Yitro: Sinai. The Decalogue and A Theology of Fear? How Do We Meet God?

Yitro our portion of the week, begins with Exodus 18 and the fascinating discussion on management of an institutionMoses’s father in law, Jethro, gives him the advice that the job of leading the people is a challenge and the his success will be aided by his ability to delegate responsibility. This Moses does. The challenge continues to today!

Exodus 20 gives us the first exposure to the 10 Commandments and the “revelation” at Sinai. Yet, a powerful chapter presents itself to us in Exodus 19. This is the run up to Sinai. This is a chapter that discusses the conversation between God and Moses and the instructions given to the Israelites on how to receive the revelation. But first, there  must be an agreement that the people will accept these laws, this “gift” (matan Torah). A very curious conversation between God and Moses takes place. God in 19.3f tells Moses to speak to the “house of Jacob” , reminding them of what He did to the Egyptians. Implicit in these verses is the issue of follow God’s laws or suffer the fate of Egypt. And look who Moses consults! “Moses summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the words that God commanded him. All the people answered as one saying All that God has spoken we will do” (19:7,8)

So again, the elders of the generation were given the responsibility of delivering and interpreting the message. Were they so reminded of the Egyptian experience that they counsel obedience? Was the Israelite acceptance based on fear of God’s punishments? Indeed, as we embark on the Wilderness experience, this “follow my laws or there will be radical punishment” is constantly played out; from  the Golden Calf to Korach’s rebellion and more.

Fast forward to 21st century American Judaism. Do we approach God, no matter how you may choose to interpret that concept, out of fear, or love, or mystery? Does a religious philosophy born out of fear of Divine punishment lead to chaos or obedience? As the centuries evolved, is not this tension between a God of fear and a God of love part of the religious challenge? And how do we, as Boomers becoming more concerned with our own mortality, legacy and meaning, approach this Mystery?

Yitro raises some of these issues from within a context of power and drama, much like our own life for is not the Wilderness experience the great metaphor for each of our lives? We are on this journey we call our life searching for that “promised land”. How shall we meet, encounter and follow that Mystery that we call God? Do we react from a place of fear? Or be proactive from a place of love?

It seems we may spend our life in that tension.

Rabbi Richard F Address

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