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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Yitro (Exodus 18:24-19:13) – Uniting the Jewish Community

>The often retold Jewish joke suggests that a Jewish man was stranded on a desert island. He was alone there for twenty years until he was finally found and rescued. As he showed his rescuers around the island he came to a building made of palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass, which he introduced as his synagogue. A little later on his tour they came to a similar looking building made of palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The rescuers asked him why he had built a second synagogue; he smiled at them and said, “This synagogue, I wouldn’t set foot in it if you paid me.”

We Jews are often portrayed as a fractious community, which we can be; and we are caricatured (often by ourselves) as always having ‘two Jews and three opinions’. With so much division in the wider Jewish world, it can sometimes be hard to keep sight of all those things which unite us and bring us close together as a single people.

In this week’s Torah portion we have one of those moments; as we stood together as a community at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God. Before we stood together at the mountain listening to God’s words, we were asked by God through Moses, if we would faithfully keep the covenant; and that in return we would be God’s treasured people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex 19:3-6). Our response was unconditional: ‘All of the people answered together, saying: “All that Adonai has said, we will do”’ (Ex 19:8).

At that moment the entire Israelite community was united in word, deed and purpose. Together we all pledged to enter into a covenantal relationship with God, and to accept the laws of the covenant which God would subsequently place before us.

However, we did not arrive at Sinai immediately after leaving Egypt. We had to journey together as a community both physically and spiritually. Before we could stand together as a united people, ready to enter into a covenant with God, we required the intervention of Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro observed the way that Moses was running the camp and judging all of the cases, and told his son-in-law, ‘the thing that you do is not good’ (Ex 18:17). He advised him to set judges over smaller groups amongst the people, so that they could assume responsibility for the smaller cases, and Moses could focus on the more significant ones.

We read: ‘And Moses chose able men from all Israel, and made them chiefs over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens’ (Ex 18:25). We can often overlook this moment as a precursor for standing together at Sinai; but by following Yitro’s advice, Moses changed the nature of the Israelite community. Moses ensured that the people began to feel an investment in their future, not just as members of the community, but also as leaders of the community. Together the people assumed these leadership roles and recognised that they too were responsible for the future of the Israelites.

With this added investment in the people’s shared future, only then could we stand together at Sinai, and only then could we have a moment when: ‘All of the people answered together’ (Ex 19:8).

In our fractious Jewish community it would be good if we could all remember that we share a responsibility for the future and fate of the entire Jewish people. With this mindset, perhaps we could find a way to work together, understanding our shared destiny, and finding a way to once again stand together at Sinai, and once again answer together with one voice.

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