Yitro: The Operating Manual by Deirdre Gabbay

Parshat Yitro, in the book of Exodus, contains the beginning of the story of the Revelation at Sinai. The story of Revelation begins here, but the telling unfolds in a complex, layered piece of narrative origami. The halakhic midrash of one second century commentator adds an additional fold, and centers the promise of Shmita in the telling of the courtship between G-d and Israel.

The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael’s commentary on Parshat Yitro suggests that the wedding ceremony between G-d and Israel, if you will, took place the day before the Revelation; that it was on the Fifth Day of Sivan that Moses read from the book of the covenant to the children of Israel, and they responded in enthusiastic unison, “Kol asher diber Adonai na-aseh v’nishma!” as a form of “I Do!”

This text suggests further that Moses read a specific section of the law to us, drawing forth this spirited assent. The midrash tells us that Moses starts his reading with Leviticus 25:1-3:

“And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying … then the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years shall you sow your field, etc.”, sabbatical years, Jubilee years, blessings and curses. What is written at the end? (Leviticus 26:46) “These are the statutes and the ordinances and the Torah that the Lord gave between Himself and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses.”

This is an evocative midrash because it suggests that Shmita represents the very heart of Torah: the requirements, and also the promise and the peril of living as a social community with responsibility for maintaining just and enduring relationships among human beings, and also between human society and the land. Do this and you will be blessed with security and abundance; fail and consequences will ensue, until you ultimately become exiled from the land.

What if laws of Shmita function as a sort of operating manual for the holy task of entering the land with integrity? What if we have never truly taken these laws to heart in the past, but interpreting them now, in our day, is our urgent task?

We see the warnings all around us in the daily headlines, reporting the consequences of unfettered exploitation of both the human being and the generous hand of God as represented by the land. Is it any wonder that the call of Shmita, which was once only a whisper, is growing louder?

The time has come to study these texts, pull at their edges, and bring them to life, if we wish to experience the manifold blessings their promise contains.


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Deirdre Gabbay is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle and a board member of Washington Interfaith Power & Light/Earth Ministry. She blogs at www.shmitainseattle.com and is the director of The Shmita Project Northwest.

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