Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

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Two Jews, Three Opinions!

Image: Two arrows on a blackboard, facing opposite directions (Geralt/pixabay)


And God said to Moses: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.”

Exodus 32:9

News flash: Jews argue.

We argued in Canaan, we argued in Egypt, we argued in the wilderness, and once we got to the Promised Land, we argued some more. We argue with our closest relatives, and we argue with outsiders. We argued with the Romans through two bloody rebellions that nearly wiped us out. Our Talmud is the record of centuries of debate. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a popular saying and it carries the truth: Jews argue, even with ourselves.

Visit a synagogue on Saturday morning, and you will find a group of regulars doing Torah study together, chewing over the text, arguing.
Visit any beit midrash [house of rabbinical study] and you will see pairs of students arguing with one another, striving over the interpretation of scripture (and interpretations of interpretations of scripture) as to exactly what the words mean. Study of this kind is an art form, and a form of prayer. It hones the mind and shapes the character.

The most fundamental rule for these arguments is in Pirkei Avot, a first or second century collection of rabbinic advice, part of the Mishnah. It reads:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.

Pirkei Avot 5:17

Hillel and Shammai were great scholars of Torah who lived in the 1st century BCE. They disagreed sharply about many things, as did their students after them. However, Mishnah Yevamot tells us that despite their tough disagreements:

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. [With regard to] purity and impurity where these ruled [a matter] pure and these ruled [it] impure, they did not refrain from using [utensils] the other deemed pure.

M. Yevamot 1:4

In other words, despite their bitter arguments in the academy, they respected one another. They allowed their children to marry each other (accepted each other as Jewish) and they were willing to eat in each others’ homes (even though they disagreed about kashrut.)

The sages of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued the merits of their cases, but as we can see from the friendly relations they maintained, they did not descend into ad hominem arguments. They did not attack or belittle an opponent in order to undermine his argument. Instead, they kept their methods of argument on the high road.

The example of Korach has to do with both motive and method. In Numbers 16-17, the chieftan Korach challenges the authority of Moses. Korach wanted power. He wanted the respect and honor that he saw Moses getting. He was willing to stir up the community and divide it in order to get his way. He and his followers died a horrible death as a result.

Lately I’ve seen a number of arguments among Jews that saddened me, because they engaged in tactics more like Korach’s than those of Hillel and Shammai. They were arguments in which individuals sought to “win” the argument by making ad hominem attacks on their opponents, saying that so-and-so isn’t a “real Jew” or so-and-so is a convert.

News flash: Jews disagree. One of the things we disagree about is the exact location of the “who is a Jew” line. There are Orthodox standards, and Conservative standards, and Reform standards, and the standards of the Israeli Law of Return. Traditionally, this is a subject upon which we take someone’s word unless there is a urgent reason to raise a question.

But even if someone is “faking” their Jewishness, using that to discredit them is a logical flaw. It weakens rather than strengthens the argument. It is stronger to base an argument on facts and persuasion, rather than a cheap shot.

We need to get back to arguments for the sake of heaven, arguments like those of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, conducted with mutual respect and derech eretz [common courtesy.]

“Two Jews, Three Opinions” – it is a well-known fact that Jews disagree. We differ, we argue, we nitpick, we split hairs, we pilpulIt’s part of who we are as a people. When we have done it badly, we have brought disaster down upon ourselves, but when we do it well, for the sake of heaven and the pursuit of truth, then it is truly sublime.

In Every Generation, We Must Leave Egypt

Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

Pesachim 116b

This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.

In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.

What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.

I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.

Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.

I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.

You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.

If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”

This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.

It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.

A Text Written in Lava

Image: Sign in Lava Tree State Monument, Pahoa, HI: “STAY ON TRAIL. DANGEROUS EARTH CRACKS IN PARK AREA” (Photo: Ruth Adar)

Today I visited a most remarkable place: Lava Tree State Monument near Pahoa, on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

It is a place of profound beauty, and after watching videos of the eruption this summer that nearly obliterated this park, I also see it as a place of terror. The “Lava Trees” are actually molds of O’hi’a Lihua trees (Metrosideros polymorpha) formed during a 1790 eruption of Kilauea volcano. The lava flowed across the ground, burning everything in its path, coating the trunks of the trees, after which the trees burned away within their lava jackets. What is left is an eerie column of cooled lava, which looks as much like a person than a tree.

This is a photo of Linda standing next to one of the larger lava trees. As you can see, lichens, mosses and plants have taken root in the crevices of the “tree.”

Notice the asphalt path that runs through the park. It was a rare treat to visit a place for which I had truly equal access. As the sign in the photo at the top says, everyone has to stay on the path.

Volcanos always bring to mind the processes of creation and destruction, for the two happen simultaneously in an eruption. Nothing I know of, short of the ocean, can withstand a lava flow. It burns and destroys everything in its path. And yet it carries the seeds of creation: new land, hard and craggy at first, but the raw material for a lush landscape when the conditions come together. A bird drops an o’hi’a seed; the plant has the gift of breaking down lava into its elements, to slowly form soil. Other plants take advantage, and other birds drop other seeds. A forest grows, another eruption takes place, melting the old lava, burning the new growth, and the process begins again.

The opening of the book of Genesis is usually translated something like, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” In fact, the Hebrew conveys a sense of ongoing creation, something more like, “In the beginning God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

“Is creating” – that is what I saw in Hawai’i this week. Only a short distance away, a lava flow destroyed over 700 homes this past summer. Priceless wildlife habitat was destroyed, along with many rare creatures, like the green sea turtles which essentially boiled to death in the Kipoho tide pools as the lava swamped the pools. About 35.5 square kilometers of the big island were covered with lava, including about 3.5 square kilometers of new real estate added to the island. There were awful losses buried under a new beginning. “God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

Kilauea is not finished, although she may be quiet for a while. If geological history is an indicator, it has all happened many times before and will happen many times again. There may be, as Kohelet said, “Nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) but the process of creation is one new beginning after another.

A tiny pink orchid blooms amidst the f ens of Lava Tree State Monument.
The photo is roughly full-size.

Vayeshev: Power Embalance

Image: 3 strands of barbed wire, 2 hands climbing up. (geralt/pixabay)

Tamar was desperate. Her security and status were dependent on her ability to produce an heir for Er, the son of Judah, grandson of Jacob. Er had died, and so it fell to his nearest brother, Onan, to impregnate her. Onan did not want to dilute his own inheritance, and in his greed, he used Tamar’s body but spilled his seed on the ground. God sees the evil in his greed, and puts him to death.

Not knowing the real story, Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. He looked at his youngest, Shelah, and said, “He’s too  young to marry.” He said to Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until I send for you.” Then he did his best to forget about Tamar.

A long time passed. Tamar began to realize that she had been abandoned, and she knew that this was both wrong and unfair. She had been a faithful wife to Er, and was cruelly used by Onan, and now it was clear to her that her father-in-law had no intention of sending for her. When she heard that Judah was coming near by her father’s house for sheepshearing, she hatched a plan.

She took off her widow’s clothing, and dressed herself as a prostitute, veiling her face and putting her beauty on display. She sat at a place where she knew Judah would pass, and waited.

When Judah came, he did not recognize her under the veil.  When he propositioned her, she asked what he would pay. He promised her a kid from the flock, but she asked for collateral: “You must leave a pledge until you send it.” She asked for his seal, his cord, and his staff – the equivalent of a modern driver’s license. He had sex with her, and they each went on their ways. Later, when he tries to send the payment, she is nowhere to be found. He tells his serving man to forget about it, lest Judah become a laughingstock.

Three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock. “She’s a harlot!” roared Judah. “Let her be brought to me and burned!” 

Before she faced him, she sent a message and a parcel: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” In the parcel were Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. Judah looked at them in horror. What had he done?

Judah said, “She is more in the right than I; I was supposed to give her my son Shelah to give her a son.”  So he acknowledged the boys (she was carrying twins) as the heirs of Er, his son. Their names were Perez and Zerah. And all agreed that God looked favorably on Tamar, since she had been given not one but two sons.

The specifics of the story are antique, but the situation is quite applicable to our world today. Tamar was a woman who had very little standing in her society. She was a widow, and she could not have financial or social security without producing an heir for her deceased husband’s family. The men had all the power: Judah was the patriarch, and the fact that he blamed her for his sons’ deaths virtually doomed her. Onan was a creep: he was willing to take sexual pleasure from Tamar, but unwilling to give her the heir she needed. 

The world hasn’t changed all that much, unfortunately. The structures and customs have changed a bit, but the abuse of women goes on: many women abused at home 1 in 4 Jewish women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Gay men and trans people are abused at similar rates.

And in the Jewish communal workplace, our synagogues and institutions, 70% of the workforce are women, but 70% of chief executives are men. During the past year, many high-profile Jewish men have been named as perpetrators of sexual harrassment, sexual assault, and similar crimes. In many cases, the community sweeps it under the rug or shrugs, because we frame it as “he said/she said” and give the man the benefit of the doubt.

It’s Judah and Onan all over again, and again, Tamar suffers.

This is why I sit on the Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization which aims to end domestic violence in the Jewish community. 

And now I am going to quote Shalom Bayit to tell you about what they do:

Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life.

Abusive partners exert control verbally through threats, intimidation, manipulation or emotional abuse – the Hebrew expression for that is ona’at devarim (oppression by means of words) – or through physical violence, sexual coercion, financial control, isolation from family or friends — all of which trap victims into a cycle of fear.

If you are unsafe at home or at work, please seek the support you need. You are not to blame, even if, like Tamar, you have done things to survive that give you feelings of shame. 

It is a mitzvah to call for help when someone is being hurt, even when that person is you. You can call the Shalom Bayit helpline (866-SHALOM7 in the SF Bay Area, and outside the SF Bay Area (510) 845-SAFE.) You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4672. 

If you know someone whom is being abused, or whom you think might be suffering abuse, let them know that you are there for them. Do not take more power from them by telling them what to do. Just say that you know people you can call, or that they can call. Tell them that you believe them if they tell you what is being done to them.

Ending abuse is a communal responsibility. We need to heed the example of Judah, who had the courage to look at his own behavior and own it. We need to be willing to see when we have been controlling in home or work relationships, and seek help in finding new ways. We must speak out about sexism when we see it, especially in the places where people are most vulnerable: at home and in the workplace.  And we should support organizations like Shalom Bayit and RAINN that provide help for the victims of domestic and sexual violence.

This drash on Parashat Vayeshev was written with inspiration and assistance from Shalom Bayit. To learn more about Shalom Bayit, or to donate, visit their website

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.

Meet Betzalel, the Builder

Image: The hands of a carpenter, measuring and marking a piece of wood. (wohnblogat/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a long history of respect for scholarship. We value education as avidly as any people on earth. We honor not only Torah scholarship, but other disciplines for people who work with their minds rather than their bodies: law, medicine, academia, etc.

The larger society also has its priorities. Judging by how we compensate them, it’s fair to say that secular society most values sports stars, entertainers, and the occupants of  corporate suites.

Between these two realities, sometimes we tend to see those who work with their hands as lesser. We honor them less.  We value their work less. Torah teaches us that this is a serious error.

I recently was studying Parashat Ki Tavo, and reacquainted myself with Betzalel, the builder of the Tabernacle and the Ark.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the Tribe of Judah. I have filled him with ruach Adonai, a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every craft, to devise works of skill to work in gold, in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones for setting, and in carving of wood, and work in all manner of crafts. Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent. – Exodus 31: 1-7

Betzalel and Moses offer two contrasting ways of understanding Torah.

Moses is educated by God on Mount Sinai; he carries his diploma (the tablets) down the mountain. Betzalel does not have Moses’ education; rather, he intuits the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings, even though he was not on Mount Sinai.  The Talmud points out that God told Moses to build in a particular order: the Tent, the Ark, then its furnishings. (Exodus 31:7-11) Moses passes the command to Betzalel, but mixes it up, “Ark, furnishings, Tent.” (Exodus 25-26) Betzalel gently corrects him, saying, “Was it Tent, Ark, then furnishings?” (Exodus 36) And Moses exclaims, “Yes! You must have been in God’s shadow [hence the name Betzalel – b’tzal-El] to know that!” (Berakhot 55a)

Moses is like a man with a formal education and many degrees. Betzalel is a craftsman who works with his hands. Yet had they not worked together, with mutual respect, the Mishkan could not have been properly built!

Similarly, Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, a powerful tribe descended from the matriarch Leah. God appointed Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, to work alongside him. Dan was a much smaller tribe, descended from Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. In Exodus Rabbah 40.4, Rabbi Chanina says, “[Thus we see that] the great and the small are equal.”

Betzalel reminds us to respect all people: not only scholars, but those who work with their hands, no matter their pedigree.

The Blessing for First Times

Image: A ripe pomegranate split open on the bush. (LeeTravathan/pixabay)

There is a special blessing Jews say for first times, or first times in a long time.  The blessing is called Shehecheyanu [sheh-heh-kheh-YAH-noo.]  It’s a big word, and a very special blessing that recognizes that our lives happen in time, and that not all moments are alike.

First, the blessing itself:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

And in English:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

We say this blessing at times of joy or pleasure, times when we are glad to be alive and to have reached this moment. We don’t say it for things that happen frequently (like Shabbat) or things that are sad (like funerals.)  Here are some examples of “shehecheyanu moments:”

  1. At the beginning of each Jewish holiday.
  2. When we taste the first fruit of a season (e.g., the first berries in springtime.)
  3. When we acquire something new and precious to us, either as a gift or a purchase.
  4. Some Jews say the blessing to mark any first time special moment.

If you want to know more details about the traditional rules, you can find them in an article on the Orthodox Union website.

Don’t forget, while it is nice to be able to say the blessings in Hebrew, it is also fine to say them in English.

Here is a You Tube video by Bim-Bam explaining the blessing and saying it aloud.

When was your most recent “shehecheyanu moment?”