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Holding complexity, simply / Graceful Masculinity: Yitro

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אָנֹכִי יְקוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:  I am Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. (Exodus 20:2)

The Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai was God’s coming out speech. In it, G-d tells us about G-d’s self. G-d is everywhere, all of the time, relating to everything in this world in countless ways — and G-d is One. Indeed, what may be most complicated to grasp about G-d is G-d’s utter simplicity.1

“I am Hashem your God” is confusing for us. The verse includes two different names for G-d – Hashem and Elokim.  One name for G-d seems to be individualized (Elokecha, “your” God), while the other name sounds absolute.2 The variations we perceive between these different names of G-d are a result of G-d reflecting our diversity back to us in relationship.

It’s interesting that G-d introduces G-d’s self as the G-d of the Exodus from Egypt. Here, at Mount Sinai, G-d presented as “an old man full of mercy.” Earlier, at the splitting of the sea, G-d appeared as a “mighty warrior.” Even though the people of Israel perceived God differently, God is in fact One and the same. G-d is explaining: “Since I change appearances, do not say that there are two different powers”.3

G-d’s simplicity continues to be complex for us. It certainly could have been a more powerful claim to simply state: “I am Hashem your G-d who created the universe.” But that is harder for us to relate to. No one was there at the time of Creation, but everyone at Mount Sinai had just witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea.

In preparation for experiencing the revelation of G-d at Sinai, the verse testifies, “Israel (singular) encamped there, opposite the mountain” וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר. (Exodus 19:2) Rashi explains that Israel is described in the singular to indicate that they encamped as one person with one heart. To encamp, וַיִּחַן,  is a language of grace.4 Gathering the entire nation, unified in purpose and intention is not a small task, and was only made possible because of this attribute of grace. It allowed everyone to see each other’s character traits, and not to hate or separate from each other because they were different.5

The Divine revelation required a process of relatability: separate and distinct things coming together as one. In truth, we are all made of the same traits, attributes, and characteristics, just blended in unique ways with individualized expressions. Below the surface we all carry similar things, just in different ways, the result of our own life experiences.

We are each a part of the whole of humanity. Nothing is found in the whole except that which is found in the individual.6 There is a part of each of us in the other. This is true of the commandments as well. For example, there is a mitzvah to honor the Sabbath; and every mitzvah also has an aspect of honor in it. The red heifer is emblematic of an unintelligible commandment; and we also recognize that every mitzvah has aspects beyond our comprehension. “I am Hashem your G-d” is necessary for it all.

The manifestation of a trait, as the dominant expression in the moment, doesn’t minimize the existence of all of the other attributes that also make us who we are. When we dismiss people by what we think defines them, we flatten the depth and deny the complexities of G-d’s creations. When we recognize each person as valuable for specifically the constellation of character traits that makes them unique (and different from us), we come closer to perceiving and understanding the total unity of G-d.

 

Discussion questions:

When we first introduce ourselves to someone, we know that it takes a long time to really get to know someone. Why then are we so quick to judge each other?

What are some ways that we can build relationships with those who see the world differently than we?

The Talmud is filled with righteous people arguing. What are appropriate ways for reasonable people to disagree?

How can we foster more robust conversations about complex issues with more grace and respect?

 


 

1. R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s fifth principle about Hashem: “One must further know that Hashem’s existence is simple, without any composite or multiplicity. All perfections in their entirety are found within G-d in a simple way (שמציאותו יתברך שמו מציאות פשות).

2. עיין בתפארת ישראל קז

3. Rashi 20:2

4. הרבי מוורקה

5. כד הקמח

6. אין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

A Nation of Priests (Everybody Builds)

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Part of a yearlong series mining Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

Question: How to build a special community that focuses on the transcendent?

Answer: Empower an entire nation!  And build spiritual life around this collective empowerment.

This idea might sound over the top, but it’s what this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) suggests.  Everyone in the people of Israel – men, women, children – are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and this “priest” we are to be is different from the priestly class in Torah.

If not the priestly class, what is this kind of “priest” we all are called to become?

A “priest” functions as intermediary between humanity and divinity.  When I think of that kind of “priest,” I think of someone to whom one might go for spiritual guidance, perhaps for assistance in navigating life from an ethical or holy perspective. I think of someone ordained to perform a role, a function on behalf of others in tackling the mysteries of life with zeal and holiness.

That kind of “priest” is a rarefied, limited role.  Whether for a “priestly class” defined by lineage, or a calling ripened by learning, that kind of “priestly” calling isn’t for everyone – and that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a priest, rabbi, pastor or imam. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a trash collector.  We’d have really clean streets, but not much else.

To date, my calling and daily routine involve a courtroom, not a bimah. I went to law school, not seminary.  Even so, Torah’s radical vision of a “kingdom of priests” suggests a kind of priesthood that is for everyone regardless of what we do for a living or what we think we can do.

This kind of “priest” isn’t a role but an identity.  It’s not a go-between or intermediary, but a way of being.  It’s a calling to seek the sacred and serve the sacred precisely in the lives we lead.

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This “priestly” calling asks me not to outsource my spirituality to anyone – even the people who take on a “priestly” role as pastor, rabbi or imam.  That’s Torah’s calling, for each person to live spiritually, and in that way become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But how?  How do we build in a way that reminds that we mustn’t outsource our “priestdom”? And what does this mean for how we build spiritual life?

One clue is in the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, from the Hebrew l’kahen (“to serve”).  A priest is one who serves: we are called to serve.  Whatever our paths in the world, we can understand our way in the world as a way of service.

If so, then we must build spiritual life for that.  We must build to empower everyone, and remind everyone that they are empowered – commanded – to serve in their own right.

What does that kind of building look like?

Maybe it looks like increased engagement and investment: one can’t be a priest, simultaneously a servant of the community and a spiritual leader, from a place of ignorance or uncaring.  That’s a calling to spiritual education.

Maybe it looks like teaching our kids (and ourselves) to speak not about God from a distance, but with God with the presumption of relationship.

Maybe it looks like linking social justice impulses with ritual time, so that at moments of ritual significance (like havdalah) we’re channeling our energy also into building a better world. Maybe it looks like a website that curates resources for lifecycle moments so that a spiritual seeker can access tradition’s wisdom at their fingertips wherever they are – whether home, vacation, or a hospital hallway. (Full disclosure: those two things are among Bayit’s first keystone initiatives.)

Maybe it looks like something we can’t yet imagine. As a “nation of priests,” we all get to shape what and how we build.  That’s Torah’s invitation to the nation of Israel, to all who wrestle with these fundamental questions.

As a “lay priest,” I explore paths my ancestors blazed. I make them my own, in ways that aspire to being spiritually open and vulnerable, building new structures on tradition’s foundations.  This task can’t succeed if only “professional Jews” — yesterday’s kohanim, or today’s rabbis — pick up the building mantle.

That’s Torah’s wisdom: only all of us together, all of us living into being “priests,” can live into the holy strength, vibrance and enduring relevance that is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So it was in the days of our ancestors, and so it is now and forever.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.