Parasha Yitro

At the end of this week's Torah portion Parashat Yitro, after all of the smoke, thunder and flashes of lightening, after the mighty Voice, the Decalogue, and the people's frightened response--after all of the glory and wonder-the Torah transitions back to reality with details about building an altar. It now begins to teach Israel how God chooses to be worshipped.

Verse 21 reads, "...in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you." The translation is only approximate since the literal reading is hard to understand. Literally, it says "Wherever I mention (azkir) my name, there I will come to you and bless you."

The rabbis made good use of this reading-they noted that the Temple was the sole place where God's explicit name (YHVH) was said aloud (by the priests during the three part blessing from their "duchen" or platform)--and that therefore this verse is anticipating the day when the Shekhinah will inhabit the Temple and bless the people. When a person goes to the Temple and enunciates God's name, God reciprocates.

The rabbis were not willing to limit this divine encounter to the Temple. In notable texts like Mishnah Avot (3) andTalmud Brachot (6a), they cite this verse to portray that any place where a Jew studies Torah and prays can be a place of divine encounter. The Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot (8b), sees this reference to a "place" as proof that a person should have a designated place of prayer where God can find him (or her). However, the Zohar to Parshat BaMidbar (118a) states that the Kadosh Barchu and the whole divine host are summoned to any location where a person studies Torah.

Credence needs to be given to the maxim that one should sit in the same seat or place when praying.  When I first heard this I did not give it much stock, but now as an adult I do.  In the same spot you do not have to adjust or become distracted.  In what seems like a lifetime ago, my rabbi in Albuquerque used to tell us that when (in the simplest of terms) we pray, we are talking to God.  When we learn Torah, God is talking to us.  It enthralled me then and still does.

Coming back to the "name," I believe the Torah is indicating that God chooses times and places, and that in these moments there is intensification of presence and of blessing. Human activity is not irrelevant. After all, the first half of this verse is about altar construction. But the point of building an altar, of worshipping and engaging in sacred study, is to incite a theophany. The divine name is the very essence of being; in worshipping and studying and praying we are trying to elicit a powerful action, the utterance of the name, which brings with it presence and blessing. When a person reads a verse with the divine name, whether in worship or in study, there is a simultaneous divine recitation of the name, and the unleashing of blessing.

Perhaps the idea is that God chooses times and places to state the Name, and that humans fortunate enough to be present and attuned to the opportunity for blessing respond with prayer. I don't need to stand again at Sinai. I accept that that moment stands alone in our mythic consciousness. But I do like to imagine that with books of Torah open before me, and with a kahal of daaveners surrounding me in prayer-that in these moments it is not just we who are reaching for God, but that God is whispering the Name in our ears, drawing us into the realm of goodness and blessing. This is our Sinai, and it is available every day, in every place where we gather for Torah study and prayer.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham