A text version of my comments during Shabbat services on 2/15/20 –
The narrative of Revelation and the giving of the Torah, which occurs in the middle of this morning’s potion, is so compelling that we often overlook the events that take place at the beginning of Parshat Yitro. Compared to what is to come the text begins quietly, with Moses’ father in law Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, and a discussion between the two men about, of all things, administrative details. Moses has set up a legal system in which he is the only judge, an untenable situation – it is simply too much work for one man to do. So Jethro, being a good father in law, suggests that Moses create a new system in which he appoints others who know the law to judge the simpler cases, while Moses will handle the more difficult ones. And the text tells us Moses thought this was a good idea – וישמע משה לקול חתנו – Moses listened to his father in law. Problem solved.
But this morning I want to focus on the initial criticism that Jethro gives to Moses. When he sees Moses at first, trying to do it all by himself, he says this to his son in law: לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה. Let’s do a little bit of Hebrew work and translate this verse – what does לא mean? Tov? Davar? Asher? Atah? Oseh? To accurately reflect the Hebrew we’ll have to translate the verse Yoda style – Not good, this thing you are doing. Or as it is translated in our Humash ‘the thing you are doing is not right.’
Torah scholars have long noted that there is something unusual about that snippet of a verse, having to do particularly with the first two words, that phrase לא טוב. And that is that that phrase appears only one other time in the entire Torah. It is also found in Genesis chapter 2, the Adam and Eve story, where Adam has been created, but Eve has not yet come into being. God looks at Adam and says this: לא טוב היות האדם לבדו – it is lo tov – it is not good for a person to be alone.
Rabbi Saroken last night in her sermonette spoke about the problem of loneliness in our society today, particularly the pervasive loneliness in the lives of young people. On the surface this seems like a strange thing, because we think of young people as being continually connected to each other, through the phones that they hold in their hands and the constant messages they send back and forth. But what sociologists are finding is that virtual connection is not the same is real connection, in fact it may be that virtual connection – being in relationship with someone through a screen – actually diminishes the sense of real connection to others.
This idea was first explored in Robert Putnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone.’ Believe it or not that book came out twenty years ago! It is an exploration of the decline in American life of civic organizations, like churches, synagogues, country clubs, parent teacher associations, and yes, even bowling leagues. That is where the title of the book comes from – Putnam found that more people are bowling, but fewer people are doing it in the context of a bowling league. And he blames technology for this erosion of public life. Simply put looking at a screen is an individual activity, and the more time you spend looking at a screen the less time you spend looking into the face of another person, having a real conversation, and feeling a true sense of what it means to be connected.
You have to wonder what Jethro – Moses’ father in law – would say were he to be transported to our world for a few hours. Imagine Jethro walking through the Towson Mall food court, and noticing that at each table people were sitting together, but instead of looking at each other and talking to one another they were looking at the devices in their hands. Or if he came to a work place, filled with cubicles, each cubicle a computer, each computer a screen, each person staring at that screen for hours on end. I suspect, if he saw that, he would say, as he did to Moses, ‘lo tov.’ This is not good! And what about God – could God have ever imagined that human beings would figure out a way to be so isolated even while they were with other people? You have to think that God also would say ‘lo tov.’
We might think of the two ‘lo tovs’ – Jethro’s to Moses in this morning’s portion, and God’s comment in Genesis 2 – as two different antidotes for the problem of loneliness, both having to do with being in relationship. In Genesis 2 it is pretty straight forward – God is saying that human beings need to be in caring relationships with other human beings. With family members, with friends, people with whom they share history, common bonds, and values. These individual relationships nourish and sustain us, and bring meaning to our lives. I don’t think anyone would argue with that.
But Jethro’s ‘lo tov’ to Moses is a little bit more complicated. I would argue that Jethro is saying it is necessary for people not only to be in relationship with one another, but also to be in a relationship with a community, with something larger than they are. When we stood this morning, together, as a congregation, to listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments, there is a power to that, a sense of being connected not only to one another but to something that is greater than we can ever be as individuals. And that can only be found in the context of a community.
There is one other layer to this idea of being in relationship with others that Judaism brings to the conversation, something that Robert Putnam was not concerned with when he wrote his book. And that is that Judaism believes when we are in meaningful relationships with one another, we are also in relationship with God. There is an old idea that we’ve all heard a million times, which is that in a Jewish house of worship you will never see a representative image of God anywhere. In fact, the second commandment we read this morning says specifically לא תעשה לך פסל וכל תמונה – you should not make yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness.
But the truth is our sanctuary is filled with images of God. Our tradition teaches us that each human being is created in God’s image, and so each human face here this morning – each and everyone of us – is a reflection of God’s presence, and a representation of God being in our midst and in our lives.
It is always striking to me how powerful the simplest things can be. How two hours in shul, surrounded by friends and community can lift our spirits and lighten our hearts. How looking into the eyes of a person we care about can in an instant remind us of the blessings in our lives. How a kind word or a warm handshake can so powerfully give us a sense of connection and caring. May we give that to others each and every day, and may we find it time and again in our own lives.