Reading vs. learning about Torah

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

Reading the Torah portions every week has become an extremely humbling experience. When I originally pitched this “Matzah Ball Soup For the Soul” idea, I was sure I could find a way to take all my private-Jewish-day-school education and teach something to my audience. I certainly don’t know the Torah cover to cover, but I have a good background, I thought.

However, as the weeks have progressed, I’ve started to realize an incredible difference between learning about the Torah, and reading verses in the Torah. Growing up, the text had always been relayed to me, broken down into pictures or skits. Important sections were emphasized, and mundane narratives completely disregarded. Reading the passages on my own is entirely different. Imagine if someone tried to teach you art history by handing you three squares that had been cut out of Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night” painting. The squares included what your teacher thought to be the main parts– the city in the background, the curious green figure, and the swirling sky. So much would be missing, though, and you wouldn’t even know it.

I would imagine that this week’s parshah, Yitro, often falls victim to summarizing. Moses’ father in law, Jethro, comes from Midian and notices Moses’ great responsibility. Jethro advises that Moses appoint capable men as chiefs in order to delegate the work. Then Jethro leaves and Moses brings the Israelites to the wilderness of Sinai where they make camp. On the third day, Moses brought the people to the foot of Mt. Sinai and ascended alone. It was at the top of the mountain that G-d delivered to Moses the first 10 commandments.

That moment on Mt. Sinai is a landmark on the Judaic timeline, and therefore it’s simple to equate parshat Yitro with the-story-when-Moses-gets-the-first-10-commandments. And that’s exactly what I had done. Now that I have read it for myself, though, I have so much more to share.

Take for example the very beginning of Yitro. “[Jethro] sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons’” (Exodus 18:6). Jethro comes and gives his advice regarding delegation. The next paragraph states, “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said… Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell” (Exodus 18:24-27). Notice that in Jethro’s message, he introduced himself to Moses– clearly a sign of a distant relationship. And yet, only a few lines later Moses entirely rearranges his line of authority based on Jethro’s input. Although only a minor contextual observation, I see it as incredibly telling of Moses’ character. It takes incredible patience to allow family, much less distant family-in-law, to critique and adjust your way of doing things. Moses did it without any reservations.

Another overlooked section comes directly after the Israelites receive the ten commandments. It reads,

“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die. Moses answered the people, ‘Be not afraid; for G-d has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray” (Exodus 20:15-17).

These verses stunned me. Sure, I know that a fear of consequences keep people from breaking rules. It’s why we devote the time during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to repent– we are supposed to fear G-d’s power. I found it unsettling, though, the extent to which the Israelites feared G-d. This is a G-d who created man, who once gave life to a barren woman, and who just parted a sea to save these people from slavery. It seemed out of place for the Israelites to respond to the ten commandments with, “let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.” Upon second and third readings, though, the conversation actually sets up somewhat of a family dynamic. Think about the fear and shame that pulse through you whenever your parents set out strict rules, or get angry with you for breaking old ones. Think about the classic mantra when you do something wrong and one parent looks at you and says, “we just won’t tell your mother/father about this one.” Sometimes I like to think it’s the same way with G-d– He’s hard on us because he loves us. Like my dad (and probably many others), G-d has to seem scarier than he really is in order to teach us.

I now take us back to the very beginning, to the three square cut outs. For those who have never read Yitro, I have now handed you it’s squares: the milestone of receiving the commandments, Moses’ respect for Jethro, and the Israelites’ fear of G-d. Go look at the whole picture. I am assigning all of my readers with homework: Exodus 18:1 through 20:23. I can almost assure you that regardless of your familiarity with the Torah/“Old Testament,” you’ll learn something from the text itself that no one would have been able to teach you.