This week’s parasha is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.1 The Haftarah, according to Sephardic tradition is Isaiah 6:1-13. The reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 7:1-13.
Can you imagine how much of a difference three short months can make in a person’s life? A couple of weeks ago I shared about some of my experiences in the Marine Corps. From the drill instructor shouting in my face early one August morning to leaving the Corps some twelve years later. Thinking back, it was those first three months, August to October 1972, that really changed the course of my life. I got off the bus at Paris Island, SC, a recent high school graduate away from home for the first time, thinking how easy it was going to be for me to be a Marine, after all I had grown up in a military family. At the same time, to be honest, I was scared because I knew there was no going back. To quote Yoda, “Do or don’t do, there is no try,” and don’t do wasn’t an option any more than try was. Over the next three months I hurt in places I didn’t know existed. I learned to move or jump or fall when commanded, before asking or even thinking why. In three months, I changed from a somewhat self-centered high school graduate to being part of a group of eighty-seven men who thought, moved and responded as a single unit. I was and forever will be a United States Marine.
This week’s portion begins, “In the third month after Bnei-Yisrael had gone out of the land of Egypt, that same day they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1). The goal of my three-month journey had been to become a United States Marine. Bnei-Yisrael was now finishing a three-month journey for which HaShem had a specific goal in mind. HaShem’s goal in bringing Bnei-Yisrael out of Egypt was to lead then into covenant relationship with Himself, thus creating a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Their journey, like mine, was not an ending point but merely a transition to another journey. I went from Boot Camp to Tech School to learn a trade. Bnei-Yisrael was about to discover that they too had much more to learn in order to truly meet the goal that HaShem had set out for them.
Moses went up to God, and ADONAI called to him from the mountain saying, “Say this to the house of Jacob, and tell Bnei-Yisrael, ‘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 (priests) and a holy nation.’” (19:3-6)
Moshe goes down the mountain and reports to the elders of the people, apparently within the hearing of all the people, all that HaShem had told him to say. The people’s response was immediate, כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה׳ נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה, “all that ADONAI says, we will do” (19:8).
This was a monumental event. In essence, the Creator of the Universe first delivered a people from bondage and then He told them why He did it, leaving the choice up to them as to whether they were going to accept His offer or not. The fellowship and relationship that HaShem had planned in the Garden with Adam and Chava (Eve) was offered to a people who were only beginning to shake of their oppression and bondage.
Not only did the Creator make this offer, but it was to “all the people.” Rashi, referencing Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, 2 notes that both men and women were included in this offer. He states,
TO THE HOUSE OF JACOB — This denotes the women — to them you shall speak in gentle language, and AND TELL THE CHILDREN (lit., the sons) OF ISRAEL — explain to the men the punishments and the details of the commandments in words that are as hard (distasteful) as wormwood.3
This may not seem important, especially considering the warning that the men were not to go near their wives on the third day (19:15). But when one considers Moses’ words as his time as leader was coming to an end, we see things a little differently,
You are standing today, all of you, before ADONAI your God—the heads of your tribes, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the outsider within your camp (from your woodchopper to your water carrier). Each of you is to cross over into the covenant of ADONAI your God that He is cutting with you today, and into His oath. This is in order to confirm you today as His people. So, He will be your God, just as He promised you and just as He swore to your fathers—to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.(29:9-12, cf. Deuteronomy 31:10-13, Joshua 8:35, and Nehemiah 8:2-3)
So, in this week’s reading Israel travels for three months, moving from bondage and oppression to the dawning of a new existence. They have finished one school and are about to embark on a new curriculum. Along the way they have discovered that HaShem’s actions are not motivated simply by the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also by His desire for Bnei-Yisrael to be a treasured people unto Himself. But that is not all, they also discovered the people that HaShem was drawing to Himself were not just the elite, or the males, but all the people, the elders and the wood cutters, men and women alike, etc., were called into His presence. Every year when we celebrate Passover, we acknowledge that we too have come out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8). If this is true, then just as we too took part in the Exodus, we too stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai hearing HaShem’s call to be a treasured people—how will we respond to the call to “…listen closely to My voice, and keep My covenant”? HaShem’s words cannot simply be relegated to the “Old Covenant” 4 because Yeshua said something similar to his followers, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Later John would write to his community, “Now this is love: that we walk according to His commands. This is the commandment—just as you heard from the beginning—that you walk in love” (2 John 1:6). If we are going to be His special treasured people today, then we too must respond with Bnei-Yisrael, “of all ADONAI says, we will do.”
1 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.
2 Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael is the classic anthology of early rabbinic interpretations of the Book of Exodus. It is one the earliest sources for midrash, considered to be the work of the Tannaim during the first two century CE., before the codification of the Mishnah in 220 CE.
3 https://www.sefaria.org.il/Rashi_on_Exodus.19.3.4?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en last accessed on 24 January 2019
4 I use the term Old Covenant simply as a matter of contrast, not inferring that it is archaic or out-of-date.