, and how to interact with other Scouts. But as we grow, our leaders give us more responsibility—less direct instruction, and more room to experiment, sometimes fail, and learn for ourselves.
Parshat Yitro reminds us that God is the ultimate teacher. And the ultimate Scoutmaster too.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Josh Feigelson