When religious Jews are asked, how are you? they often respond with “Baruch Hashem”, literally meaning, ‘praised be G-d’ or ‘thank G-d’. Turns out, in the Torah this construct is used largely by non-Jews, including, in this week’s Torah portion, no other than Moses’ father in Law, Yitro:
וַיֹּאמֶר֮ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ ה’ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם׃
“Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
Long before him, came Malki-tzedek, the king of Shalem (Genesis 14:19-20); Abraham’s servant upon meeting Rebecca (24:27); Lavan, upon seeing Rebecca’s newly acquired jewelry and the servant standing outside (24:31), and Avimelech to Yitzchak, after settling the disputes over the wells and recognizing Yitzchak’s greatness (36:29), all using the same term or a slight variation.
The Talmud, and especially the Tractate of Avoda Zara, which is currently read at daf yomi, constantly wonders, where is the line between “me” and ”the other”? what can we do together that maintain each identity and what is it that blurs it? What kind of businesses, festivities, interactions? And the answers fluctuate with time, safety, economy, general needs and more.
Yitro, “Kohen Midyan” – the Midyanite priest – introduces this complexity. The sages describe him as someone who tried every idolatrous practice available. He is also Moses’ father in law. The grandfather of Moses’ (and Tzipora’s) children. And knowledgeable in organizational management.
We are so used to the story that we might miss the “wow”: The person who talks to G-d directly at any given moment, who will be the only one to speak with G-d “face to face”, in order to care for G-d’s people better is – not only getting but – taking advice from his non-Jewish father in law.
G-d and the Children of Israel are often compared to a couple. If so, we might notice that between their “date” at the Splitting of the Sea – everything done to impress and “open up” a new relationship – and their “wedding” at Mt. Sinai – a much more calculate, mature move, with a detailed contract at hand – there is a “dance”. And even music; music which can be “seen” (Exodus 20:15)!
Moses goes up the mountain (19:3). Then down to gather the people (19:7). The people approach as close as possible (19:12)– they should want to be closer and closer. After all, what could be better then being with G-d? But they are given a limit, and warned not to go up any closer. Then Moses goes down again (19:14). Then G-d comes down on Mt. Sinai (19:20), and calls Moses to come up. Moses goes up (19:20) only to be told: go down (19:21), and then: “And G-d said to him [Moses]: Go down and come up again”… (19:24)…
Then and now, there is a constant dance between us and Hashem: when we draw too near, He (for lack of a better pronoun) “withdraws”. If we back-up, we allow “Him” more space to expand and come near us, but then we also feel more remote. Which makes us draw near, as we want to be really really close, but we can only get so close. Then we must catch our breath, and… back up a bit. Which allows G-d more room…
Where are we supposed to be? Close? Closer? Far? How far?
And I think we’re supposed to be “dancing”. For one, we’re expected to be in motion. Too close is like near an endless burning sun. Too far, is cold, lonely, and lifeless. The Torah suggests neither. It tells a love story, and as such, it is fitting to be accompanied – by a dance.