February 3, 2024 | 24 Shvat 5784
Torah: Exodus 18:1–20:23 Triennial: Exodus 18:1–20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1–7:6, 9:5–6
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
The Shaking Keeps Me Steady
Jethro arrives before Moses knows he needs him. All Moses has known, all Moses has done, is to interface with God and lead us. He has done it night and day, with no respite. He has forgone family life, forgone any sort of pleasure, in order to bear our nation. It’s understandable. Until this parashah, we were still in survival mode, trying to escape the Egyptians. One does not prioritize self-care when battling for one’s life. But now we’ve made it out of the proverbial woods and into the wilderness. Now we need to set up a system that allows us to live, not just to survive. But Moses is stuck, still working twenty-four hour shifts, still looking over his shoulder for disaster. He does not complain; he does not ask for help. Yet we will not be able to be free until Moses stops living in the shadow of Egypt.
Jethro arrives and sees this. Jethro arrives and helps Moses to put down his burden. He explains that Moses cannot go on living the way he has been. It works for a time, but not as a way of life. He says, “The thing is too heavy (KaVeD) for you, you will not be able to do it alone.” The thing Jethro is directly referencing is Moses acting as judge for the nation. However, the word heavy has greater resonance for Moses and for our story. Just before Jethro appeared, we fought Amalek. Although we were the ones fighting, we won only so long as Moses held his hands in the air. This is not an easy thing to do. His hands grew heavy. Moses does not ask for help. But each time his hands sink, we start losing the fight. So Aaron and Hur come up to Moses and hold up his hands. They support him. The task of leading is literally too heavy for Moses in this case. And he is held up by his supporters.
Moses is aware of how awesome, how heavy a task God gives him. At the burning bush, Moses tried to turn it down, saying, “for I am heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued.” Moses demures, saying he can scarcely carry his own heft, how is he to carry that of a nation. He has enough going on internally without looking for external problems. Once again, the answer is help from others. God sends Aaron to Moses, puts Aaron as a support for Moses’s heavy mouth.
Moses has always been and will always be supported. Jethro makes Moses aware of it. Jethro lets Moses exit the panic and see all those who have been helping him and who will continue to help him. Jethro coaxes Moses into recognizing this. Next time the people start complaining about Manna, in the Book of Numbers, Moses will be able to go to God and honestly report that he is not able to bear the people alone, it is too heavy for him. And God will let Moses get help.
Moses bears a heavy burden, but we surround him, we lift him up and carry it with him.
By contrast, Pharaoh too carried a heavy burden. He too led a nation, a people, alone. And it was too heavy for him. Rather than recognize this, rather than ask for help, Pharaoh relished the heaviness. He made his own heart heavy. God sent the heaviness against him, we see the word repeating in the descriptions of the plagues. And God made Pharaoh’s heart heavy. The Egyptians were not there for Pharaoh. They did not carry him, they could not lift him up. The system of governance in Egypt was such that no one could help Pharaoh bear the burden of leadership. So the heaviness broke Pharaoh and it broke Egypt.
As we prepare to create our own system of governance, we do so as a nation who supports each other. We have always been there, holding Moses up. Jethro comes in to warn Moses not to be like Pharaoh, he encourages Moses to look around and see those who have been helping him carry the burden. In this way, each carrying each other, we can do more than survive. We can live.