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Anchors Away?

  • Anchors Away?

    Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
D'var Torah By: 


God did most of the work of the Exodus. At Sinai, however, the people spoke: Na'aseh venishma"We shall do, and we shall listen." The Israelites committed to a disciplined way of life. In case the Jews had any doubt about the nature of their freedom, Sinai demonstrated to them that freedom would not mean complete autonomy. The former slaves may have lusted for this kind of carefree existence, but after Sinai there would be laws; there would be expectations; there would be values. These would forever anchor the Jews to their God. The Midrash says that when the Israelites finally departed Sinai, they marched as fast as they could for three days. They did not want any more commandments. They behaved like children who run quickly away from school after being dismissed so that their teacher does not call them back.

In our age of radical autonomy and rampant individualism, it is wise to recall that it was the setting of individual and group standards that characterized the Jewish experience. Progressive Jews should not fear setting religious standards. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver once preached that any religion that does not set standards is not worth its weight in salt. Of course, the interpretation will change according to the circumstances of the day. Tradition imagines Moses being unable to recognize his own laws in the academy of Akiva - which did not alter the fact that they were, nonetheless, the laws of Moses.

Reform Jews are at our best when we free ourselves from the shackles of stultified interpretations, yet remain anchored to the Sinai process. In our era, autonomy should not be the only guide. All Jews today are essentially Jews-by-choice anyway and thus are free to do whatever they choose. There will be those who run away as quickly as possible from any obligation we may articulate. As they run they will tell us that Reform Judaism is all about "doing whatever you want." The lowest common denominator should not dictate. Words like responsibility, obligations, boundaries, standards, values should find an equal place of honor in our Reform vocabulary alongside autonomy. As the Israelites themselves discovered, autonomy alone, without boundaries, is insufficient to sustain a living vibrant faith. Autonomy alone will not anchor us to Sinai.

Anchors away?

Ammiel Hirsch is the Executive Director of ARZA for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Thunderbolts and Lightning Rods
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Grossblatt Pessah


Every time I hear thunder and lightning, I feel as if God is speaking to us, to humanity. Not that we necessarily listen, but I feel that there is a message to be heard between the electricity of the lightning and the crashing of the thunder. I admit that even now as an adult I am scared of these natural wonders that exude incredible power and awe. Standing at Sinai, waiting to receive the Ten Commandments; our ancestors also trembled at the sound of thunder and lightning: "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lighting, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled." (Exod. 19:16) God indeed spoke through the thunder and the lightning, but it was up to the Israelites to hear and to listen to God's message. With over 600,000 Israelites at Sinai, what exactly did each individual hear?

The Midrash teaches us that each Israelite heard what was in his/her power to hear. While God shared the Ten Commandments with the entire nation, each person may have integrated the commandments on a different level. As an educator, I often hear the following questions: Why doesn't God speak to us today? Why did God speak only to the Israelites thousands of years ago? I believe that God speaks to us - we just need to learn how to listen for God's voice, interpret God's signals, and act in the world. Na'aseh venishma, "We must do, and we must listen."

When we hear thunder and lightning, what commandments do we tune into? Do we feel "called" to do acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world, to begin trying to celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis, to visit the sick, to learn Hebrew, to spend more time with our families? As the thunder and lightning bolt through the sky, do we feel compelled to provide food for the hungry, to begin studying Jewish texts, to take on a new Jewish ritual? Each one of us "hears what is in our power to hear." But as we learn from the Israelites' experience at Sinai, hearing is not enough: We must do and we must act to help bring about completion in our world.

The next time you hear thunder and lightning, listen to the voice of God, echoing in each of our souls, linking us to our ancestors at Sinai, and calling us to do, to act, and to listen.

For further reading: Teaching Torah: A Treasury of Insights and Activities, Sorel Goldberg and Barbara Binder Kadden (Denver: Alternatives in Religious Education, Inc., 1984).

Amy Grossblatt Pessah, MAJE, is Pearlstone Jewish Family Educator, The Council of Jewish Education.

Reference Materials: 

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710–713; Revised Edition, pp. 507–509

When do we read Yitro

2021, February 6
24 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 22
20 Shevat, 5782
2023, February 11
20 Shevat, 5783
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