AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Yitro

Parashat Yitro

Shevat 20, 5780 – February 15, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-13

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Yitro, which is the Hebrew name for Jethro meaning “his addition.” Jethro is Moshe’s father-in-law who – after hearing of how G-d brought the people of Israel out of Egypt[1] – heads to the Israelite encampment, bringing with him Moshe’s wife (Zepporah) and their two sons. When he arrives, Jethro is surprised to see Moshe advising the people from morning until evening, working to answer everyone’s questions and settling disputes. Jethro responds by highlighting the drawback to such an approach, stating: “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.” (18:17-18) Jethro then advises to Moshe that he delegate this responsibility to more effectively structure an educational and judicial system for the community.[2] Moshe accepts this advice, and implements this new system, which is why this section of the Torah is accredited to Jethro and his initiative. We are also three months out from the Exodus, in the month of Sivan, and the Israelites are encamped opposite Mount Sinai. They arrived at the mountain in anticipation of the giving of the Torah, and a series of communications from G-d to the people are preparing them for the Revelation that is about to occur. On the sixth day of Sivan, an awesome display of lightning, thunder, smoke, shofar blasts, and fire ushers Moshe up the mountain, and the Ten Commandments are given to Moshe. It is the most momentous moment in Jewish history – the apex, the culmination, of the Exodus from Egypt.

Based on some verses within this parashah, as well as two verses within the Torah that discuss the Revelation at Sinai,[3]“commentators derive that there were levels of holiness corresponding to the four levels of the Temple.”[4] The bottom of the mountain, the mountain itself, the cloud where Moshe stood, and the thickness of the cloud all correlate to varying degrees of holiness and levels of spiritual revelation. “Thus,” we are told, “the Temple was, in effect, a permanent re-creation of the Sinai experience, which was to remain with the Jewish people throughout their history.”[5] I was thinking about this point this past week as I was flying in a plane over New York City. As we took off in a small commuter jet out of LaGuardia Airport, I stared left outside of my window over downtown Manhattan, awestruck at the idea that millions of people – down, in that little sliver of land – were working, hustling, living their lives and following their dreams. It was a moment of realization (on my part) that New York City was a world unto itself. But what I’d like to emphasize, is that I don’t believe I would have had such a realization if I wasn’t in a plane, flying high up into the clouds. And this is the core of my message. There was something about my position in the sky that skewed my perspective – visually, the city looked tiny, like I could reach out and grab (what I knew, by experience, to be) massive sky scrapers with the tips of my fingers. But the distortion was also preceded by the suggestion that New York looked so small, like a little play thing – a simple, toy of my imagination. I couldn’t help but become aware of the tremendous power of what modern technology affords us, or enables us to do. But without the right spiritual foundations, a physical change that precedes an alteration of perception can often lead to an opening for self-aggrandizement and a hunger for power. Take, the Blue Marble, for instance – a famous photograph of the earth taken from space, which is what precipitated the creation of Earth Day. This was considered a momentous occasion, and lauded for its provocation of environmental activism. But, is it a perspective that just turned the earth into the ultimate play thing? The institution of recycling initiatives (for example), while environmentally-sound (in theory), were enterprises that were hijacked by large companies to perpetuate consumerism, place the burden on the individual, and eliminate corporate responsibility. And so, I had to ask myself: What is this technology doing to our minds? How is it changing our reality? Does it have anything to do with Sinai and the four levels of holiness?

I suppose what scared me, as we (in the plane) ascended into the clouds, was the warping of my own perception. As I stared down on New York City, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rebellion that took place at the Tower of Babel, and the paradigms that governed those actions. I also thought about the socio-economic disparities that allow for some people to literally live above others, in high-rise buildings and penthouse apartments. I don’t, by any means, wish to compare Moshe with the sinister and idolatrous character that is Nimrod – but I do wish to highlight the link between a change in physical geography with varying degrees of spiritual revelation. Even Moshe’s first ascent of Sinai was partial – in his first revelation, at the burning bush, he was told that Israel would serve G-d at this mountain – and so, he ascended part of the slope on the second day of Sivan in anticipation of the event. But he didn’t climb to the top of the mountain before G-d’s presence descended in the cloud. Once the nation of Israel collectively agreed to accept the Torah, Moshe was given his instructions, and this initiated a three-day period of preparation. It would not have been appropriate for Moshe to summit the mountain before conditions called for it. In a sense, Moshe’s initial, partial climb of Sinai was a symbol of readiness but also reservation – it is the essence behind the respect and honor we must show if we are to elicit communication with G-d. The actual act of climbing the mountain in its entirety (at that point) may not have been a problem, but if you remove that movement up Sinai from within its greater context and purpose, then it may have led to secondary complications. In the same way, we must come to understand that our geographical position is connected to a spiritual condition, a consciousness, and a way of the land. To remove ourselves from this reality is to neglect a spiritual principle – ascent without the right intention equates to a descent in moral stature, and to climb the mountain without a suitable cause is to initiate an adverse effect.

The four levels of holiness at Sinai correspond to both literal and metaphorical states of being. It is meant to position the nation of Israel (and a historical phenomenon) within a literal place, which is what anchors Jewish culture, history, and heritage to the land. But it is also a metaphor for the movements of ascent and descent that color every moment of our lives, which is what transforms the Revelation at Sinai into a living history.[6] In Hebrew, the word holy (kadosh) refers to things that are separate, apart, and elevated from the world of the mundane. We are constantly being asked to discern, or – at least – navigate between, the diametrical realities of the mundane and the sacred. This is the essence behind the Ten Commandments, and our upholding of them, because they are the seed from which the other mitzvot emerge. Ten is a significant number in Jewish thinking – Kabbalistic cosmology is premised upon the world being created with ten utterances,[7]and this is paralleled with the ten utterances in the Torah (the giving of the Ten Commandments), which associates our performance of the mitzvot with the purpose and origin of creation.[8] In the Talmud (Shabbat 88a), we read that this was a pivotal moment, not only for the nation of Israel, but for all of Creation. It teaches that if the Torah was not accepted, that all of creation would have been returned to the primordial state of chaos. We read: “Once the Jewish people accepted the Torah, the earth was calmed.”[9] In this way, the Ten Commandments and the Giving of the Torah functions as a supportive framework for all of creation, and our ascent through the world serves to defend all of life. It’s something to remember next time we’re in a plane and maybe shouldn’t be, or when we find ourselves in an elevated position – unaccompanied by a condition of holiness. Many indigenous cultures throughout the world have mountains, or physical sites, that are forbidden to ascend because of their sacredness. They are wedded to a history that forever remains separate, and apart, from the world of the mundane. And it is our duty to respect and honor that living history for the sake of all of creation, even if it is in the name of eco-tourism.

In closing, I’d like to take a moment to recognize Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees. Tu Bishvat, meaning the 15th of Shevat, happened this past Monday (February 10, 2020). It’s a really awesome moment in the Jewish calendar that recognizes how we can learn from trees, and learn about our own connection to the earth through trees. In the Torah, we are likened to a tree of the field (Deut. 20:19), and in Psalm 1, we read “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water.” The Torah is often related to water, and each component of a tree – the roots, trunk, and fruit –have a particular significance.[10] I will include some resources on TuBishvat in the description below and in the text for the audio essay, if you care to explore this holiday a bit more. Whether you’re doing a full seder, or planting a tree, take a moment this week to appreciate how vital these plants are to our environment, and how they can anchor our faith, mitzvot observance, and deeds in the natural world. Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The Revelation at Sinai and levels of holiness, the link between a geographical position and a spiritual condition, ascent and descent, and Tu Bishvat (the New Year for the Trees)

Resources for Tu Bishvat:

Listen to this Podcast


Greenberg, Y. Hechel, “What is Prayer?” Can be found at:

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Schneerson, Rabbi Menachem M. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe). Translated and Adapted by Rabbi Alter B. Metzger. Chasidic Perspectives: A Festival Anthology. (2002) – based on Likkutei Sichot Vol. 6 pages 308-309

[1]There is a Talmudic dispute about the timing of Jethro’s arrival (Zevachim116a) [2]Jethro listed four qualities of an individual that would be required for someone to be appointed as a judge. They are as follows: “men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth, and people who despise money.” (18:22) [3]Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 4 [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.405 [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.405 [6]Every time the Shema is recited, for example, we are asked to remember the Exodus from Egypt and this culminates with the giving of the Torah. The Sages tell us that Jacob’s ladder was an allusion to Sinai, and the ladder had four rungs – each corresponding to the four parts of the morning prayer (Shacharit): P'sukei D'zimra ("Verses of Praise"); 2) the blessings that precede the Shema; 3) the Shema; 4) the Amidah— the "standing" prayer, also known as Shemonah Esrei("eighteen") because of its original eighteen blessings. (Greenberg, Y. Hechel, “What is Prayer?”) Every time we pray, we engage this living history, which is rooted in place. [7] [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.406 – The Mechilta teaches that “G-d recited all Ten Commandments together in one instant, implying that Israel head all ten from G-d.” This is contrasted with explanations from Rashi and Ramban who explain that “since all the words were uttered in a single instant,” they could not be comprehended. The Sages teach that the numerical value of the word Torah is 611, as these are the number of mitzvot that Moshe taught. The first two were heard directly from G-d. [9] [10] Roots, represent faith, the source of a Jew’s vitality – connected with the realm and source of his life, G-d and the sanctity of the Torah. Trunk, equivalent to Torah study and mitzvot observance – 248 positive commands equivalent to the 248 limbs of a human body and 365 negative commands, corresponding to the 365 sinews within the body correspond to the lifespan of a Jew. Fruit, corresponds to deeds – ultimate self-realization of a Jews life is gauged by the fruits he produces. (As found within Chasidic Perspectives)

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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