Parashat Yitro

I Know Who You Are

The image of God carrying the Israelites on eagles' wings, and the promise that they will be a treasured nation if they keep the commandments raise questions about our complex relationship with God.

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D'var Torah

I remember the following story told by Rabbi Joseph Levine:

He was a seventeen-year old boy. The radiation had taken his hair, the surgeons had taken his right arm, the cancer was taking his life. He drifted in and out of a coma. His father and mother sat by his bedside day after day. Suddenly his eyes opened, he saw his dad, and said, "I'm scared. Sometimes I don't know who I am." His father asked, "Do you know who I am?" "Why, yes, you're Dad." "OK, then," his father replied, "don't worry because I know who you are." (CCAR Yearbook, 1980)

"I know who you are:" a parent speaking to the soul of his child. With the word s'gulah (Exodus 19:5), God speaks directly to the soul of the Israelite and reassures the person adrift, an ex-slave, a person ignored, devalued, and bereft of identity. "I know who you are," says God. "You are am s'gulah, My treasure."

Always aware of the six million times that the promise cited in Psalms 91 was broken, we are impatient with God-concepts. Our questions are real and urgent: What is God's role in history? What is God's role in our lives? Tired of the feeling that we are carrying God on our wings--doing all the work, wrestling a shadow, scratching around for traces of God's presence--we hope that, maybe once or twice in our lives, God will come from behind and say "Guess who?" like in Amichai's poem.

We awaken to God's Revelation, states philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, through the modality of obedience: "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully..." (Exodus 19:5). At first, the word "now" hardly seems necessary in this text. But, as Rashi points out, "now" is at the heart of the matter. "Beginnings are difficult," he says, quoting the midrash: difficult because of what has come before--the slavery, the feelings of abandonment and alienation, the broken promises.

But now (and it is always now) a vast opportunity is offered: Obey and through obedience receive God's love and God's gift of an identity. "I know who you are," says God. "You are a kingdom of priests." As Rabbi Levine states about the father in his story, "That's pastoral care!"

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Rabbi Sheldon Marder

Rabbi Sheldon Marder is the spiritual leader of The Jewish Home, San Francisco, CA.