Moses, the Israelites and unconditional love

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.


Reb Moshe Leib loved his fellow Jews so much that he searched daily for lost souls. In one of his excursions, he found himself in a tavern and overheard the following exchange between two Russian peasants: 

Declared the first: “I love you, my friend!” 

“No, you don’t,” rebutted his comrade.

“But I do!” protested the first. “Why I love you more than anything or anyone!”

His comrade remained adamant. “Then do you know what gives me pain?”

The first responded: “How can I know what gives you pain?”

“Ah,” sighed the other. “If you really loved me, then you would know what pains me and what I suffer.”

The Rebbe of Sassov left the tavern, shaken by the insight into the meaning of love provided by these two peasants.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is about unconditional love. It is about the love between a man and his father-in-law, and the love between God and the Jewish people. 

Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for the Israelites and brings Zipporah and her two sons to Moses. Moses goes out to greet Yitro: “He bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.”

Yitro is quite pleased with all that has happened to the Israelites. Furthermore, he shares his advice on managing the way he is addressing the needs of the people. He is concerned about the welfare and the emotional and physical health of Moses and the people. Moses recognizes the sage counsel and appoints what amounts to as a judicial system.

Moses, the reluctant and humble leader, was likely without a role model before Yitro. The Torah is silent about Moses’ childhood. Did he know his Israelite father, or was he merely a figure in stories or an image of a slave? 

As a loving father-in-law and as a concerned friend, Yitro addresses the issue and provides excellent suggestions for improving the situation. He does not try to usurp Moses’ position or take the credit for the solution. He simply acts from a place of concern and love. And then he bids Moses farewell. Moses, as a great leader, embraced the opportunity to learn from one with experience. His humility allowed him to serve his people with wisdom, compassion and vision. 

Before the Eternal One, in love, revealed the Aseret ha-Dibberot, the Ten Commandments, God prepares Moses and the Israelites for this holy and pivotal moment. 

God tells Moses, “You shall be to me, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” 

Quite a high standard to aspire to for newly freed slaves. God was letting them know what was possible. God showered the people with love and hope. God told them, through Moses, the faithful prophet, who they would be even if they could not foresee their own future. God was already expressing belief in those who likely could not have done so themselves. This was purely a moment of unconditional love.

And then God continued the ultimate act of love by bestowing mitzvot upon the Israelites, commandments by which to live their lives. In addition to the boundaries around Mount Sinai, God gave boundaries by which to live. God, in great love, told Moses what was holy and sacred, what was permissible and what was forbidden. This is love.

And then the relationship, on the part of the Israelites, began in earnest. This is where the sacred relationship truly started. And with each generation, it has evolved. 

As our ancestors encountered God, so do we, in subsequent generations. While we may not see or hear the thunder and lightning, we see and feel the spark of God in our daily acts of loving kindness, in mitzvot and in the unconditional love we strive to share with those created in the Divine Image, and with our Creator. 

The Yiddish writer Sholem Asch wrote:

 “The words were uttered for not one people alone, and not for one age, but for all peoples and for all the generations until the end of time.” 

That, my friends, is unconditional love.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.