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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת יתרו, תש״פ

Parshat Yitro, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Make For Yourself a Teacher

Months before I knew this congregation existed, you learned in Pirkei Avot that Yehoshua ben Pirhiya once said: Make for yourself a teacher. Acquire for yourself a friend. And when you judge others, tip the balance in their favor.

עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות (1:6)

In Parashat Yitro, our main man Moses, a person who hears directly from God, makes room in his life for yet another teacher. When Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro comes to visit, Moshe soaks up his knowledge. By sending a message of his arrival before he comes to visit, commentators say, Yitro teaches Moshe the importance of never visiting without announcing oneself first. By only rejoicing over Moshe’s good news, not over the Egyptians’ pain during the ten plagues, commentators say, Yitro teaches Moshe how never to rejoice over an enemy’s plight. More directly, Yitro teaches Moshe the crucial nature of time management that we spoke of last night. When Yitro tells Moshe he must delegate his job of judgment to others, Yitro reminds Moshe of the human reality that one cannot do everything oneself. And of course, Yitro teaches Moshe what organized justice can look like, through the traits responsible judges should possess. Moshe, this man who, hierarchically, could be seen as better than all y’all, soaks up knowledge from someone who, up until this point in the Torah, was an idolatrous priest. And by learning from Yitro, Moshe acquires friends in learning through the judges with whom he now shares his load, and Moshe learns how to favorably judge his people. Through Yitro, Moshe makes for himself a teacher, acquires friends, and judges others favorably.

If Moses, often known as ish ha-Elohim, “man of God,” can learn from Yitro, we must be able to learn from the people we meet each and every day. Whether from beloved friends and relatives or from the cashier at Kroger, the reaction when we hear potential wisdom from another human should be curiosity first - What is it I can learn from this exchange? When we read an article, even one with which we disagree, our thirst for knowledge should drive us to wonder - How can this author’s story or opinion affect or bolster my take on the world? Every person should be seen as a potential teacher, a potential friend, and someone who most likely means well.

Ever since I’ve been here, I have tried each day to learn as much as I can from you - most of you have been here in Shreveport much longer than I. You have a unique view on what it means to be Jewish in the South, what it means to actively pursue Judaism, and what it means to be in a world in which social views and customs tend to be a little different from my hometown. At the same time, I’ve been honored to be a teacher to you, as well. The idea that a tiny woman from Los Angeles could come here and tell you things you actually take to heart is an embodiment of that rabbinic teaching, an embodiment of Moshe’s relationship with his father-in-law. If Moshe yearns to learn from Yitro, if I look forward every day to learning from you, and astoundingly, if you can learn something from someone like me, I wonder who else we can bring into our lives as teachers and friends. I wonder who else we can invite into our circles.

In the story of Moshe and Yitro, it’s not just Moshe who learns from his father-in-law. At the very beginning of our reading today, when Yitro hears of all of the good the Israelites have experienced, he heads into the desert to experience God for himself. This Midianite priest, a man who was seen as a leader in the world of polytheism, steps back from his decades of respect and experience to learn firsthand about a greater ideal. Traditional midrash teaches Yitro’s declaration of gadol Adonai mikol ha-elohim (God is greater than all other gods) as Yitro’s conversion moment. He shows the strength he possesses to learn anew, to change his mind. In an increasingly polarized world, now is as important as ever to let our horizons expand even just an inch. From today onward, let us treat the words we read and hear as potential truths, as potential ways we can not only better our own lives, but also, enhance the fabric of the society in which we dwell. Make yourself many teachers, acquire for yourself many friends, and please, judge each person you meet with the balance in their favor. Shabbat Shalom.