Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
This Shabbat, our Torah reading relates the unique, definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. The people (and the Midrash teaches us, every Jewish soul for all time) are gathered together in the middle of the wilderness to receive the Torah, God's most precious gift to our people.
The Torah is our foundation, it is the sacred text that establishes God's role in the world and God's relationship with our ancestors, the Israelites. The Torah preserves the core of our collective identity and provides us with infinite inspiration and guidance.
With all this in mind, I find a teaching from the early rabbinic compilation, the Mishnah (compiled by the end of the 1st century) to be perplexing:
"Rabbi Yossi says: 'be prepared to learn Torah, for it is not part of your natural inheritance . . . '" (Mishnah Avot 2:15)
Now I would have made the case that this week's Torah reading establishes for all time that the Torah is precisely, the inheritance of every generation of the Jewish people. What can Rabbi Yossi mean by his statement?
The best way to understand Rabbi Yossi's statement is to read both parts together: we need to learn Torah . . . why? because we haven't inherited it. Perhaps "inheriting Torah" in this context means inheriting qualities like our senses, intuition, intelligence, our emotional and spiritual lives.
Rabbi Yossi reinforces for us the centrality of Torah in our lives . . . Torah is as essential to our existence and character as our intelligence, our intuition, our senses and our emotional and spiritual lives. But unlike those qualities, we need to make the effort to integrate Torah into the fabric of our lives, it does not happen naturally like those other inherited qualities.
There is a beautiful tradition in which we stand as the revelation at Sinai is read from the Torah scroll each year on this Shabbat. Here is body language for acknowledging the wisdom of Rabbi Yossi's insight: we can't sit back and receive Torah passively, we need to stand, to step into revelation. We need to learn.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.