I am pleased to be leading a new Mussar Vaad, now in progress – not only for the sake of the eight participants, but selfishly, too. The work of self-study and self-improvement never gets old or tired, especially when one has companions alongside. Moreover, looking at Torah through a Mussar lens is delightfully enlightening.
Recently we re-read Parashat Yitro – the story of the Revelation of the Law. The scene at Sinai – the smoke, the thunder, the cloud concealing the Divine Presence, the people, gathered anxiously at the mountain’s foot; and the articulation of the Ten Words, appropriately garner most of our attention. But the parasha’s namesake, and his encounter with his famous son-in-law, have much to teach us before we even get there.
Yitro is the Midianite priest whose daughters the erstwhile Egyptian prince rescues from the harassment of other shepherds. It is in Yitro’s service as a shepherd himself that Moses encounters the burning bush. Responding to that Divine summons, Moses leaves his wife and sons behind to lead the people out of Egypt and across the Sea of Reeds.
Just before the people’s moment at Sinai, Yitro arrives to return Moses’s family to his side – and instantly sees what Moses cannot: that he has taken on too much responsibility to do his job well, let alone to have time for his own family.
Fortunately, Moses has the anavah, the humility, to listen to and learn from Yitro. He takes the advice of his father-in-law to appoint other officers and judges to bear some of the load of adjudication and instruction of the Law. (Clearly, Moses is also long in sav-lanut, patience, or he would not have been able to sustain such a back-breaking schedule!).
Humility – knowing just how much space to occupy in any given situation – is useful, not only to help us avoid stepping on other people’s toes. It is a necessary quality to cultivate for the sake of learning. This story of Yitro teaches us that we can, and should, be open to learning from anyone.
Recently I have been networking with progressive members of the Bakersfield and Kern County communities. I’ve learned that I have much to learn from the extraordinarily diverse cross-section of people of various faiths and backgrounds I am encountering. Despite our many differences, we share values and visions. Some are working for the preservation of at least parts, if not all, of the Affordable Care Act (of which my own family is a beneficiary); others for the preservation of rights for the LGBTQ community, or for the right of women to access good reproductive health care and to control their own bodies. All of us share a passion for human rights , for freedom of worship and freedom from tyranny.
I am humbled and heartened by these people, many of whom are largely ignorant of Jewish teaching, who nonetheless embody Torah values, especially the value of caring for the poor, the stranger, the voiceless and the disenfranchised. And I am happily learning ways in which we might, working together, achieve our goals.
As we gather – twice in one weekend! – to celebrate Purim, I pray that the story of our brave Queen Esther inspires us to learn and to act.
Be happy –it’s Adar!
Chag Purim Sameyach,
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein