Parashat Yitro: the first learning of the people is that the earth belongs to God

L’italiano segue l’inglese

“If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

The setting is shortly before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. God has called Moses up the mountain and told him what he must say to the Israelites encamped below.  There is about to be a particular agreement made between them and God, and embedded in it will be a special relationship – conditional on the people of Israel obeying God and keeping the covenant, they will become a “segulah” – a treasure, and they will become a nation with a special priestly role in the world. The idea is repeated in several places in bible, but in this (first) iteration, is the additional phrase “Ki li col ha’aretz” – all the earth is Mine”

There is a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus – in parashat Behar, which claims to be reporting  that which was said at Sinai, we are told “(25:23) “ And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me” Ki li ha’aretz” – for the earth is Mine.

At Sinai, when the people meet God, the message is made very clear –the earth and all that is in it is ultimately the possession of God. The plagues which had allowed them to be free of their slavery – these were phenomena of God. Sinai and her mysterious  shaking/smoking/shofar is also a manifestation of God’s power in the world. God is fully in charge of the earth – the world and everything in it is subject to God and God’s will.

At Sinai in parashat Yitro and beyond, the people will receive not only the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments – they will also receive the Mishpatim, all the laws and sub-clauses of the covenant with God. And many of these are to do with proper treatment of the land.  In the resonant text in Leviticus quoted above, they will receive the laws of shemittah and yovel – the cycle of letting the land rest, and of liberating and redistributing the land itself every 50 years.

When God introduces Godself to the people, it is with the phrase “for all the earth is Mine”. In part this is a necessary clarification of monotheism – there is only the one God, not the many manifestations beloved by the ancient world of agricultural peoples. But it is also the clarification that we are not – and never shall be – the owners of the earth. We are at best its stewards; it can never be sold to others or worked into barrenness. It is not something to be exploited or used to give us status or power over others. As the psalmist writes (Psalm 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

The earth is the Eternal’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein

For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Eternal? and who shall stand in God’s holy place?  The one who has clean hands, and a pure heart;  who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.  That one shall receive a blessing from the Eternal, and righteousness from the God of salvation.

Our agreement with God is predicated on our good relationship with the land. And the land’s fertility and accommodation to us is predicated on our good relationship with God, as described in the covenant at Sinai and beyond. In our relationship with God, the land has agency, is both sign and symptom of our connection.

There is already a hint of the overarching power of God in the world, and the meaning this gives our role in the world, in two earlier places in bible – both of which involve “outsiders”. When Malchitzedek, priest and king of Salem, greets Abram after the war of the four against the five, he makes a sacrifice of celebration, and says (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ:

Blessed  is Avram of the Most High God, owner of the heavens and the earth

Later, when Moses speaks to Pharaoh after the plague of hail, Pharaoh entreats Moses to ask God to cease the thunderstorms and the people will go free – and Moses replies “as I leave the city I will spread my hands to God and the thunder will cease…so that you will know that the earth belongs to God. (Exodus 9:29)

The plagues are not only for the Pharaoh or for the Egyptian people to understand the power of God in the world, they are also for the Israelite people trapped in slavery – the God who will lead them out of their misery is the ultimate power, who owns heaven and earth and all that is in them and on them.

So when God tells Moses to tell the encamped ex-slaves down below that God is the owner of heaven and earth, it is not new information, but is being stated here because the covenant depends on their – and our – understanding that we do not own the earth, that we are temporary residents upon it, that our behaviour will dictate whether we are able to live out our days in comfort and plenty – or not.

This week as we celebrated the minor festival of Tu Bishvat, we are reminded that of all the fruit we harvest, a portion must be given in tithe – to go to the priesthood, the vulnerable, those without land to create their own food supply. For the first three years (Tu bishvat is the cut-off date for the years since planting) the fruit will not be eaten (orlah), then the system of tithing (maaser sheni  and maaser  ani) would make the owner of the tree liable for giving a tenth of its produce to the Jerusalem Temple and to the poor.

Harvesting the fruit of a tree is labour intensive work. Giving away a portion of the fruit means we are constantly aware that the tree does not ultimately belong to us – we have use of it, we take care of it, but we cannot own it, nor the land it is rooted in.

As the people camp at the foot of Mt Sinai, the first learning they do is to understand that the earth and everything on it belongs to God.  Whatever our contract with God gives us or demands from us, ultimately this is God’s earth and we are sojourners and settlers who must treat it well or lose the privilege of the land.

We have grown used to ignoring this idea, to buying and selling land and natural resources, to plundering and over-fertilizing and gouging and sowing and tilling and harvesting as we like. We have grown used to making the land serve us rather than we serve it. Tu biShvat, and the words of God in introduction from Sinai  in this sidra come to remind us. “The earth and its fullness belong only to God”.

Parashat Ithrò: il primo apprendimento del popolo è che la terra appartiene a Dio

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato l’11 febbraio 2020

Ordunque se voi obbedirete alla Mia voce e manterrete il Mio patto sarete per me quale tesoro tra tutti i popoli, poiché a Me appartiene tutta la terra. E voi sarete per me un reame di sacerdoti, una nazione consacrata”. (Esodo 19: 5-6)

Lo scenario si colloca poco prima della consegna della Torà al Sinai. Dio ha chiamato Mosè sul monte e gli ha detto cosa doveva dire agli israeliti accampati più sotto. Sta per esserci un accordo particolare tra loro e Dio, e in esso si inserirà una relazione speciale, subordinata al fatto che il popolo di Israele obbedisca a Dio e mantenga l’alleanza: diventeranno una “segulà“, un tesoro, e diventeranno una nazione con un ruolo sacerdotale speciale nel mondo. L’idea si ripete in diversi punti della Bibbia, ma in questa (prima) iterazione, c’è la frase aggiuntiva “Ki li col ha haaretz” – tutta la terra è Mia”.

C’è un passaggio parallelo nel libro del Levitico: nella Parashat Behar, che afferma di riferire ciò che è stato detto al Sinai, ci viene detto (25:23) “E la terra non deve essere venduta per sempre; poiché la terra è mia; poiché voi siete estranei e coloni con Me“, Ki li ha’aretz, “poiché la terra è Mia”.

Al Sinai, quando il popolo incontra Dio, il messaggio è reso molto chiaramente: la terra e tutto ciò che è in essa è, in definitiva, possesso di Dio. Le piaghe che avevano permesso agli ebrei di essere liberi dalla loro schiavitù erano fenomeni di Dio. Anche il Sinai e il suo misterioso scuotimento/fumo/shofar è una manifestazione del potere di Dio nel mondo. Dio è totalmente responsabile della terra: il mondo e tutto ciò che è in esso è soggetto a Dio e alla volontà di Dio.

Al Sinai, nella parashà di Ithrò, e anche oltre, il popolo riceverà non solo le Asseret haDibrot, i Dieci Comandamenti, ma riceverà anche i Mishpatim, tutte le leggi e le sotto-clausole del patto con Dio. E molti di questi hanno a che fare con un adeguato trattamento della terra. Nel testo risonante del Levitico sopra citato, riceveranno le leggi di shemittà e yovel: il ciclo per lasciare riposare la terra e per liberare e ridistribuire la terra stessa ogni cinquanta anni.

Quando Dio si presenta al popolo, è con la frase “perché tutta la terra è mia”. In parte questo è un necessario chiarimento del monoteismo: esiste solo un solo Dio, non le molteplici manifestazioni amate dall’antico mondo dei popoli agricoli. Ma è anche il chiarimento che non siamo, e non saremo mai, i proprietari della terra. Nella migliore delle ipotesi siamo i suoi amministratori; non potrà mai essere venduta ad altri o portata alla sterilità. Non è qualcosa da sfruttare o utilizzare per darci status o potere sugli altri. Come scrive il salmista (Salmo 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

            Al Signore appartengono la terra e ciò che essa contiene.

            Poiché Dio ha fondato la terra sui mari e l’ha basata sui fiumi. Chi è degno di salire al monte del Signore e chi potrà stare nel luogo a Lui consacrato? Colui che ha le mani nette ed è puro di cuore; che non si è rivolto a cose false né ha giurato per ingannare. Egli otterrà benedizione dal Signore e la giustizia dal Dio che lo salva.

Il nostro accordo con Dio si basa sul nostro buon rapporto con la terra. E la fertilità e la sistemazione della terra per le nostre esigenze sono basati sul nostro buon rapporto con Dio, come descritto nell’alleanza del Sinai e oltre. Nel nostro rapporto con Dio, la terra ha un ruolo, è sia segno che sintomo della nostra connessione.

C’è già un accenno al potere globale di Dio nel mondo, e il significato che questo conferisce al nostro ruolo nel mondo, in due precedenti luoghi della Bibbia, entrambi i quali coinvolgono “estranei”. Quando Melchisedek, sacerdote e re di Salem, saluta Abramo dopo la guerra dei quattro contro i cinque, fa un sacrificio di celebrazione e dice (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ         Benedetto tu sia,  Abramo,  dal Dio Altissimo, padrone del cielo e della terra.

            Più tardi, quando Mosè parla al faraone dopo la pestilenza della grandine, il faraone invita Mosè a chiedere a Dio di cessare i temporali e il popolo sarà libero, e Mosè risponde “Appena uscito dalla città stenderò le mani verso il Signore in segno di preghiera e allora i tuoni cesseranno… … affinché tu riconosca che la terra appartiene a Dio”. (Esodo 9:29)

Le piaghe non servono solo per far capire al faraone o al popolo egiziano il potere di Dio nel mondo, ma anche al popolo israelita intrappolato nella schiavitù che il Dio che li condurrà fuori dalla sua miseria è il potere supremo, che possiede il cielo e la terra e tutto ciò che è in loro e su di loro.

Così quando Dio dice a Mosè di dire agli ex schiavi accampati più sotto che Dio è il proprietario del cielo e della terra, non si tratta di informazioni nuove, ma la dichiarazione viene fatta qui perché l’alleanza dipende dalla loro, e nostra, comprensione che non possediamo la terra, che siamo temporaneamente residenti su di essa, che il nostro comportamento determinerà se siamo in grado di vivere i nostri giorni in tutta comodità e abbondanza, o no.

Questa settimana, quando abbiamo celebrato la festa minore di Tu B’Shvat, ci è stato ricordato che di tutto il frutto che raccogliamo, una parte deve essere data in decima, per andare al sacerdozio, ai vulnerabili, ai senza terra per creare il loro approvvigionamento di cibo. Per i primi tre anni (Tu B’Shvat è la data limite per gli anni dalla semina) il frutto non verrà mangiato (orlà), quindi il sistema della decima (maaser sheni e maaser ani) renderebbe responsabile il proprietario dell’albero per la donazione di un decimo dei suoi prodotti al Tempio di Gerusalemme e ai poveri.

La raccolta del frutto di un albero è un lavoro ad alta intensità di fatica. Dare via una porzione del frutto significa che siamo costantemente consapevoli che l’albero non ci appartiene in via definitiva: ne abbiamo uso, ce ne occupiamo, ma non possiamo possederlo, così come la terra in cui è esso è radicato.

Mentre il popolo si accampa ai piedi del Monte Sinai, il suo primo apprendimento è capire che la terra e tutto ciò che vi è in essa appartiene a Dio. Qualsiasi cosa il nostro contratto con Dio, ci dia o esiga da noi, in definitiva questa è la terra di Dio e siamo residenti e coloni che devono trattarla bene o ne perderemo il privilegio.

Ci siamo abituati a ignorare questa idea, ci siamo abituati ad acquistare a vendere i terreni e le risorse naturali, a saccheggiare e all’eccessivamente fertilizzare, a scavare, a seminare, a lavorare e a raccogliere come ci piace. Ci siamo abituati a farci servire dalla terra piuttosto che a servirla. Tu b’Shvat e le parole di Dio introdotte dal Sinai in questa sidra vengono a ricordarci. “La terra e la sua pienezza appartengono solo a Dio“.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.

 

We hear God differently through our diversity: the trick is to listen fully and to know that different voices tell of the same God

The sidra begins with the words “vayishma Yitro – and Jethro heard” – but we don’t know what exactly it was that Jethro heard and understood. The information about what had happened in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek didn’t have much effect on others who knew of it, so why does only Jethro respond in this way? There must be something else in the text….Either Jethro heard something more than we are told, or else he heard in a way that moved him powerfully and changed him.

Jethro seemed to hear in a particular way, the kind of hearing that happens when someone is moved to re-examine feelings, and so change the direction of their life.   This is more than active listening; it requires openness to the other, readiness to be affected by what one hears.

Hearing is a theme in this sidra. For of course we also have the people hearing God speaking, as the foundational event of Judaism, the giving of Torah at Sinai, happens in the hearing of the people at the foot of the mountain.  But what does it mean to hear the voice of God? And how can we possibly know when we have heard it, let alone allow ourselves to be changed by it?

After three days of preparation, the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, the summit of which seems to be hidden in a storm of lightening, fire and smoke, and there is thunder and what appears to be the sound of the shofar, though it is never clear who is blowing the shofar. The whole mountain is trembling violently and Moses begins to talk to God and God answers: “And when the voice – Kol – of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Kol -voice. It isn’t really clear what it is that people hear when God answers – the word Kol can mean a voice, a sound, even a thunderclap. The ambiguity is important, for each person could claim to have heard God, and yet each may have heard something quite different from others. Rabbi Art Green suggests that what Moses heard was the thunder, just as everyone else did, but that within it he was able to hear the voice of God, even though others could not. Moses’ special ability was that he could translate the voice of God into the words we have– the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud (Berachot 45a) records an amazing discussion: “From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud “It means The voice of Moses,” which is understood by them as meaning that God’s voice was at the same volume as Moses’ voice. But it is possible to read this at face value- as Art Green does – So when the Talmud says “God spoke in the voice of Moses” we could understand that God actually did speak in the voice of Moses” That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. The human and divine voice was apparently the same – and this is why Moses was able to discern within the thunder the voice of God – it was his own voice he could hear.

There is a great deal of rabbinic storytelling around the events at Sinai. One of the most important is that it wasn’t only the Israelites at the foot of the mountain who heard the voice of God. The Midrash teaches that the voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (Shabbat 88b), and another Midrash tells us that every person heard the voice of God differently, each in their own head (Shemot Rabbah 5.9). These are two different Midrashim, with quite different understandings from the text of what was actually heard. And this is diversity of interpretation is important to us. The Talmud, recording the debates of generations of rabbis about what text means, and what God’s will might be, shows us that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern what might be the truth of God’s words to us. The only agreement in this diverse process is that there is indeed a truth, but it is not clear what that truth might necessarily be. In the words of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, “The Midrash can present on one page many contradictory interpretations of any given biblical verse. Certainly our sages realized that if one Midrash gives one version of events and a second Midrash gives a contradictory version, they can’t both be true at the level of what physically happened. However, they understood that each Midrash taught us something they saw as true about the world.  What does this teach us about truth and legitimate disagreement? Judaism does not teach that everything is relative. The message of the Parasha is that there is ultimate truth. However, we don’t always have a common understanding of what that truth is.

How do we negotiate this?  What are the ground rules and red lines when we all passionately believe we are right?  Civil debate becomes even more challenging when we are not merely talking about theoretical issues, but issues that impact upon our most deeply held moral values.” In other words, debate is all the more difficult for us when we are required to really hear the other side, to be prepared to give up some of the things that we hold dearly to ourselves, in order to serve the higher principle of making the world a better and more just place for all.

How do we hear the voice of God in our world? How can we trust what we think we hear? How do we choose between what we want to hear and what is authentically the voice? Firstly, like Jethro, we must listen completely, hear truly what is said and be open to it being something that might challenge what up till now we have held true and firm. And, like Moses, we must let the voice of God sound through our own voices, not that we may think we can speak for God but that we allow God to speak through us.

God is not us, and we are not God, but we must experience God with our own selves, our own experiences, our own way of understanding. And listening to the voice of God, true listening, should inform our choices and challenge our assumptions and some of our closely held attitudes. God is calling us to be something more than we are, to be more the people we should be. That is the voice we must listen to, and give others the right to hear the voice that they also hear – for the one thing our tradition is quite clear about is that each will hear the voice of God differently, but each of us is quite capable of hearing the voice of God.