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Toward Shabbat: Yitro

In these winter months, being ready to welcome in Shabbat is not always an easy feat. As the sky rapidly darkens through the late afternoon, I often feel a hectic sense of urgency; a rush to send those emails, make those calls, run those errands. The onset of what will be a period of rest and repose from the whirlwind of the work week—that very onset itself often entails its own distinct whirlwind. When the moment of candle lighting itself comes, I endeavor to remind myself to breathe and let go of whatever it was that was occupying those corners of my busy mind—to give up a bit of the control I seek through those creative acts of work that define the week. 

Despite the delightful appeal of rest, rejuvenation, and spiritual sustenance, letting go of our sense of control over that which surrounds us is not always simple. This week, in parashat Yitro, we read the first of two recitations of the Ten Commandments, given to the Israelites by way of Moshe while encamped in the desert. The text reads:

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃ 

Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.
— Exodus 19:2

A curiosity that emerges from this verse: why would the Israelites be receiving these fundamental laws while still enmeshed in the act of wandering, rather than in the promised land itself? Why create this moment of covenant between God and B’nai Yisrael when there was still so much of their journey remaining? 

The midrashic commentary Pesikta d’Rav Kahana seeks to answer this question with an exploration of the very nature of the wilderness:

Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if one does not surrender oneself to it like the desert, one cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end.

Here, the midrash sees the wild, endless, ownerless nature of the wilderness to be the necessary setting to receive Torah, that perhaps B’nai Yisrael needed to be experiencing a loss of control, a surrender, to be fully immersed in the wilderness, in order to be ready to receive that gift.

In his great work The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores the ways in which we relinquish the sense control that goes hand in hand with accomplishing creative acts through the sanctification of Shabbat. Rabbi Heschel writes:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

Perhaps that mystery of creation that we experience on Shabbat is a taste of the wild wonder experienced by B’nai Yisrael at Sinai. By leaning into the unknown of the wilderness and letting go of all that we hold throughout the week – even when that very act of letting go feels hectic and messy – we may, as Rabbi Heschel teaches, attune ourselves to holiness in time.

May we enter Shabbat with a sense of openness to that surrender, embracing the wilderness of our days.

Shabbat Shalom.