YISRO (Exodus, 18:1-20:23) — “Divine Patience and Human Acceptance”

(I would like to thank you all for your prayers and good wishes on behalf of my uncle.  This week’s message is dedicated in memory of Shmuel ben Zev.  May G-d console my mother, my aunts, and my cousins among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.) 

 When Moses returned to Egypt to lead his nation to freedom, he left his wife and children in Midian.  They stayed with Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, the retired High Priest of Midian.  Now that Moses was traveling in the desert, Jethro brought his daughter and grandsons to be re-united with Moses.

Jethro was impressed by what he saw and heard.  “Now I know that G-d is greater than all the gods, because of the way they had conspired against them (the Israelites.)” (Exodus, 18:11)

Rashi explains that Jethro saw G-d’s greatness in the fact that the Egyptians sinned with water (drowning the newborn boys in the Nile) and were subsequently punished with water (drowning in the Red Sea). This concept is called “Middah K’negged Middah – measure for measure.” Whether rewarding or punishing, G-d repays in kind.

Why did Jethro find this so impressive?  Perhaps his background had something to do with it.  Jethro had given up his belief in idols.  He had experimented with every religion; he knew them all. When he said, “Now I know that G-d is greater than all the gods…” he was speaking from experience.

Most cultures at that time believed in many gods.  There was the sun god, the moon god, the Super Bowl god, etc.  Each god’s powers were limited to its own domain.  Hence, mythology is replete with legends about wars between competing gods.

The Egyptians had thought they could thwart G-d’s plans to take the Israelites out of Egypt.  They knew that a baby was going to be born who would grow up to lead them to freedom.  Therefore, they started drowning Jewish babies in the Nile. Their success at committing this atrocity indicated to them that perhaps the G-d of Israel was powerless to stop them.  Perhaps the god of the Nile was stronger than the G-d of Israel.  After all, it seemed, He could not stop them from sinning with water.

Once Jethro saw that G-d was able to punish them through water, he understood that G-d is all-powerful. It was not that G-d COULDN’T stop the murders.  Rather, in His sometimes-hard-to-understand wisdom, He CHOSE NOT TO stop the murders.  He was not being weak; He was being patient, and waited to punish them at the Red Sea.

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Sometimes G-d’s patience with Evil is difficult to understand.

A famous Jewish author has sold millions of books, claiming to explain why bad things happen to good people.  His basic theory is that G-d can’t help it. (R”L) This author describes G-d as an impotent, grandfatherly figure who is powerless to save people from disease and other tragedy.  The G-d, (or should I say, “god”) of this man’s theology is there as a shoulder to cry on; someone to turn to for inspiration; little more.

I call this approach “religious atheism.”  You don’t have to be angry at G-d and you don’t have to deny His existence. You can believe in Him; just pretend that He is confronted by powers that even He can’t overcome, and you can still be a “believer.”

It is very comforting.  The only problem is that it isn’t Judaism.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik once wrote (not an exact quote) that anyone who could explain the tribulations of Job would actually be doing a disservice to religious people.  Serving G-d requires us to maintain our faith in spite of the questions that gnaw at our souls.

Unlike Jethro, the above-mentioned author prefers to view G-d’s silence in the face of tragedy as weakness.  That author would be well-advised to have the humility to recognize that G-d sometimes CHOOSES to be silent.

Such an approach does not make faith an easy job.  G-d hears every prayer, and He answers every prayer… Sometimes the answer is “No.”

The struggle lies in our ability to accept it.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

“American Idol Worship – Does G-d Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” (2013)

Is it appropriate for players like Tim Tebow to make grand gestures of prayer to a Master of the World Who has His Hands full dealing with things that are much more important, like whether people who are out of work will find a way to make their mortgage payments?…

Read more.

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“Ouch!” (2010)

Jethro, the high priest of Midian, was impressed.  His son-in-law, Moses,… had led his People out of Egypt.  He had led them triumphantly through the Red Sea, and presided over the defeat of the Amalekites who had attacked them.

Jethro heard about it all, and wanted to join Moses in celebrating G-d’s salvation …  Jethro brought offerings and sacrifices to G-d.

The miracles of the Exodus changed Jethro’s life.  He had already given up his life of idol worship, but had not yet found “the true religion.”  He now embraced Judaism…

But, something was amiss.  Jethro was ill at ease…

Read more.

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“Modern-Day Prophecy” (2009)

… our people experienced more than a one-time prophecy at Mount Sinai.  The legacy that we possess as a result of that miraculous day is more than just the Torah itself.  The entire prophecy of the Revelation is permanently installed on our spiritual “hard drive.”  You and I stood at Mount Sinai, and to this day, that inspiration enables us to reject anything that is less than genuine Torah.   … If that prophecy works so well, why is there so much assimilation?  Why are we not all sustained in our religious devotion by the prophecy of seeing Moses communicate with G-d 3500 years ago?  …

Read more.

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“But Rabbi, How Come YOU Can Come to Work on Shabbos?!”  (2007)

…I work for a large corporation with many employees.  Ironically, I am the only Jew in the company who’s allowed to “work” on Shabbos.

Yes, every Saturday, bright and early, I walk to work.  I go into the kitchen to make sure our food service staff is maintaining our kosher standards.  I go into our synagogue and oversee the Sabbath Services.   I make sure the appropriate prayers are recited, and I deliver a sermon.  (Sh-sh-sh!  Don’t tell anyone – sometimes my sermons are recycled Torah Talks! :-)) What am I doing at work?!…

Read more.

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“Honor thy … Self!” (2005)

…  It has been pointed out that the Commandments on the first Tablet deal with man’s relationship with G-d, while the second Tablet addresses his relationship his fellow man.

… the explanation of “G-d-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #1 and “Humanity-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #2 is at least 90% accurate.  Where we run into trouble is at Commandment #5 — Honor your father and your mother.  The last time I checked, parents are human beings (although some teenagers might tend to disagree!)  What are parents doing on G-d’s Tablet?!  …

Read more.

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“The Sword and the Stone” (2003)

…This prohibition goes further than banning the cutting of stone for the Altar.  It forbids any contact at all with iron.  The Altar was plastered twice a year; the plaster had to be applied with a nonmetallic applicator.  If a piece of iron so much as TOUCHED the Altar, it invalidated the Altar, and the stone needed to be replaced.

Isn’t this a bit much?  If you want to establish a symbolic link between a chisel cutting a stone and a sword cutting a person, that is understandable.  But a piece of iron TOUCHING the Altar?!  If a carpenter was doing repairs in the Temple, and his hammer accidentally brushed against the side of the Altar, why should the stones need to be replaced?…

Read more.

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“Divine Patience and Human Acceptance” (2002)

…Sometimes G-d’s patience with Evil is difficult to understand.

A famous Jewish author has sold millions of books, claiming to explain why bad things happen to good people.  His basic theory is that G-d can’t help it. (R”L) This author describes G-d as an impotent, grandfatherly figure who is powerless to save people from disease and other tragedy.  The G-d, (or should I say, “god”) of this man’s theology is there as a shoulder to cry on; someone to turn to for inspiration; little more.

I call this approach “religious atheism.”  You don’t have to be angry at G-d and you don’t have to deny His existence. You can believe in Him; just pretend that He is confronted by powers that even He can’t overcome, and you can still be a “believer.”

It is very comforting.  The only problem is that it isn’t Judaism…

Read more.

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“Hey, What About the Other 603?” (2001)

…There was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service…the rabbis of the Talmud removed it from the liturgy and banned public readings of the Ten Commandments…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 29, 2002 at 10:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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