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2.2.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Feb 02, 2018 10:33 pm
by RabbiMark
It’s been a long time since I’ve learned in chevruta - a study partnership - with someone, and I finally re-engaged with that practice this week. I agreed with a friend of mine to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a text which I’ve wanted to read fully to get beyond the simplistic summary I’ve assigned to it; the promise of his reading it in the original German (having a friend who’s a professor of 20th century German Jewish history has its perks) to inform our study was, for me, the cherry on top.

Even within the first ten pages, Buber’s thinking was more nuanced, dense, and challenging than I anticipated. In brief, Buber lays out his understanding of self and relationships - that we have two ways of being in the world: I-It, which objectifies and breaks up the world into component parts, and I-Thou, a way of being which relates to the world in its totality, to each of its different elements in their fullness. In a passage discussing the different ways of relating in an “I-Thou” capacity, Buber writes of the connection between man and God: “the relation is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself; it lacks but creates language. We hear no You and yet feel addressed; we answer - creating, thinking, acting: with our being we speak the basic word, unable to say You with our mouth.” Upon reading this, I immediately noticed what seems to be a deep resonance with this week’s parsha, Yitro.

The language of “cloud” (an image which appears multiple times) and “revelation” seems to be a clear connection with the revelation at Sinai, the central event of Yitro. It also seems that Buber is referring to a mystical understanding of the event, that all that was revealed at Sinai was the “aleph” of the first commandment, which, in Hebrew, makes no sound itself at all. According to this interpretation, the rest of the commandments (and the Torah itself) proceed from this experience, even though there were no formal sentences, words, or even sounds. Yet there is still connection, obligation, and response; we live out this experience, despite and because of its unique character.

That’s all well and good; how does it help me live better? The writing seems abstract at best, obtuse at worst. For me, Buber evocatively expresses something I feel both in relationship to God and in relationship with those I love most deeply. When I find myself overcome with gratitude, overwhelmed by how improbable my very existence is, I feel a connection to Something bigger than me which I feel is both limited by language and has to be expressed. When I kiss my sons goodnight or I share a moment of connection with my mom over FaceTime two time zones away, I can’t say what that is, and I have to live that moment out somehow. I can only express that with my Being, doing my best to sustain that moment into action and relationship.

One of the questions which I hope Buber explains more clearly further into the work is how to cultivate this I-Thou experience, since I’m not always in that state, and it can seem daunting. For now, my understanding of this is informed by a section earlier in the parsha. Before Sinai, there’s a sizable section - that’s essentially the world’s first leadership conference - in which Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, sees how Moses is navigating his role as the judge for all the interpersonal conflicts of the Israelites. Yitro then tells Moses, honestly and directly, that what Moses is doing isn’t good for either him or the people. Instead, Yitro suggests, he should be delegating better, appointing other judges to handle various disputes, with only the biggest cases brought to Moses himself. Moses takes his direction, and the Torah then moves into the creation of the covenant at Sinai. We don’t often hear much about Moses’ development of his leadership skills or his individual interpersonal relationships, so there must be some connection between the two. I see these two events as directly related: by having an encounter in which he is seen as a whole person - in his strengths and weaknesses, not just as his role as “leader” - by another person, Moses is then able to be more present and whole to be the conduit for the revelation at Sinai. I would also suggest (and I think Buber would as well) that, similarly, an experience of the Divine can inform how we relate to others and live our lives. May we each be blessed to have these experiences of wholeness with others and with God, and cultivate the ability to speak I-Thou with our actions.

Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Matt Shapiro