Parashat Yitro– “The Ties That Bind”
by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, February 2, 2018
Last weekend, I was in Chicago, for the engagement of one of my granddaughters. Next month, I’ll fly to Minneapolis to see some grandchildren in a community theatre presentation of “The Little Mermaid.” In April, some of my sons and their families will come in for the Sederim; in May, we have a Bar Mitzvah and a college graduation; in June, a wedding….aah, family, the ties that bind.
The TaNaCh/the Bible, is all about family and binding ties….literally, in the case of the Akeidah, but as a running theme, in terms of the concept of brit/covenant. We even see this in our liturgy. The theme initiates the very Amidah we just davened, for when we recite the first bracha, the Avot, we invoke praise for G-d as the G-d of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah, and of Rachel. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that there is a difference between listing these individuals, rather than listing ideas, like “the G-d of truth, goodness, and beauty.” And these particular individuals, our patriarchs and matriarchs, rather than, say, “the G-d of Kant, Hegel, and Schelling,” for instance. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah were “not principles to be comprehended, but lives to be continued.” Heschel pointed out that “the life of one who joins the covenant of Abraham, continues the life of Abraham. For the present is not apart from the past…Abraham is still standing before G-d and we are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman comments “In this same spirit, we are also Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”
The significance of individualizing, rather than grouping, each of the patriarchs and matriarchs is also not to be discounted. For each of them realized, experienced, and understood G-d individually, personally, in their own individual, distinct ways…just as we do, each of us individually, in our own way.
The concept of family and covenant is central to this week’s Parashah, Yitro (Jethro). The very title of this Par’shah honors the father-in-law of Moses, the Midianite Priest, Yitro (Jethro) who so famously observed how Moses had taken so much responsibility upon himself that he was neglecting his wife and children and was on the verge of what we would call “burn-out.” Yitro’s advice still remains some of the wisest leadership advice of all time: “Delegate, delegate, delegate.” Later in this chapter we read of the covenant our people made with G-d on Mount Sinai, a covenant that transformed us from a group of tribes into a nation, under the sovereignty of G-d.
Covenant is not quite the same as contract, though. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: “In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their own self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone.” This subtle difference between an exchange and a moral commitment can also be interpreted as a difference between a transaction and an interaction. With a contract, we speak about interests; with a covenant, we speak about identity. A contract, as Rabbi Sacks puts it, benefits; a covenant transforms.
The covenant that took place on Mount Sinai transformed us….long before we entered the land. It was our first founding moment, but not our only one. As Rabbi Sacks points out, the Hebrew Bible is revolutionary in political terms in that it contains not one, but two, founding moments. Several centuries later, as recorded in the Book of Shmuel Aleph (1 Samuel, verse 8), the people come to Samuel and ask for a king. G-d advises Samuel to warn the people of the consequences of such a move, but the people insist and Samuel appoints Saul. This second founding of the nation of Israel was not a covenant, but was what some refer to as the first recording of a social contract, wherein the people were willing to give up some of their rights, transferring them to the central power of a monarchy, in exchange for ensuring the defense of the nation from without and the rule of law within.
In modern day terms we might say that a social contract creates a state; a social covenant creates a society. A state is an arena of competition; a society is an arena of cooperation, and, yes, we need both. A symbol of the concept of covenant is the Havdallah candle, multiple wicks, producing one flame. As Rabbi Sacks puts it: “Out of multiple Me’s,” a covenant produces “an overarching Us.”
We live in multiple relationships…family, business, marriage, political organizations, etc…and, while we would hope that our relationship with each would be forever solid, we know that sometime the ties that bind seem to be the ties that fray. It is just at those moments that we can apply the concept of covenant to the situation. We can frame a covenant that recognizes “tovim ha-shnaim min ha-echad”/two are better than one”; a covenant that rises above self-interest and encourages the common good, trustworthiness, dependability, and love.
I was blessed to have been born into a terrific family. My maiden surname was Porath. My grandfather, Rabbi Israel Porath, and my grandmother, Rebbetzin Peshe Miriam Porath, were our patriarch and matriarch…and continue to influence my life to this very day. Steeped in Judaism, and living a loving and interconnected life, we even had a “Porath Family Club,” meeting several times a year. I don’t know who made it up, but we would begin our meetings with the following song “We the Poraths now, solemnly take this vow, one for all and all for one, tra, la, la, la.” A covenantal relationship, in this case, sealed with a song. As a child, I actually thought that all families were like mine….allevai; it should only be.