Building sacred spaces that are also safe places

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By Rabbi Jill Levy

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.

Imagine preparing for one of the biggest events of your life — a huge conference for work, taking the bar exam or finally receiving that promotion. All of a sudden there is a knock at your door and — surprise! — four relatives show up unexpectedly, ready to move in to your house.

Now think about Moses. He is the leader of more than 600,000 people (some say maybe close to 2 million) who are preparing for an encounter with God at Mount Sinai. While Moses is acting as prophet, judge and camp director, his father-in-law shows up with Moses’ wife and children, who he had previously “sent away.” We have to wonder why the Torah decides on this very moment to interrupt Moses’ work for this family reunion.

There are a number of commentaries that address why Moses did not bring his family with him and why they may be returning at this moment. Or Hachayim presents two opposite ideas. The first is that Moses sent them away because as a full-time messenger of God he could no longer devote time to his family. The other opinion, quoting Shemot Rabbah, is that Moses was waiting for the appropriate time to be reunited, and then he welcomed them with open arms.

After this reunification, Yitro tells Moses that he needs to set up additional leaders so that he is no longer doing the work alone.

Whether you believe Moses sent his family away temporarily or permanently, the text acknowledges that it is hard to get things done with family present.

In fact, after Moses’ family returns, Yitro is clear with Moses that he must entrust some of the work to other leaders. One message of Yitro is that no matter how hard we work for the community, we need to build structures that do not consume the entirety of someone’s life.

There is a different take on why Moses sent his family away, which was so they would not know the pain of being slaves in Egypt. It was not about work-life balance. Instead, it was an act of love in order to shield his wife and children from suffering. As a parent and camp director, I can deeply relate to the desire to protect our children from the cruelty of the world. Yitro reminds Moses (and us) that, even if well intentioned, we cannot isolate someone so much that they miss out on their religious inheritance and connection to community.

Parshat Yitro is an opportunity to consider how to build communities that are embracing and safe. For example, it is important that our volunteers and professionals are not so burned out that they are left without time for their families. Additionally, we must have conversations around child safety so that families are encouraged to participate in, and not avoid, Jewish life. This parshah is an opportunity for each of us to ask: “Where can I step in to support the community so that everyone can celebrate their Jewish identities with security and joy?” ■

Rabbi Jill Levy is director of Ramah Day Camp Greater D.C.

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