Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Yitro 5783

In Shabbat Yitro, God shows us that we need each other as one collective community, an idea that comes at odds with America’s focus on rugged individualism. Rabbi Timoner shares how we, in Park Slope, can do better—and the blindnesses we are all guilty of.

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Millie, I’m so glad you spoke about how important it is to ask for help and give help. Your message is actually really counter-cultural in American society, and it is a message that we desperately need right now. I want to say more about that in a minute, but first I need to point out the ways that your message resonates throughout the rest of your parasha and really throughout all of Jewish tradition.

First of all, let’s note that your portion, Yitro, is The Big One. This is the one where our people stand at Mount Sinai and meet God. This is the one where we receive the Ten Commandments. Our people chose to start this Torah portion with a lesson about delegation and asking for help. And this wisdom came not from a wise elder among the Israelites, but from a foreigner, from a tribal leader of another nation, in fact of a nation, the Midianites, who would become one of the Israelites biggest enemies. The portion is named for this foreign leader. Think about it, we’ve chosen to name what’s arguably our most important Torah portion for a non-Israelite. There’s a recognition that not all wisdom is our own, and that it’s important to be in a relationship of mutual aid with others, beyond the boundaries of who we might think of as us.

That’s chapter 18, and you taught us about it beautifully. Then we get to chapter 19, where God invites us into covenant, or brit. Jewish tradition tells us that we’re all in this brit, in this covenant or partnership with God.  

“If you really hear my voice and keep my covenant,” God says, “I will make you a segula, a treasure, to me.” 

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ 

God is asking us to listen. God is asking us for a relationship. You could even say that God is asking for our help, to be God’s partners in the world.

As context for this covenant, God uses an interesting metaphor to remind us that this is the same God who brought us out of Egypt: “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.”

  וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי

What does this mean that God carried us on eagles’ wings?  Rashi, quoting the midrashic collection Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, says “…an eagle …bears its fledglings upon its wings. Scripture uses this metaphor because all other birds place their young between their feet since they are afraid of another bird that flies above them, but the eagle flies higher than all of the other birds and only fears humans because we might shoot an arrow at it…  therefore the eagle places (its young) upon its wings, saying, “Better that the arrow should pierce me than my young!” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 18:4:3). Rashi says that God acted like that eagle when God stood as a cloud between us and Pharaoh’s army at the edge of the sea.

I love this image of God like a big mother bird, and us like fledgling eagles protected on her wings. It’s not just that I need your help to be my partners on the earth, God is saying, but you need my help too. You’re just little baby eagles. You need protection, you need to be carried sometimes. In fact, we need each other. That’s why I want to enter into covenant with you.

And then we have the idea that not only does God need us and we need God, but we Israelites need each other as one big collective community. When we’re standing at Mount Sinai, God speaks not only to Moses, but to all of us directly, every one of us. This is a very rare dynamic in world religion. In most religions, the deity speaks through and to an elect person, a prophet, a priest, or an elect class, and direct contact with the divine is limited to that person or class. Everyone else has to go through that person to reach God. But Adonai goes to great efforts to make sure that everyone can hear and see directly, warning the people to stay pure for three days, marking off the boundary of the mountain so the people can get close but not dangerously close, and afterward re-emphasizing the point that God spoke not just to Moses or just to the priests, but to everyone, the whole community together: 20:19 “Say to the children of Israel: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens.”  What’s the message? All of the people matter, every one of them.

Then there’s chapter 20, the Ten Commandments, the Big Ten of all 613 mitzvot of Torah. People often try to separate ritual versus ethical mitzvot, thinking of ethical mitzvot as those that are about how we relate to other people, and ritual mitzvot as those that we do on our own. But in Judaism, there are no mitzvot that you do on your own. Both of these categories are about relationships. They’re called bein adam lechavero and bein adam l’makom. Between one person and another; between a person and God. In other words, our actions are always in the context of a relationship.

If we add together Yitro’s model of leadership and social organization, the formation of covenant, the revelation at Sinai, and the content of the Ten Commandments, all of which are in this week’s parasha, we find these notions: 

  1. Every person matters.
  2. Many people have a role to play, a valuable role, a needed role. Society should be structured to involve as many people as possible in helping.
  3. God needs our help and we need God’s help; that’s why we are in covenant with one another
  4. The mitzvot are about being in relationship, either with other people or with God. 
  5. The primary unit of the society is not the individual but the collective, however
  6. Our collective well-being depends on the well-being of all of the individuals within the society.

American society has been rooted in rugged individualism since the frontier days, though it was Herbert Hoover who coined the term. According to a 2016 Pew study, 57% of Americans today do not believe that success in life is determined by forces outside of your own individual control, and therefore 58% value a non-interventionist government over one that actively works to meet the needs of the society. The pull yourself up by your bootstraps ideology is easy to criticize with an eye on social systems that benefit some and keep others down. That is a message that you often hear from this bima. But today I want to speak about how we here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, are at the epicenter of another version of this individualist ideology that is popular with progressives but just as toxic as the Marlboro Man, if not more so. And that is the particular brand of meritocracy within which many of us have lived our whole lives and often therefore cannot even see. It has shaped our biases and made them in many cases unconscious. The lens of white privilege is an important check on these biases, but it does not get at the whole picture. 

Here’s what I’m talking about. We live from birth in a competition with one another and everyone else in our society. On one hand, we were taught and we teach our kids to share, to feel empathy, to look out for the underdog or the excluded. On the other hand, we were taught and generally teach our children to win. The overriding goal of our childhoods and our children’s childhoods is to succeed at this competition.

It is a competition for a narrow set of seats in a select set of schools that lead to other schools that confer a brand on us and our children and lead to specific opportunities that are at the top of the merit pyramid. It is a competition that values a specific kind of intelligence based in verbal, writing, and analytical skills, or alternatively math and science, and in the ability to excel at written tests and to craft paragraphs. We all know that those are not the full breadth of intelligences that humans possess. And we all know that our society needs people who are not lawyers or writers or doctors or academics. Many of us might bristle at pressuring our kids to win on the sports field. But how many of us pressure our kids and felt pressure ourselves to win in this arena. 

My sense is that Park Slope is made up of a lot of people who won this competition. How many of us went to a college that has a name that people have heard of, and want our kids to go to a college with a name that people have heard of. We might think that this competition is about economic well-being, that all we want is for them to be able to get by in the society. But the average plumber in New York City makes the same or more in annual salary as the average New York Times writer or academic, and which one are we directing our children toward? 

Let me be clear, this is not an anti-intellectual message, against humanities or history or civics or literature or ideas, has v’shalom, God forbid. In many countries, plumbers speak three languages, have read all of the great books, can argue philosophy, and can tell you in detail about the history of their region. 

This is about a particular American meritocratic competition that governs our lives. Beyond the ways that this narrow competition for elite prizes affects childhood, beyond the ways that it limits our visions for what our lives could be, beyond the fact that it has generated a resentment of us – us elites in blue coastal cities – among the rest of America who are generally understood to have lost this competition, and who see us as smug and believing ourselves to be superior, a resentment that shows up at the ballot boxes – beyond all of this, it teaches us that other human beings are obstacles to our success and happiness. That we don’t rise and fall together, but we are fundamentally against one another. That when you fail, it gives me a better chance of succeeding, or at least I look better comparatively. That zero sum ideology – which is fabricated- is a primary force behind schadenfreude. It is the opposite of what Torah teaches.

We can do better. And doing better can’t mean creating more schools that help you win the college race. Doing better has to mean that we opt out of this system. That we challenge our biases about what a good life looks like, and stop running the race to nowhere. Those of us who’ve won that race know that it does not buy you happiness. It buys you workaholism. It buys you grind culture. It buys you more racing to the top in professional school or your field of work. Happiness has to come from somewhere else. So why not start that now.

All of this is why I believe that the single most important thing we do here at CBE is chesed. Chesed, which means lovingkindness, is our work to help each other, just as you taught us, Millie. We have more than 100 chesed volunteers who do things like bring you soup or meals if you’re sick or get you everything you need for shiva or help you install a lightbulb or figure out long-term care for an aging loved one, or bring you a home baked challah when you’re in mourning or bring you a care package after you give birth or get married or retire, or visit you if you’re stuck at home all alone. Now chesed even has a chevra kadisha who’ll lovingly take care of your body when you die. 

With chesed, by helping each other, we’re remaking the world. We’re enacting a microcosm of how the world should be, totally aligned with this week’s parasha and Judaism itself. –1) Every person matters. 2) Many people have a role to play in helping. 3) God needs our help and we need God’s help, 4) The mitzvot are about being in relationship 5) The primary unit of the society is not the individual but the collective, 6) Our collective well-being depends on the well-being of all of the individuals within the society.

But this cannot be window dressing. It cannot be like when we tell our kids to value empathy as long as they come out on top. Chesed only remakes the world if we allow it to remake ourselves. If we become people who can readily acknowledge that we need help and make ourselves vulnerable enough to receive it from others. If we rebuild our world so that when you fall I fall and when you rise I rise too. And we stop fighting for the same few, tired prizes that don’t even make anyone happy. There are a lot of things we cannot control in our society right now, but this is something we can control, because it starts with us.