Thoughts on Yithro

Erev ShabbatThis week’s Torah portion is Yithro. Since this study is following the triennial cycle, year2, we will be looking at Exodus 19.1 – 20.23. For those wishing to read the full Torah portion see Exodus 18.1 – 20.23.[i] Our reading begins with Israel arriving in the Wilderness of Sinai three months after they left Egypt. HaShem’s first message to the people is

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you listen closely to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among all people, for all the earth is Mine. So as for you, you will be to Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation. Exodus 19.4-6)

Here I really like the TLV version as it translates אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ as “if you listen closely”, instead of the normal English “if you obey”. In his commentary on various Torah portions, Rabbi Sacks points out that there is no single verb in biblical Hebrew for the English word obey. In above verse alone, there are two words which often carry that English definition – שׁמע, as I just mentioned, is properly to hear or better to heed, and שׁמר is to keep or to guard. While obey works for a simple understanding of these words, it does not carry the nuance that the Hebrew suggests. To hear, internalizing the revealed voice of the LORD, potentially brings about a transformation in one’s life, in the very being of the hearer causing him or her to want to guard and to protect that revelation and the newness of life it cultivates. With this in mind, consider the verse again as HaShem tells Israel, if you listen and internalize My voice, My words, allowing them to take root in your very being, and if you watch over and guard this new thing within you, then you will be My own treasured people (סְגֻלָּה֙ עַם) as well as a kingdom of priests (מְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים). This is not obedience simply for obedience sake, but rather it is interaction with the One who called a people out of Egypt to reach a desired goal, that of being a treasured people and priesthood. Thinking about the phrase a kingdom of priests, Rashi notes that instead of reading priests in this context, a kingdom of ministers should be read.[ii] One of the simplest definitions of a minister is one who attends to the needs of others. Therefore, it can be said that Israel is to be a people who are specially treasured by HaShem with the purpose, and even the charge, to minister to the needs of others. This is an awesome responsibility to which the Jewish people have answered the call in multiple areas of human need and development.

The Haftarah is found in Isaiah 6.1-13 with Isaiah’s vision of one, probably Isaiah, standing before ADONAI seated upon heavenly throne and thereby recognizing his own inadequacy to be in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He. Though Isaiah experienced an exalted vision, as well as a divine calling (or sending), the promised reception of his message seems most discouraging.

“Go! Tell this people: ‘Hear without understanding and see without perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people fat, their ears heavy, and their eyes blind. Else they would see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return, and be healed.” (Isaiah 6.9-10)

Rashi recognizes this to mean that even though the people have heard the prophets’ reproofs, and that they have seen and experienced the miracles of HaShem, as well as and the numerous wonders that have been accomplished on their behalf, they continued not to recognize that it was the LORD who was attempting to draw then back to Himself.[iii] Equally, just as Pharaoh hardened his heart and stood against the invitation of the Almighty, so the people to whom Isaiah was speaking allowed their hearts to become fat, insulating them against the wooing of the LORD. Their ears had become heavy as if filled with wax, so that they were unable to hear the calling of their God. Interestingly, this is the exact passage that Yeshua used in answering His disciples as to why He taught in parables to the majority of the people of His day, hiding from them the secrets of the kingdom (cf. Matthew 13.14-15).

“ADONAI how long?” Isaiah lamented. The answer was not until they are disciplined in the devastations and consequences of exile. But remember, Israel was and remains to this day (Romans 11.29) a treasure from among all people … a kingdom of priests (or ministers). Even though Israel is a nation, between 55% to 60% of the worlds Jews are still in galut, outside of Israel. “Why should this be so?” one might ask. Rabbi Dovie Schochet in an article entitled, Discover the Four Exiles of the Jewish People may have a possible explanation,

We can deduce from here that exile serves a dual function: Firstly, to serve as a punishment for our sins. Secondly, so we can be a light unto the nations and inspire the world for the better.[iv]

Therefore, even in exile the Jewish people are a kingdom of ministers.

The reading from the Besorah is Luke 7.36-50, which is the account of the woman washing Yeshua’s feet with her tears and then anointing them with an expensive perfume. The Pharisee who was hosting Yeshua took exception that He would even allow this woman to touch Him seeing that she was a sinner. Yeshua immediately compared the actions of the Pharisee to the actions of the woman, and the heart attitude of each. Yeshua then left the Pharisee, as well as the rest of the attendees, standing there in shock when He told the woman, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

In closing I’d like to leave you with a noteworthy thought, why did the woman come to Yeshua in the first place. It is simply written, “when she discovered that Yeshua was reclining at the Pharisee’s home…” (7.37). The word translated from Greek into English as “discovered” or often “learned”, is translated into modern Hebrew, at least in the Delitzsch, as שָׁמְעָהּ. In other words, she not only “heard” Yeshua was there, but she internalized the fact and acted upon it. As a result, Yeshua met her in her deepest need. May we all truly שׁמע the voice of the LORD each day, throughout the days our lives.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Herczeg, Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi, The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary, Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publishers, Ltd., 1995, p 223.

[iii] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Later Prophets with Commentary Anthologized from Rabbinic Writings: Isaiah, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publishers, Ltd., 2013, p 55.


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