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22 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 1-2, 2013

Dan Horwitz photo

In this week's portion, Yitro, we find Moses (and the Israelites) being greeted by Moses's father-in-law Yitro (aka Jethro) after the Israelites managed to fight off the armies of the nation of Amalek.  Yitro greets Moses, bringing along Moses's wife and two sons.  After telling his father-in-law all that God had done for the Israelites in Egypt, Yitro rejoices, praises God, and offers up a sacrifice.

Shortly thereafter, Yitro observes that the Israelites are approaching Moses to settle every little dispute.  He advises Moses to empower a number of individuals to serve as judges (effectively, establishing the tiered court system that we still use today), thus allowing Moses to only adjudicate the major disputes, while relying on others to adjudicate minor ones.  Once this new system of resolving disputes has been put in place, Yitro takes his leave.

The Israelites then enter the wilderness of Sinai, and approach the mountain contained within it.  On the third day, amidst thunder, lightning, horn blasts, and what appears to mimic a volcano that is about to erupt, the 10 Commandments are given.

The traditional understanding of the text suggests that God actually spoke to the entire Israelite nation assembled at the foot of the mountain, as at the end of the portion we find God instructing Moses to say to the Israelites: "You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the heavens."

"Revelation at Sinai," as this event is commonly known, is in many ways the central event of the entire Torah (it's where tradition says that we received the Torah itself, after all).

One of the more intriguing pieces of this episode that the ancient rabbis picked up on is that the Israelites supposedly "saw" the thunder and "saw" that God spoke to them - as opposed to hearing these things.  Revelation at Sinai was so significant and powerful in our narrative that it actually altered peoples' senses.

For us today, I can't help but think that before we could ever be in a position to have our senses altered again, that we'd need to be better at embracing our senses as they currently exist.

Do we savor our food, take pleasure in its odor and taste, and express our gratitude after consuming it?

When we hold the hand of or hug another, do we recognize the intense power and energy that physical connections create? 

When we hear thunder and see lightning today, do we take a moment to reflect and be in awe of the power nature holds?

This Shabbat, let's resolve to take a break from our mile-a-minute lives, and to make the time to both figuratively and literally stop and smell the roses.  Because in addition to adding depth and quality to our lives, perhaps once we come to a fuller appreciation of the senses we're blessed to have, we'll be meritorious enough to have our senses altered in ways currently unimaginable, as tradition shares our ancestors before us did.


Lost and Found

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Lost and Found photo

One of my kids had a play date on the horizon. I entertained his reminders and countdowns for a full week until the joyful day arrived and my son announced, “I am SO excited for my play date!” and he skipped out the door to school. It got me thinking about the ease in which happiness seems to come into the heart of a child. They express an unabashed joy over the simple things. Things like balloons, swimming pools, individually packaged snacks and puppies. They appreciate what we grownups refer to as “the little things in life.” And then the little people morph into big people and us big people seem to need much grander gestures – more bells and whistles – to find the same level of excitement. Things like a new car, a bigger house, more money, a younger wife. Why does this happen? Where does the happiness for the little things go?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about going out to dinner was that I would be allowed to order a kiddie cocktail – a Shirley Temple with extra maraschino cherries. It always came with a toothpick umbrella. And if I was very lucky, (and my mom wasn’t paying attention), I could get away with ordering a second Shirley Temple. I stirred the red sugar juice into the bubbly clear sprite with my straw and watched it all blend into the most perfect pink. I felt happiness. I felt joy. And I collected all the toothpick umbrellas in a special drawer in my room.

Sleepovers were another source of happiness for me. I got to giggle and whisper into the late night with a girlfriend until someone’s parents threatened to take “fill-in-the-blank” home if we didn’t “go-to-sleep immediately-and-I-mean-it!” It was the best! Waking up in the morning and seeing your friends eating breakfast in their pajamas was so cool. You got to see the color of their toothbrushes and the kind of toothpaste they used. It was totally worth that terrible, grouchy exhausted feeling that took over the second you got into your parents car and your little body decided that the two hours of sleep was not sufficient to even remotely function for the rest of the day.

There’s an innocence to childhood that seems to wash off of us as we begin to age. Maturing seems to be the slow killer of our belief in everything magical (the good guy always wins; the tooth fairy brings the dollar; your parents never have sex…) I try my best to maintain the magic in my house, but the reality is, my kids are getting older. They read the paper. They ask me about the death penalty, the Holocaust, and the long term effects of people who eat McDonalds. They are seduced by headlines and playground gossip. And alas, I am married to an engineer who is not only a black and white thinker, but has always been suspicious of the tooth fairy and non-fiction books.

When I picked my son up from his play date, he was full of chatter and smiles. He’d had a great time. I had spent the day busy, overwhelmed, running errands, making and going to appointments, my head filled with the usual have tos and need to get tos. But when we were driving home and he was reliving each detail with me, (snack, game, snack, legos, snack, Wii, snack…) I felt a lightness in me. I felt a happiness inside. Listening to my son relay the simple things – the little things – that gave him joy that day, gave me joy as well. Maybe we grownups aren’t so lost after all. Maybe the happiness found in the little things isn’t gone. Quite possibly it’s just waiting to be noticed. And we just need to pay attention.

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