Parashat Yitro – Erev Shabbat 14 February 2020
Week of 9-15 February 2020
Torah portion: Exodus 18:1-20:23    Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Theme: Setting apart, holiness, wholeness

The parasha for this week is considered the climax of the book of Shemot. It is rich in themes and symbols, one of which is the theme of holiness as “setting apart.” In the text we will notice a series of scenes which point to the theme of “setting something/someone apart.”

First, in the haftarah, in a vision, G-d in his glory appears before Isaiah who according to himself is “a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips” but whose “eyes have beheld the King the Lord of Hosts” (Isa 6:5) and whose lips were cleansed that he may say “Here I am, send me!” (Isa 6:8). In the parasha, Jethro (his father-in-law) notices that Moses sits as magistrate to settle all the disputes of his fellow Israelites. Jethro then advises him to “seek out, from among the people, capable individuals who fear G-d – trustworthy ones who spurn ill-gotten gain,” (Exod 18:21) to whom he can delegate his work. Next, upon encamping in the wilderness of Sinai, God summons Moses and asks him to deliver his message to Israel declaring, how he delivered them from Egypt, “bore them on eagles’ wings,” and if they obey G-d faithfully and keep his covenant, they shall be “My treasured possession among all the peoples … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exod 19:6f.) This act appears to be the special election of Israel by G-d. This is followed by a series of instructions to “stay pure” and “be clean” to prepare for G-d to speak to them through Moses.

Holiness is closely tied to the act of setting apart. Plaut says that “Holiness requires a degree of separation, apartness.” These series of events, however, are followed by being directed towards a new relationship. This gives the impression that people are set apart because they are chosen for a noble mission. Isaiah was set apart from a people of unclean lips in order to be ready to be sent to them. Moses sets apart some of his fellow Israelites in order to become chiefs to help him lead the people. Israel was set apart by G-d to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation” which according to Plaut means, “ministering to the rest of humanity.”

The act of setting people apart is not about awarding privilege just for the sake of doing so, but it lifts people to a higher purpose larger than themselves, which is the core of what it means to be holy. But this apartness will always be followed by being directed towards some degree of connection, relationship, and mission. This concept of “setting apart” being largely that of making an individual or a people holy, gives “holiness” a far different meaning to being privileged. Holiness is intensely connected to relationship, and wholeness. Now we can understand better the command to keep the Shabbat holy.

In the first commandment, it seems that G-d, after electing Israel from among the nations, asks that same election from Israel when he declares: “I am the Lord your G-d (italics mine), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me.” (Exod 20:2) Here, the pattern is even applied to G-d. G-d, who makes people holy, now demands in the covenant, that though there may be other gods, G-d’s people must set G-d apart and above all other gods so that the Lord is their only G-d. Outrageous as it may sound, G-d asks Israel to make Him holy, to set him apart, precisely by being exclusively His, and Him, theirs.

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] In what ways have you experienced being set apart by God out of the ordinariness of you life? [2] Where or to whom did G-d direct you in relationship, as He set you apart?

Bibliography: Plaut, W.G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: 2006).


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