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Reliving Revelation

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The goal of the Exodus never was merely geographical relocation, the physical removal of the Jewish slaves from the boundaries of Egypt. From the outset, the liberation of the descendents of Avraham had a far more specific goal: The Jews would be liberated, redeemed from exile, and taken to the Promised Land. In order to achieve this, there was one important stop to be made on the way, a rendezvous with God at a very specific spot:

And I am coming down to save them from the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Yevusites.

And he said [to Moshe], "For I will be with you; and this shall be a sign to you, that I have sent you; when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain." Shmot 3:8,12

The liberation of the Israelites from Egypt could have been effectuated in many different ways. Surely, the Almighty could have removed them immediately, making the Exodus effortless and sudden. Yet God's plan, from the outset, was for a slow, deliberate process. We have noted elsewhere that one of the objectives of this process was to reveal the power of God, both to the Jews and to their oppressors, and to unmask the deities of the Egyptian pantheon as nothing more than worthless idols. The Egyptians, as representatives of the non-Jewish world, were only one of the intended audiences for this lesson; in fact, the Jews themselves were no less in need of this display of God's singular dominion over all of creation. Just as the plagues punished the Egyptians for their pagan practices and inhuman cruelty, they prepared the Jews for that preordained rendezvous at the mountain, and the revelation they would experience there.

And I will take you to Me for a People, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Almighty your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. Shmot 6:7

Knowledge of God was the goal. Each plague revealed more of God’s power, and of the impotence of the gods of Egypt. These escalating displays of God's might, and of His intimate and ongoing involvement in the world which He created, were a type of revelation in and of themselves. Later, as the Jews safely crossed through the sea and witnessed the cruel Egyptians receiving their just reward, they experienced a higher level of revelation of God's power and omnipotence, of His might and justice. Finally, at Sinai, they experienced a unique, full-scale revelation.

Each of these experiences of revelation was accompanied by a very particular content: In each case, the Jewish People were given laws alongside the sights, sounds and experiences. In each case, the sensory lesson was paralleled by an intellectual or cognitive lesson: In Egypt the Jews were instructed in great detail how to keep the Pesach, both as a vehicle for their immediate, personal, physical redemption and as a commemorative holiday to maintain that experience for all time. Similarly, immediately after crossing the sea, at Marah the Jew received more laws (1). And finally, at Sinai, ten statements were uttered which would impact the entire world and transform the Jewish People forever: The Ten Commandments.

What was the primary importance of the Revelation at Sinai? Was it the laws which were imparted or the sensory experience of an infinite God communicating with man? If we could separate these two elements, the Revelation and the content of the Revelation, we would be left with rather surprising results: It may be presumed that if left to stand alone, the content of the Revelation at Sinai, namely the Ten Commandments, presents a radical departure from accepted social norms and embodies a stunning (2) and potentially transformative social and theological system. Yet, devoid of divine provenance, the message would be relatively unimportant. Had these been a set of laws set down by a community to guide their interpersonal and religious behavior, their impact would have been no greater than any other set of laws that held sway in the ancient world; indeed, the mores of a miniscule band of liberated slaves would have merited no attention whatsoever beyond the bounds of that minute community. Had these words not been the Word of God, delivered in a unique and earth-shattering moment of mass revelation, even had these same words been delivered in a more commonplace fashion to the adherents of the faith, they would not have held the same place in our collective conscience or consciousness, nor would their impact have been so widespread. In other words, the fact that God spoke is more important than what He said; only after one acknowledges that God indeed spoke does the message, the content, the words of that speech attain supreme significance.

In choosing the Haftarah to be read in conjunction with this Parsha, the Rabbis emphasize this idea. The Haftarah reading is utilized as a means to encapsulate and reinforce the major theme of the Parsha, and in this case, the theme has nothing to do with law and everything to do with revelation:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also God sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Sanctuary. Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried to another, and said, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the God of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.' And the posts of the door moved at the voice of he who cried, and the [Temple] house was filled with smoke. Yishayahu 6:1-4

Yishayahu recounts a spectacular vision, a personal revelation of the majesty of God and His holy minions. And yet, the association of this prophecy with our Parsha is not necessarily the only possible choice; various other, perhaps more appropriate, sections of the Prophets could have been utilized. In fact, when the Ten Commandments are read during the holiday service on Shavuot, a different section is read as the Haftarah: the section which records the quintessential revelation of the Chariot of Yechezkel. This leads us to a simple, unavoidable question: why the different Haftarahs? Why was the portion from Yechezkel chosen as the Haftarah for Shavuot, while the same verses are paired with Yishayahu's vision for this week's reading? (3)

In fact, the Talmud records a certain tension regarding the choice of Haftarah for Shavuot: The association of the Revelation of the Chariot as the reading for Shavuot was not a foregone conclusion.

On Shavuot (Pentecost), we read (Devarim 16), "Seven weeks," and for haftarah a chapter from Habakuk (chapter 3). According to others, we read “In the third month”(Shmot 19), and for haftarah the account of the Divine Chariot (Yechezkel 1). Nowadays that we observe two days, we follow both courses, but in the reverse order. Talmud Bavli Megila 31a

The Talmudic discussion expresses a tension that is part of a larger debate regarding the nature of Shavuot: Is the focus on the agricultural aspect of the holiday which is clearly stated in the Torah, or is it on the Revelation, which is traditionally associated with this same holiday? (4) The conclusion is that we commemorate both the Feast of weeks, which is agricultural, and the Sinaitic Revelation which took place on that date. This technical resolution is a convenient combination of these two aspects, reflected in the scriptural readings, appropriate for Jews in the Diaspora who celebrate Shavuot over two days. (5) By twinning the reading from Parshat Yitro with the Haftarah from Yechezkel and assigning them to the first day of the holiday, the Revelation is deemed the primary theme; the second day of the festival is of lesser stature, and the "leftover" readings are relegated to secondary status. In short, our question remains unanswered: why is the Haftarah of the Chariot read on Shavuot, but not for Parshat Yitro as well? If the main thrust of these verses is the Sinaitic Revelation, why did the Sages establish a different reading for this week's Parsha?

There is an important distinction between the reading for this Shabbat and the reading for Shavuot which may help clarify the issue: This week's Torah reading is the entire Parshat Yitro, whereas on Shavuot only certain sections are read. The sections deemed germane to the holiday focus on the preparations for the Revelation and the Revelation itself. While in both instances, the Revelation is the central theme – on Shavuot it is the only theme. Thus, while the same words are read on two different occasions, they are framed by different contexts. We may say, then, that although the same words are read on both occasions, they do not ultimately deliver the same message.

The public reading of the Torah on each of these two occasions is a complex interplay between the written word and the traditions regarding the cantillation of these words. Although the description of the content of the Sinaitic revelation is universally known as the Ten Utterances or Ten Commandments, the written Torah, dictated to Moshe by God, actually groups four of the Commandments in one verse, ostensibly in one statement or utterance:

You shall not kill. (new line) You shall not commit adultery. (new line) You shall not steal. (new line) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (new line) Shmot 20:13


These four precepts, clearly separate commandments, are in fact contained within one verse – a verse which is visually broken by the beginning of four new lines of text, but one verse nonetheless. While there are those who would be tempted to consider the contents of this verse as a single utterance, we should also take into account the opposite phenomenon: Other Commandments, such as Shabbat observance, are stretched out over several verses:

7. Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy.
8. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work;
9. But the seventh day is the Shabbat of the Almighty your God; (on it) you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates;
10. For in six days God made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the Shabbat day, and made it holy. Shmot 20:7-10

There are two traditions of how to read the verses of the Ten Commandments. (6) The first is called Taam Elyon, in which each of the Ten Commandments is read as a separate thought or statement, with ten distinct expressions or phrases representing each one of the Ten Commandments, regardless of the size or number of verses it contains. The other method of reading this section is known as Taam Tachton, which adheres to the form as we know it from the written text (and most printed, published texts), with up to four commandments in one verse and other commandments divided up across several phrases.

When is each of these methods used? Although there are different customs, the Chizkuni offers the most compelling explanation. On Shavuot, the objective is to "relive" the Revelation; therefore, we read Taam Elyon (7) – for that is how God said the commandments at Sinai: ten independent and distinct statements. When in the course of the weekly cycle we read Parshat Yitro, the Taam Tachton is employed, reflecting the way God dictated the Commandments to Moshe when it was time to write them down (8). In other words, on Shavuot, as we relive the Revelation, we attempt to recreate the Sinai experience by mimicking the way the Commandments were spoken to the Children of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, in ten distinct utterances (9). The purpose of reading the Torah on a weekly basis over the course of the year is to study the content of that Revelation, to ingrain, internalize and understand what was said. Therefore, we learn the text as God told Moshe to write it, reading the Taam Tachton. (10)

Why, then, do the Haftarot fail to reflect this distinction? Both the reading from Yishayahu and the reading from Yechezkel focus on the experience of revelation; neither focuses on the content or message of revelation. By choosing sections which highlight the revelation for both Shavuot and the weekly portion, the sages seem to blur the distinction between the Revelation itself and the content of that Revelation. We would expect the Haftarah of Parshat Yitro to contain a legal section or a re-working of the principles of the Ten Commandments. We might have expected the Sages to assign one of the many exhortations of the prophets to adhere to the laws of the Torah or to abandon foreign forms of worship. Instead, we find a Haftarah that offers an alternative revelation experience. Apparently, the Sages had another consideration in mind when they assigned the Haftarah for Parshat Yitro.

On Shavuot, when we replicate the experiential aspects of the Revelation, the Haftarah is Yechezkel's vision of the Chariot. This, the Sages felt, was the vision closest to the actual experience of Revelation, of seeing the heavens open up. However, the assignment of the Haftarah from Yishayahu for Parshat Yitro requires further inquiry. While there is no argument that the overall message of this week's Haftarah selection is revelation, there is another 'oddity' about this week's Haftarah which may be relevant: The Haftarah reading is actually comprised of several disjointed sections from the Book of Yishayahu. Rather than a straightforward account of Yishayahu's vision, the (Ashkenazi) custom is to read through the sixth chapter and continue into the seventh chapter. This latter section recounts the story of the sinful King Ahaz who had given up all hope of repentance and return to God. The Haftarah then proceeds to the ninth chapter, in which a child is born, signifying rebirth and new hope. Clearly, the Sages carefully crafted this Haftarah reading, and 'revelation' is not the exclusive topic of this Haftarah. God's communication with man is one element of the Haftarah; another element is man's propensity for sin, and the final element is the possibility of repentance which leads to personal and national redemption. In this way, the latter part of the Haftarah is closely related to the process of redemption that began in Egypt and the various levels of revelation the people experienced as the Exodus unfolded.

As we saw at the outset the entire exodus was in of itself a series of revelations, and processes which led to freedom, even after the ten plagues an “eleventh plague” went even further both in terms of freedom and in terms of revelation. This eleventh plague was the splitting of the sea, there once and for all the Egyptians were rid of, plunged into the depth of the Sea.

God appeared at the Sea as a warrior, a warrior poised for battle wreaking vengeance and exacting justice from the cruel slave masters, therefore at the sea the people exclaimed:

The Lord is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation; he is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3. The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. Shmot 15:2,3

Here God appeared as a Man of war:

God is a Man of war: why does it say this for God appeared at the sea as a warrior whho makes war as it says God is a Man of war Mechilta Parshat Shira Parsha 4

According to the Mechilta, at Sinai God needed to introduce Himself for the people did not recognize Him, they had seen God as a man of war, and now saw a gentle scholar: (11)

Despite the power and majesty of the visions of Yishayahu and Yechezkel, the revelations they were granted lacked one major element: A crucial element of the revelation that was revealed to the generation that was liberated from Egypt was the clear and obvious implementation of divine justice. They saw, in the ten plagues in Egypt and the "eleventh plague" at the sea, that "there is justice and there is a judge." They were able to see the entire canvas of Jewish history as it reached its culmination. The people felt this in such a clear and profound manner that they were able to point their fingers as justice was meted out:

In His glory he appeared to them and they pointed at Him with a finger. A maidservant saw that which eluded the prophets. Rashi Shmot 15:2

This is what eluded both Yishayahu and Yechezkel, the element that distinguished the revelation which the generation of the Exodus witnessed from any other.

'This is my God': Rabbi Eliezer said, 'How do you know that which the maid (12) saw was superior to Yishayahu and Yechezkel?..." Mechilta B'shalach Mesechta Shira Parsha 3

Leaving Egypt is a continuum, an ongoing revelation of different faces and facets of God: might, justice, compassion. Each plague revealed more, and finally, at the Sea the people saw the might of God. They witnessed the fulfillment of the covenant between God and Avraham - not only their own liberation and the judgment and punishment of the Egyptians, but the realization of the ultimate goal of their entire history. They saw the conquest of the Land of Israel:

Then the chiefs of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moav, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. “Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of your arm they shall be as still as a stone; 'til your people pass over, O God, 'til the people pass over, whom You have created. “You shall bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of your inheritance, in the place, O God, which you have made for you to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O God, which your hands have established. God shall reign for all eternity. Shmot 15:15-18

The vision they see as the sea splits open takes them to the future. They see themselves in the Land of Israel, free and independent; they see the Temple built in its glory. They see the dominion of God as absolute. Yet they lack one very important element: the Word of God, the vehicle through which the world would be transformed. They must travel to Sinai and receive the Torah, to encounter another aspect of God they have yet to experience: the intellectual challenge of Judaism, the content of the Revelation at Sinai. Once that is accomplished, once the Jews are fortified with Torah, even if they stray from the path, they have the ability to right their course by redoubling their efforts and rededicating themselves to the acceptance of Torah. This is the lesson of the Haftarah: The glorious vision of Yishayahu is tempered by the reality of a King of Israel who has strayed. But the final section of the Haftarah contains a promise of rebirth, (13) a message of hope, a vision of the rejuvenation of the Davidic line and the final, glorious chapter of Jewish history, when God’s throne will be complete and all the prophesies fulfilled.

On Shavuot we commemorate the giving of the Torah; therefore, the Haftarah is Yechezkel's spectacular vision, mirroring the Revelation experienced at Sinai. However, when the same verses are read in Parshat Yitro, the focus is not on an isolated event. Rather, we are following the path which began one awesome night when Avraham was told that his children would be enslaved, but would one day return to their land. The fulfillment of God's covenant with Avraham took his descendents through Egypt and through the sea, and led them to the foot of Mount Sinai. Considering the Revelation as a part of this larger journey is very different than the view of the Revelation as a singular event. This event, celebrated on Shavuot, requires our identification, while the much larger view of the events of Sinai requires a grasp, an understanding, an ongoing process of internalization of the content of the Revelation.

Our Sages took this process one step further when they assigned the Haftarah reading. Throughout the ages, when Parshat Yitro is read, with the visions experienced at the Splitting of the Sea still fresh in our minds and the song of praise sung by Moshe and all of Israel still ringing in our ears, the Sages broaden the canvas even further, including the point that the Davidic line is reestablished and God’s dominion complete. Only then will the journey be complete; only then will the covenant be fulfilled. Only then will God's dominion be fully revealed to all of mankind.

(1) See my Essay on Parshat B'shalach

(2) The Talmud notes that the numerous commandments regarding interpersonal behavior was revolutionary. See Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 31a.

Ulla Rabbah lectured at the entrance to the Nasi's house: What is meant by, 'All the kings of the earth shall make admission unto Thee, O God, for they have heard the words of Thy mouth?' Not the word of Thy mouth, but the words of Thy mouth is said. When the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaimed, 'I am [the Lord your God]' and 'You shall have none [other Gods before me]', the nations of the world said: He teaches merely for His own honor. As soon as He declared: 'Honor your father and your mother,' they recanted and admitted [the justice of] the first command [too]. Raba said, [This may be deduced] from the following: 'The beginning of Your word is true': ‘the beginning of Your word, but not the end!? But from the latter portion of Your declaration it may be seen that the first portion is true.

(3) There are numerous instances in which a particular Haftorah is used to accompany more than one Torah reading. The Sages were well aware of this option, but did not avail themselves of it.

(4) These seem to be two completely disparate themes. It is interesting that on Shavuot we have another reading, that of Megilat Ruth, which fuses together these two themes: The backdrop of the megilla is the agricultural life in Israel, and the story is about accepting the Torah.

(5) For more on Shavuot and the giving of the Torah see my book Emanations (Targum Press 2002), pages 135 ff.

(6) We have not touched upon the version of the Ten Commandments in Devarim, Parshat VaEtchanan. In that version, Moshe recaps the events of the Revelation; this is not divine speech, per se, and is therefore only tangentially related to our present discussion.

(7) See Elya Rabbah Shulchan Oruch Orach Chayim sections 142, 494 who insists that Taam Elyon only be used on Shavuot and not Parshat Yitro.

(8) See Chizkuni commentary to the Torah Shmot 20:14

(9) See Sefer Toda’a chapter 28.

(10) For more on this concept see Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik Shiurim L’Zecher Aba Mari, page 211.

(11) The Megaleh Amukot Parshat Tazria, observes that this is the meaning of a line in the liturgy in the An'im Zemirot, Ziknah byom din ubacharut byom krav.

(12) The Talmud in a similar teaching says that even the fetus in utero and the babe suckling at the breast saw the divine revelation at the sea. See Talmud Bavli Sotah 30b.
Our Rabbis taught: R. Jose the Galilean expounded: At the time the Israelites ascended from the Red Sea, they desired to utter a Song; and how did they render the song? The babe lay upon his mother's knees and the suckling sucked at his mother's breast; when they beheld the Shechinah, the babe raised his neck and the suckling released the nipple from his mouth, and they exclaimed: This is my God and I will Praise Him; as it is said: Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength. R. Meir used to say: Whence is it that even the embryos in their mothers’ womb uttered a song? As it is said, Bless ye the Lord in the Congregations, even the Lord, from the fountain of Israel. But these could not behold [the Shechinah]! R. Tanhum said: The abdomen became for them a kind of transparent medium and they did behold it.

(13) Christian sources have attempted to co-opt this section as "proof" of their belief, and relied on a combination of violent mistranslation, together with total disregard for historical context.



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