It is hardly an astonishing assertion to state that this week's פָרָשָה / parashah / Torah Reading marks a turning point in the relationship between God and b'nai yisrael / the progeny of Israel. It is in Yitro that Moshe will climb the heights of Sinai and return with luchot hab'rit / the tablets of the law. The brit / the covenant between God and Israel is forged at this moment.
This moment of the revelation of the Torah is not the first time that Moshe has experienced unique, intense communications from and, indeed, conversations with God. From the opening chapters of the book of Sh'mot / Exodus, with the iconic moment of the burning bush, God and Moshe are in almost constant communication.
This moment of revelation of the Torah is, however, the very first time that Israel experiences revelation as a community. The passages of this week's parasha relate: "And Moses said to the people, 'Don't be afraid, because God is coming for the purpose of testing you and for the purpose that His awe will be on your faces so that you won't sin.' And the people stood at a distance, and Moses went over to the nimbus where God was. And Adonay said to Moses, 'You shall say this to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken with you from the skies. You shall not make gods of silver with me, and you shall not make gods of gold for yourselves...In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 20: 17-20)
As our tradition developed from sacrifice-centric Israelite biblical religion to the halachah / Jewish law- based rabbinic Judaism we practice today, the centrality of community has been a consistent and treasured dynamic of our people. There are so many elements of Judaism that guide us into community: We need 10 adult Jews to conduct a service. We need 10 adult Jews to read from the Torah scrolls. We need a cemetery, which only a community can maintain. We need kosher food, which requires a critical mass of Jews to sustain. We welcome a new child into the world as a minyan, representing the entire Jewish people embracing this new child as one of "ours." When one of our community passes away, we surround the mourners and help them bury their dead, we sit with them for a week (during shiva) and make sure they have company, meals and community support to say kaddish.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." What does "commemorating God's name mean?" I'd say it means standing together as a minyan, as a community, an uttering words that we cannot utter as individuals. It is through Jewish community that we thrive. It is almost impossible to sustain Jewish life in isolation: we need education, we need the spiritual and emotional support of those who share that brit/covenant with us.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." I've often said that our Jewish community is a blessing. This revelation of God's confirms just that: it is through Jewish community that we find blessing: the blessing of God's presence, the blessing of each other's presence.
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.