By Rabbi Alana Suskin
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.
The Ten Commandments, which appear for the first time in this week’s parshah, begin with the statement, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Unlike the rest of the 10, it is not a commandment. And many of our sages have noted the unusual way it begins, not with the usual word for “I” — “ani,” but with the much more seldom used (used about 300 times, compared to nearly 1,000) “Anochi.”
The Kedushat Levi brings a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 105a) that also zooms in on this unusual word, asserting that it is a “notarikon” — that is, an acronym — for “amirah na’imah ketivah yehivah” and connects this passage to a verse in Tehillim, “sheviti adonai l’negdi tamid” — “I set God before me always.” He explains that it is impossible for a human being to really think about God at all times, but if a person serves God out of love, then bringing God pleasure will also bring us pleasure, and that will enable us to think of God at all times.
Breaking down the talmudic statement, he explains that the amirah na’imah, the “pleasant speech” is what God spoke to us at Sinai: the Torah. But speech is ephemeral, so for us to have God in our thoughts tamid (always), it must be “ketivah yehivah” — “written and given,” so that at every moment it can be part of us.
This parshah occurs at a peculiar moment in the Torah. We have escaped from Egypt; we have escaped from Amalek — and neither was a small thing. Both of these escapes were narrow, and took a lot of effort and God’s strong arm to save us.
Then, Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, came to us, having heard all that God had done for us, and brings his family, declares God’s greatness, offers sacrifices and then the whole family has a joyous family meal together. The news of these successes spurs Yitro to come to Moshe and bless God.
Goodness is contagious!
But before we enter the land, there’s a lot to do. We have to go stand in the shadow of Har Sinai, a moment so terror filled we have synesthesia, seeing sounds (Exodus 20:15). And there’s a long path ahead, filled with danger and fear and — let’s face it — boredom and whining. Freedom and justice aren’t quick and easy.
We like heroes and salvation stories and peak moments. But the reality is that “sheviti adonai l’negdi tamid,” keeping God before us always, is not the work of a moment, but an ongoing process.
We hear the beautiful sermon, but that’s not what really changes us. Even when the sermon is motivational, it’s the work we do ourselves, day in and day out, the boring repetition until it becomes habit. The things we do for love: changing diapers that get messed again, cooking meals that get eaten, laundry for clothes that will just be dirty and washed again and again — that is “sheviti adonai l’negdi tamid.”
And that is why the Torah must be written down. Because it’s easy to get lost in the boring details and forget that the hard work of Torah — the pursuit of justice throughout society — must be done for love which, as the saying goes, like bread, must be baked fresh every day.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is a Maryland state chair for the Poor People’s Campaign.