Rachel Israel Rosenfeld
Yitro always makes me think of these Rainbow Gatherings I used to go to. I was part of a group that ran a big shabbat kitchen in the woods. Is anyone familiar with Rainbow? Well, that’s another story but the short of it is that these gatherings that I went to were big annual gatherings with close to a hundred kitchens set up in a national forest. We had this camp there, Jerusalem camp, and we would get hundreds of people for shabbat. Rainbow is a real experience in community. Building it, working together, people respecting where other people were holding but everyone plugging in in their own way. There were always a bunch of non-Jews who hung out at Jerusalem Camp. They worked hard with us and had just enough distance to see when we were all getting too hung up about what tunes we would sing for kabbalat shabbat or what was going into the cholent. One of these guys even given the Rainbow name Yitro. From his remove this Yitro was able to help others plug in to help out the community. He could see what people could contribute and help point them to what needed to be done.
Yitro in the parsha helps Moshe in a similar manner. With his remove from the situation Yitro was able to see that in order for B’nai Yisrael to come together as a community, as a nation, other people needed to assume responsibility. So after Yitro’s suggestion Moshe creates a broad legal system to help deal with many of the issues that are coming up for B’nai Yisrael. This is a step toward nationhood. We’ve seen those steps during the last few weeks as the focus of the Torah moves from the family dynamic to the community dynamic. It’s always a balancing act as we all know to participate in our communities and give what we need to give to our families. Moshe learns to delegate and other people step up, this is part of that balance. The Jewish people are moving from family groups to peoplehood. People are stepping up. There are sparks of that in the world still, thank g-d, such as the gatherings we have together, what I learned at Rainbow, and in many of the communities that I’ve been privileged to be a part of.
Another powerful scene from Rainbow: I met a girl in a river on a Friday afternoon and told her about shabbos, invited her to come. I assumed she wasn’t Jewish, was surprised when she showed up. It was a particularly large group, a few hundred people and lots of spirited singing followed by a large meal and then more singing. Later this woman came over to me, on her way back to her camp, with tears running down her cheeks. “Thanks so much, I really needed that” she told me. “It is good to be together with people, singing and taking a break from the week.” I responded. “Yes,” she said, “but I needed to be with Jews singing.” I didn’t find out her story but clearly the experience of feeling a part of something, a Jewish something, was powerful to this young woman.
In order for the Torah to be brought into the world these families of Jews had to become a community, a nation. As Rashi comments, “K’ish echad, b’lev echad” as one person with one heart. And this is what B’nai Yisrael are learning in the book of shmot. They’re not learning it easily, they’re not learning it gracefully, they’re complaining a lot and it’s really hard but from that hardship they’re growing. And when they come together as one they do receive the Torah. Shomenei Esrei in Shabbos day scharachit talks about Moshe receiving the Torah, we daven about matan torah before we actually read the parsha. This reminds us that every shabbos is an opportunity to receive the torah and an opportunity to grow. That’s why for me, it’s especially essential to have shabbat with community. That’s how we grow.
It is something powerful what a community can do when it comes together in song and tefilla. It is our taste of Sinai. Sinai of course was this huge momentous event. Rabbi Matis Weinberg writes, “Nowhere else on earth was G-d reported as communicating directly with several million human – and very opinionated – beings.” It was this huge communal light and sound show, the totally beyond experience of seeing sound… What a way to cement community! And we do see the sparks of this when we’re together singing on shabbos. The experience of being in community, singing together, in a small way gives us that sense of belonging that our Rainbow Gathering Yitro helped people achieve, that the woman I met there felt after coming for Shabbat and that we can taste when we share stories and song together. I bless us all to feel that sense of belonging over and over again in our lives. I bless us all to find the skill of delegating, the beauty of stepping up and the gifts that actively participating in community can endow us with.