Parashat Yitro – God’s Varied Faces
In recognition of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, Rabbi Ami Hersh is the first contributor to our weekly D’var Torah (word of Torah) where guest bloggers will link the week’s Torah portion to the theme of inclusion.
If we are to accept the traditional belief that each person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, then we must also acknowledge that disabilities are inherent in each individual, for God was the very first special needs educator. Taking nothing away from the men and women who struggle daily with more traditionally recognized disabilities, the world will be a better place when we can admit the fact that each and every one of us battles with our own disabilities. Each of us goes through the world in our own way and at our own pace. Some of us struggle with our inter-personal skills, others of us are lacking in our organizational abilities, but all of us are challenged by some aspect of everyday life. As we travel along our paths we seek out teachers and advisors to guide us on our way and help us to overcome any challenges that we face. Fortunately, just as God created the world with people of all abilities and disabilities – so, too, was the world created with talented teachers and advisors in the image of God to offer assistance.
It is in this week’s parasha, Yitro, that the Jewish people were given the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We read that when God, ever the differentiated instructor, gave the Torah to the Jewish people, each person received the Divine text in a form that allowed them to best understand the words of God. A beautiful midrash (P’skita d’rav Kahana 12:27) on this week’s reading teaches that when God appeared before B’nei Yisrael, God came forward with four different faces:
“A severe face, an even tempered face, a helpful face and a joyous face. With a severe face appropriate for the teaching of Scripture. When a person teaches Torah to their child, that person must impress upon the child awe of Torah. With an even tempered face appropriate for the teaching of Mishnah. With a helpful face appropriate for the teaching of Talmud. And with a joyous face appropriate for the teaching of Aggadah. The Holy One said to them: ‘even though you see me in all of those guises, I am still One’…When the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, the Divine word is addressing me…spoken to each person according to their unique capacity.”
Each of us needs the varied faces of God at different points in our lives. The trick to overcoming the disabilities that afflict us is by determining which face, which teacher, to seek out at any given moment. The fortunate news is that for each disability and for each person in this world, there is a teacher out there.
The story of Yitro begins with an organizationally dysfunctional Moshe overwhelmed by the workload before him in ruling the people of Israel. His teacher, his father-in-law Yitro, observes the scene and declares, “lo tov – this is no good.” Yitro is concerned that Moshe will become tired if he continues the centralized judicial system all by himself. The term “lo tov” only appears one other time in the entire Torah. In the creation narrative of Genesis, God declares, “lo tov cheyot adam levado – it is not good for man to be alone.”
Both instances of “lo tov” are solved by adding a person/people to the equation. Man’s quality of life in the creation story is greatly enhanced by the creation of woman. Moshe’s ability to lead is improved when he is able to share responsibility with other people.
When we are honest and practice self-reflection, we will recognize that we all struggle at times like Moshe with our intrinsic disabilities. We all can also be teachers like God in the midrash, and like Yitro in the parasha. God has created a world filled with students who need teachers and teachers who are blessed with the Divine ability to teach. Lo tov cheyot adam levado – it is not good for people to be alone.
Ami Hersh is the assistant director of the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. He also serves as the Family Life Coordinator at the Orangetown Jewish Center. He was ordained as a rabbi at The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012 with an M.A. in Jewish non-profit management and a second M.A. in experiential education. Ami previously taught at the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Hartford. He was one of the winners of the 2012 Jewish Futures Competition and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.