Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Walk Article-Yitro



Rabbi David Walk


            Let's say that you were going to meet the president of the United States.  For the sake of our mind game, pick a president whom you admire very much, and would love to meet.  It would be safe to assume that you would spend a lot of time making personal arrangements for this encounter.  Clothes would be purchased or prepared, grooming would take much more time than usual, travel arrangements would be carefully planed, and you would ponder at length about what you might say. The preparation would take much longer than the actual meeting.  The same thing happens in this week's Torah reading. The Jews are told to prepare for three days for a rendezvous with God which would probably last only a few minutes.  Actually there are twice as many verses (twenty-eight) describing the preparations than there are verses in the Ten Commandments (fourteen), which is the content of the get-together.   This is a curiosity.  Because twenty years after this imagined visit to the president, few people would remember the barber, the hairdresser, or the cab driver.  We wouldn't remember how long we showered or even that we showered.  Forgetting to shower, however, would be memorable.  But now 3300 years after the incident at Sinai, we spend twice as many verses describing the groundwork than the event.  Why? 

            One could dodge the issue by claiming that the material in chapter nineteen has other uses besides informing us of the frantic goings on prior to God's appearance on Mount Sinai.  However, that would be a stretch.  It's clear that the content of Moshe's instructions from God and his conversations with the tribal leadership are all about the upcoming festivities.  And that's appropriate.  A major component of the Sinaitic experience was the preparations.  Rabbinic tradition compares the experience at the foot of the mountain to a wedding ceremony.  RebbeYehuda explained: "And he said, The Lord came from Sinai" (Devarim 33:2).  Do not read thus, but rather: "The Lord came to Sinai" – to give the Torah to Israel.  Or perhaps you should not say this, but rather: "The Lord came from Sinai" – to receive Israel, like a bridegroom who goes out to meet his bride.  (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el, Yitro, parasha 3).  We'd be a pretty lousy bride if we didn't invest massive time and effort into preparing for the event.  Anyone who has been involved in upcoming nuptials understands the urgency of the workload.  The combination of things to do and strict deadlines produces an acute tension.  I believe that this is a great analogy to the events unfolding in the shadow of the mountain. 

            But this idea brings us to another, equally important, conclusion: Preparation is an extremely important part of any essential enterprise.  Confucius (551-479 BCE) said, 'Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.'  Since we're deep into the chase for the NFL's Super Bowl trophy (Go, Pats!), I'd be remiss not to mention coaching great Joe Gibbs who said, 'A winning effort begins with preparation.'  Many great football players and coaches have said that big games are often won in the video room before either team takes the field.  Tele-evangelist Robert Schuller affirms that spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.  Indeed, these days leading up to the revelation at Mount Sinai were crucial for the event being so meaningful.

            I have a strong suspicion that the depth of every individual's experience was directly related to the preparation each one put into the effort.  They spent five days of intense exertion getting themselves ready for the big event.  Before his death, Moshe chides the Jewish people:  Take heed to yourself, and guard your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life, but teach them to your children and your children's children: the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev, when the Lord said to me, Gather the people to Me, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Devarim 4:9-13).  What happened at Sinai was for the ages.  It's a mitzvah to remember the experience; a sin to forget it.

            Our Sages tell us that this requirement of preparation is shared in common with many phenomena.  We understand that the joy and happiness that one feels on Shabbat is in direct proportion to the effort expended in preparation during the previous six days. For, indeed, it states in the Talmud, "He who takes pains on Friday will eat on Shabbat." This is what is meant by "G-d has given you Shabbat" - G-d has given you the ability to determine the amount of holiness and pleasure you will feel on Shabbat in direct proportion to the preparation.  In Pirkei Avot we're told:  This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you are ready to enter the banquet hall (chapter 4, mishneh 16).  .

            One puzzling aspect of the instructions which Moshe must relay to the Jews is that if not properly prepared the result will be utter destruction (verses 22 & 24).  The word most commentaries render as destroy is actually yifrotz, which really means break out.  Maybe the meaning isn't physical destruction but spiritual destruction, because God will break out from this constricted physical realm to return to more ethereal realms. If we don't make space for God with our vigorous exertions, God won't visit.  Then where are we?

            We must believe that if we prepare God will come.  Working hard to make this world a fit place for God's enduring presence within it is our role.  That's what we mean by preparation.  Maybe the Boy Scouts are right.  The best motto is:  Be Prepared!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

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