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Toward Shabbat: Yitro

It is chilling to read this week’s parashah in light of the earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria this week:

וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו הֹ’ בָּאֵשׁ וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן וַיֶּחֱרַד כׇּל־הָהָר מְאֹד.

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently (Exodus 19:18).

Revelation was like an earthquake; one that caused profound fear for the people of Israel. The midrash even teaches that the souls of the people left them amidst the awesomeness of the moment, but they are ultimately revived. And they were, and we continue to be, enlivened by the very gift of Torah that still guides us to this very day.

Tens of thousands precious human beings died in Turkey and Syria. The number continues to climb. No revelation. No revival. Just destruction wrought on an already deeply vulnerable part of the world: Stories of whole families gone in an instant. A woman giving birth while buried under debris; the baby survived but the mother did not. Survivors seeking warmth amidst freezing temperatures. Families collecting their loved ones and washing them for burial one after the other. It’s unfathomable. The search for any sign of life continues round the clock even as the passing hours and days make the possibility of finding someone alive slim to none.

I can’t help but think of the prayer for rain that we recite on Shemini Atzeret, asking God for rain but that it come in the right balance—not too much and not too little.

לִבְרָכָה וְלא לִקְלָלָה. אמן

For blessing and not for curse. Amen

לְחַיִּים וְלא לַמָּוֶת. אמן

For life and not for death. Amen

לְשובַע וְלא לְרָזון. אמן

For plenty and not for scarcity. Amen

The right balance seems out of reach in days like these, filled with such unimaginable loss and fragility. It is enough to knock the wind right out of us. I don’t believe in a God that causes such disasters. I am, however, very in touch with the emotion of the people of Israel as they stood amidst such overwhelming power at Sinai. To be attentive to our own smallness, our vulnerability, and the incredible awe of what it means to be alive—in both the grandest and the most fearful of ways—is an inevitable element of the human condition. It is within that drama that we receive revelation, Torah. For thousands of years our people have searched time and time again to find God and meaning amidst the absurdity, to find comfort amidst devastation, blessing amidst curse. A path to revive ourselves when our souls feel like they are departing from us, when all seems out of balance. It is this faith, this commitment and covenant, this hope that I believe was born at Sinai.

Last Shabbat, following services, we held our unrolling ritual for children who have recently received the date of their B-Mitzvah. Our B-Mitzvah students stand at various points around the room, all throughout the Torah, in front of their assigned parashah—no matter if it was based on when they were born or because of special tradition in their family. Some have parshiyot of great personal struggle, of tragedy and disaster like the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, of plagues. Others, by contrast, seemingly have easier or more inspiring stories, with more moments to engage with in their study. But when you see the Torah completely unrolled, you think about all of the various ups and downs of the story of our people all at once.

We so rarely can control the cards we are dealt. But our hope is, for our B-Mitzvah students, that this moment in time for them will not provide them with all the answers to the profound questions of living, but that it will give them a context, a community, a place to ask questions and search for a path to find their place in this broken world, and a way to respond.

We pray that our students, and all of us, can see our interconnectedness with all of humanity because we are all descended from Adam and Eve, the first human beings. And that when there is suffering, whether it is within our community or halfway around the world, that we see it as our obligation to respond just as the Israelites responded at Sinai, by saying, “נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה,” “we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

If you feel called to respond and to give support to the victims of the earthquake, please donate to the International Rescue Committee or the JDC, who are already supporting those in need.

I would like to close with the prayer of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Isak Haleva:

“Grant patience, fortitude, and courage to our brothers and sisters who are currently waiting to be rescued under the rubble, and bestow strength, strength and success, to the officials who sacrificed to bring them back to their families and society as soon as possible. Make those who are homeless, homeless and shelterless in this winter cold, innocent of all kinds of diseases and harm, make the place of our brothers and sisters who lost their lives a paradise, and grant immediate healing to our wounded. My God, who will keep us, our nation, our country and all humanity free from such disasters.”

כן יהי רצון.

Ken y’hi ratzon.
So may it be.

May this Shabbat bring comfort, healing, renewal, and hope.