You know, for such a short parasha, Yitro is sure full of major happenings. Yitro comes to visit his son-in-law, and offers him some friendly advice. His simple advice to Moshe has become the framework for judicial administration for the last few millennia.
Then the people arrive at Sinai. G”d speaks to Moshe, telling him to say to the Israelites:
אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃
‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (Ex. 19:4)
וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
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,(Ex. 19:5)
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
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.” (Ex. 19:6)
After Moshe relates G”d’s the words mentioned above, the people respond that they will do what G”d has spoken.
וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ יְהוָֽה׃
Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him. (Ex. 19:7)
וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה וַיָּ֧שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃
All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD. (Ex. 19:8)
These are all well explored words, and, at least for now, do not cry out to me for further elucidation. (Next year, who knows.)
After a little mood setting (three days worth) G”d speaks to the people from Sinai, uttering the famous 10 things, the Decalogue. You know-the 10 commandments. With all the appropriate theatrics.
I’m not at all sure how I might have reacted standing at Sinai for the declaration of the Decalogue. I imagine that by the point we have reached at the end of our parasha, Yitro, I might have been a bit shell-shocked, speechless and experiencing true awe.
Even so, G”d continues without any re-assurances or comforting words, to caution us to not build any metal gods, and instructing us to build instead a simple altar of earth. And then G”d says:
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
…in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. (Ex. 20:21b)
That bears repeating. In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least question why it need only be in places where G”d causes G”s’s name to be mentioned. Why limit it in that way? But, at this point in the narrative, we are talking about the G”d that had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Hmmm. Discussion for another time.)
For a time in our ancient history, there were many such places. Yaakov awoke from a dream and declared the G”d was present in that place and he hadn’t realized that.
(I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention the apparent absence of G”d for 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Hmmm. Another discussion for another time.)
G”d was demonstrably with us at the Sea of Reeds, at Sinai, and in the wilderness. We built a portable sanctuary so that G”d could dwell in our midst, wherever we were.
When the Israelites first came into the land, the mishkan, at Shiloh was the center of worship. But in the books of Joshua through Chronicles, as many as 20 other sites or high places are mentioned. With the destruction of Shiloh, it is believed that Israelite worship was again relegated to open-air sites. Sites where either the mishkan or the ark of the covenant resided seemed to have a special place, and pilgrimages to those sites may have occurred. (The Aharonic priests seemed to be wherever the ark was, though that’s not entirely clear.) Pilgrimage, however, was a great hardship on many, if not most Israelites, so worship at local shrines, led by a Levite, were acceptable. Then David had the ark brought to Jerusalem (and who knows what machinations of the Aharonic priesthood were involved with that.) Solomon built the Temple, and then there was only one fixed site for worship and pilgrimage. (There is, however, credible evidence that worship at other sites continued, especially in the northern areas.)
Centuries pass. Then, through our own failures to uphold the covenant, that place was destroyed. Somehow, we found new ways to worship while in captivity (and the non-elite Israelites left behind during the exile somehow managed to keep some of the faith alive.) We may have wept and wondered how we could sing the L”rd’s song in a foreign land, but somehow we managed to do so. We developed institutions to replace the Temple. We found Torah study and prayer as suitable replacements for animal sacrifice. We also blamed ourselves and our failures to keep G”d’s covenant for the fact we were in exile, releasing a strong fervor to once again embrace the commandments (and thus creating a need for some way to explain some of the seemingly unexplainable things, and exactly how to follow these commandments.)
Another Temple is built in Jerusalem. (Oddly, and perhaps ironically, it should be noted that Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return specifically did so for the express purpose of worshipping their G”d. Boy, were we good at finding loopholes.) This time, the business, marketing, and tourism aspects were part of the process. The priests became corrupt and the rulers progressively worse. (Post Maccabean revolt we have the House of Hashmon – among the worst rulers Israel ever had.) We traded Syrian-Greek overlords for Roman overlords. Then we got as tired of the Romans as we had gotten of the Greeks, and we foolishly revolted against them. we lost. Bye bye, Temple number 2.
And now we are scattered all around the world.
There are those who would desire to restore that one place. Seems to me that they’re missing the message, and simply desiring to bring back the fabled but failed days of yore. Oh, for one brief shining moment, we had a bit of Camelot in Jerusalem, but it was, alas, short-lived. If we spend our lives merely wishing to bring back that moment, we ignore all that is happening around us.
G”d did not say “in THE place.” G”d clearly said “in EVERY place.”We figured that out in Babylon.
G”d is with us in the synagogue. Not all inheritors of the rabbinic tradition of the diaspora still desire the rebuilding of the Temple, but they sure seem hell-bent on keeping the synagogue at the center of Jewish life and worship. I do not doubt the power of community, and the power of worship in community. Community is an essential component of Judaism. However, we must not allow ourselves to be caught up in the hubris our ancestors also had, believing that only in those places we designate can we commune with G”d properly. Perhaps the synagogue can be re-invented (or re-invent itself.) Perhaps it can co-exist with alternate form of worship. Or perhaps it may fade into the mists of time. Only time will tell.
What are the alternatives to the synagogue? At home. At work. On the street. On vacation. At the nightclub. In the park. A flash-mob worship. In large gatherings and small gatherings. At Home Depot learning to build a sukkah. (Actually, now that we know where the funder of Home Depot donates so much of his money, we should switch all our programs to Lowes or Menards.) On a farm. On an ocean liner. Someday, on the Moon or Mars. Everywhere. B’kol HaMakom. In every place we are, we will be blessed, if we will but harken to G”d’s commandments as we understand them.
One of G”d’s appellations is “HaMakom.” The place. Effectively then, all places. In whatever makom/place we are in, G”d is that place. Depending on your understanding of G”d, that could be that G”d is physically omnipresent, or it could mean that, because we are in the image of G”d, everywhere we go, G”d goes. Either way, it’s in every place. Not just one place, or some special places. For those of you who need a little “fear,” you can just look at is as if G”d is there, seeing what you are doing, everywhere, at all times. That’s not my cup of tea, but if it works for you…
Whichever understanding you have, perhaps constant awareness of this might affect how we act and behave – in every place. Not just when we are in any one place. Not little scrolls of parchment in small boxes on our arm and our forehead, nor even in a mezuzah. We become the living embodiment of those words, so the physical artifacts are no longer needed to remind us. I think G”ds message to us here includes the idea that we need to act holy wherever we are. May we all strive to do so.
©2018 (portions ©2008) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Yitro 5777 – Holy Seeds Don’t Produce Identical Plants
Yitro 5776 – Top Ten (Revised and Redux 5766)
Yitro 5774 – The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revisted and Revised)
Yitro 5773 – From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 – Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 – Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 – Special Effects
Yitro 5769 – Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B’Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad”nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments