“It is a Tree of Life to those who hold it”… Yitro, the 5th & Tu Bishvat

We don’t have a Torah portion named “Abraham” or “Joseph”, but we do have one named after a Midyanite priest. And no other than the reading which includes The Ten Commandments. Couldn’t we name this portion something more “Jewish”? I guess not. Further: in this section, Yitro, that Midyanite priest and Moses’ father in law, comes and teaches Moses how to “run the show”. Didn’t Moses know? Growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he surely saw how an empire is being run. Further: if he needs anything, he can always ask G-d!! He really needs Yitro to come from the desert and tell him that judging hundreds of thousands of people can be exhausting?

And what about the beginning of the parasha: “And Yitro heard”… (Exodus 18:1). What did he hear? Some say, he heard about the Crossing of the Sea and the upcoming Torah being given, and therefore, wanted to join; some say, the Torah was already given and he, the ultimate spiritual searcher, wanted to see what it’s all about.

There is one push-back that Moses has for Yitro:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה לְחֹתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֱלֹהִֽים׃ —– Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God.

Namely, the people don’t come to me simply to seek advise; indeed, anyone can do that, and for that, your suggested structure is great. They come to me to “inquire of G-d”. From this point on, we are G-d’s people, and G-d is involved in everything we do, from great tying one’s shoes, to arguing with a neighbor, to learning about Shabbat.

One way or another, the Giving of the Torah is deeply connected to the presence, not only of the Jewish people, but the nations of the world. By including Yitro’s visit and words of advise in the Torah (18:17-23), we show the kind of relationship we’d like to have in the world – not that of isolationists or hermits, but a constant flow of give and share.

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I often say that it’s hard to raise parents. People smile, shrug or look at me with a ‘what’? puzzled face. I believe it with all my heart. There is no real place to learn how to, and it’s not like a job you can quit or a relationship you can just stop texting or file for divorce. It just goes on and on with you your whole life, even after you move away and the parents are dead. The midrash below, attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, says: “when it comes to giving produce and tithing, if you don’t have any, you don’t have to give, but vis-a-vie parents, you always obligated, whether you have or not”.

When a child first meets their parent, they look up with big fresh eyes of amazement, wonder, openness and unknown; the person before them on the other hand, has already had 20-30-40- years of life experience and whole list of set-ways, do’s and don’ts they are ready to unload and unleash on the newborn, often not realizing how much growth they, the parents, have yet left to do, and how blessed they are to have patient children ready to teach them…

This week, the Torah echoes that feeling too: “Honor your father and mother”, says the “5th”; honor, from the Hebrew – ka-bed, which shares its root with ka-ved, heavy. There are many reasons for the Torah to give this instruction. If the “10” are divided (according to some) into two groups – between G-d and human, and between human and each other, honoring parents, surprisingly, comes in the first group, as an earthly “training” path to honoring G-d. But if we took seriously that parents are likened to G-d in this statement, where does that live us?

רשב״י אומר לעולם יזהר אדם בכבוד אביו ואמו, כי גדול כבוד אב ואם שהחמיר בו הקב״ה יותר מכבודו שנאמר כבד את ה׳ מהונך (משלי ג׳ ט׳), בלקט ושכחה ופאה תרומות ומעשרות אם יש לך אתה חייב ואם אין לך אין אתה חייב, ונאמר כבד את אביך (שמות כ׳ י״ב) בין יש לך בין אין לך, אפילו אתה מחזיר על הפתחים.

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Last week, we celebrated Tu Bishvat, “New Years for Trees”. The mishna (Rosh Hashana 1) counts it among 4 different “new years”, each for a different season and purpose. Where is the beginning, wonders the subtext? For what, answers the subtext (with a question)?? For some of us it’s ‘don’t talk to me before I had my 2nd coffee’; for some it’s sunrise and for some, even before, when there is just a tiny fraction of a hint of light. Tu Bishvat comes when it’s still dark, but “the sap has begun moving upwards in the trees” (Rashi on the mishna), reminding us that there are processes that are invisible, and happen within, which is due time, will present themselves. This is also why the Knesset, Israeli parliament, was established on Tu Bishvat, to be what the prayer calls -ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו – the beginning of the growth of our redemption. May it be so.

Shabbat Shalom.

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