OzTorah: Torah reading – Yitro



Aaron, the first high priest, attends the Ark of the Covenant.

Read chapter 19 of Sh’mot and see how many words are about noise – thunder, lightning, voice, speech. Read midrashic commentary and see how many words are about silence – hush, quiet, serenity, calm.

Which set of words is more true? They both are. The Giving of the Torah was sound amid silence – or silence amid sound.

There are two ways of communication, in sound and in silence. There are times for sound, especially when the Divine voice proclaims the eternal verities. There are times for silence, when the attentive world hears every nuance and is awestruck at the grandeur of the moment.

In human history there are times when silence is courage, such as when Aaron sees the tragedy that befalls his sons who sin, and Aaron remains silent – perhaps because he realises the justice of the Divine punishment, perhaps because he cannot and must not find the words to cry out.

There are times, though, when silence is crass cowardice, when evil abounds and the good people hold their peace – perhaps because they are afraid that they will draw attention to themselves and be the next to be attacked, perhaps because they haven’t the nerve to stand up, speak up and be counted.

The glory of being human is that the decision is up to us, whether to utter a sound or hold one’s tongue.



Moses assures God that the people will not break discipline and go up the mountain against Divine instructions (Ex. 19:23). His actual words are, “The people cannot (‘lo yuchal’) go up”.

The reader can’t understand this. What does Moses mean – they cannot go up? Of course they can. The only thing stopping them is that God said not to.

But Moses is telling us something quite remarkable – that an Israelite who is not allowed to do something finds that he simply cannot do the forbidden thing. His inner conscience says “no”, and all the instincts in the world cannot allow the prohibited thing to be done.

The same phenomenon is found at the end of Sh’mot (Ex. 40:35) and in a number of other places in the Torah. The notion is that a person simply cannot do what is wrong. Like Joseph, a person is tempted to commit an iniquity. But like Joseph, after all the agonising about the temptation, doing the sin is morally (can one also say, physically?) impossible.

Our modern minds find this, of course, very difficult to understand. Our age is one when everything is a matter of choice, even committing a sin. Every option is a real option. Some people deliberately embrace the option of sinning. They defiantly do what they know they have been warned against, and they say, “Look, everyone, there’s no hellfire or brimstone, so it must be all-right to do what I’ve done!”

Very nice, but surely the voice of conscience has something to say, later if not immediately?



Moses gave his father-in-law Jethro an account of what he did as leader of the Israelites:

The people come to me to seek God; when they have a matter in dispute, they come to me and I judge between one and another, and I make them aware of the statutes of God and His laws” (Ex. 18:16-17).

The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that this verse encapsulates the tasks of a spiritual leader. He must pray for

Credit: Helen Siegler

everyone who is in difficulty (“the people come to me to seek God”). He must promote peace in the community (“I judge between one and another”). He must teach the people Torah (“I make them aware of the statutes of God and His laws”).

The role of the rabbi encompasses all three tasks – helping human beings, creating understanding and dialogue, and teaching the Torah. But the emphasis varies between one rabbi and another, and no two rabbis are identical.

It sometimes happen that communities compare rabbis and wonder why their rabbi is not like the rabbi of a different community – maybe more approachable, more spiritual, more intellectual, more charismatic – but they all have their strengths and their weaknesses.

So do the communities themselves. Rabbis compare communities just as communities compare rabbis; and though the rabbi’s own community may be a disappointment in some ways, the rabbi who can only see the bad points has quite a problem with his eyesight.


 Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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