Torah | God gives the Tribe pet names before giving the Torah

Yitro

Exodus 18:1-20:23

Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

We are all known by many names. Of course there are our given names, and the nicknames that we have accumulated over the years. Perhaps our nicknames describe something about us, like “shorty,” or “stretch.” As a redhead I’ve been called everything from “gingi” (Hebrew for redhead) to “carrot top.”

After having a child, one might be called Mom or Dad, and every grandparent gets to choose: Will it be Grandma, Grandpa, Nana, Papa or perhaps the Hebrew Sabah or Savta? There are the names that we earn, like “valedictorian” or “All-Star.” There are also times when we might choose a special name for someone we love, like “honey” or “sweetie.” In each facet of our lives, in our many relationships, we are known by many names.

In this week’s parashah, Yitro, God prepares to transmit Torah to the Israelites. The Israelites have never had a code of law before, other than the rules they lived with when they were under the thumb of the Egyptians. We know that in the end Torah will be a gift, but in the parashah this week perhaps God was not so sure the Israelites would immediately understand Torah’s value.

God speaks to Moses, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the Earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3-6).

 In this text, God refers to the Israelites in a number of ways — almost as if God is using pet names, or the kinds of names that suggest closeness and trust. God reminds the Israelites that they were carried as if on the wings of eagles, reminding them that God is trustworthy and will keep them safe. God calls the Israelites a “treasured possession,” assuring the Israelites that they are precious in God’s eyes. And if this wasn’t clear enough, God presses on, promising the Israelites that they will become a “kingdom of priests,” and they will be a “holy nation.” The Israelites will be special to God, standing out among all of the other peoples of the world. God is taking special care with the Israelites at this important time in our text. God wants to make sure the Israelites truly understand what it means to be the keepers of Torah.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Revelation means that the thick silence which fills the endless distance between God and the human mind was pierced, and man was told that God is concerned with the affairs of man; that not only does man need God, God is also in need of man” (“God in Search of Man”). From our perspective, we understand the importance of Parashat Yitro. We have already learned that receiving Torah is a pivotal chapter of the Jewish story. Torah is already our foundation.

Perhaps the Israelites had to be coaxed with sweet words and kind promises. Not only did the Israelites need God in their lives, but God needed the Israelites to choose Torah as well. God needed the Israelites to bring this holy way of life into being. God needed the Israelites to know that after the flash of lightning and crash of thunder they would be in good hands, ready to be in relationship with the Holy.

We won’t, today, hear God whispering pet names to us. God won’t, today, coax us lovingly into accepting the commandments. We do, however, still make the choice to trust these holy rules. We do still take steps as individuals to pursue a relationship with God. Whether through prayer, through mitzvot, through active living of Jewish virtues and values — through each of these avenues we bring divinity into our lives, and we continue the partnership that began so long ago at the foot of Mount Sinai. No matter what name we use for the eternal presence that unites us, we know that we will always be treasured.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at rabbisara@ptbe.org.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at rabbisara@ptbe.org.