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Yitro Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion the Ten Commandments are revealed.   Rather than focus on their familiar words I prefer to focus on the verse that follows.  “And the people saw the thunder—ro-eem et hakolot.”  How could they see the thunder?

There are two possible explanations.  1. Anything is possible because the Mount Sinai experience is a miracle.  But this is too easy an explanation.  And besides, there would not be much to discuss if I followed this line of reasoning.  2. In such an extraordinary experience the senses are overwhelmed and play tricks on you.  This is analogous to smells that sometimes awaken long since suppressed memories.

Neither of these reasons explore the meaning of seeing the thunder.  A Hasidic teaching suggests a better line of reasoning:  “What they heard on Mount Sinai they later saw translated into action in their homes, in the way they lived and in their behavior.  What they heard they later saw: the spirit of the Sabbath, the spirit of kosher food, the spirit of purity. They saw the sound.  Often, sound remains that and no more.  There are people who hear but never see; there is nothing in their daily behavior which gives evidence of the Torah which they heard.”

This is a beautiful explanation.  We must make what we hear, seen.  In other words, taking a teaching to heart is to make it visible.  It is to translate a teaching into action.

Judaism is skeptical about feelings.  This does not mean that it dislikes feelings.  Love is of course a very good thing, and its opposite, coveting is bad.  But Judaism refuses to rely on feelings.  It trusts instead actions.  It relies on what can be seen, not what is felt.

This is why “You shall not covet” is transformed into “Don’t steal.”  This is also why the tradition frames love within the holiness of marriage.  We build laws of actions around feelings.  We wrap our feelings with to do lists.

This is also why Judaism does not believe that a gift is tainted even if it is given for the wrong reason.  Tzedakah is not always given with a full heart.  It could be given because of a tax break or even to accumulate prestige.  The issue is not the feeling of the giver but the needs of the recipient.

Recently I asked my students these questions.  Who does the better act?  Two people of equal means are asked for a tzedakah donation of $200.  The beggar explains that it is for the purpose of buying winter coats so his family might better survive winter’s cold.  One person is moved to tears and gives $100.  The other is gruff and angry but grudgingly gives $200.  Who does the better act?  Our tradition says that the person who gave $200 does the better act.  Our students always answer that it is the person who gives with a full heart.  But it is about the needs of the recipient.  It is not about the feelings of the giver.

The ideal of course is to give the right amount with the right feeling.  But if you have to choose between feelings and actions, Judaism always chooses actions.  It trusts what can be seen, not what is felt.

Here is one of my favorite questions to ask our students.  I first learned it from Dennis Prager.  Your pet dog is drowning in a lake.  A complete stranger is also drowning there.  You can only save one.  Who do you save?  The Jewish answer is that you save the person, even if he or she is a stranger.

Our students always answer, “My dog,” after they first try to change the scenario.  “I would jump in and throw a life jacket to the other at the same time.”  When I say that most people don’t usually carry a life jacket with them and insist that they make a choice, they say, “My dog because my dog is a part of my family.”  One student recently added, “Maybe the person is really mean.”  In this student’s world, dogs are always nice—and I presume, people are unfortunately mean.

I understand our students’ responses.  Their world is built on relationships and family.  But Judaism believes that human life is more sacred than animals’.  So if you have to choose between the two you save the human life.  That is all there is to it.

And this is why feelings are not to be trusted.  We rely on actions.  You can accumulate many positive and altruistic feelings during a lifetime but to be righteous is a matter of piling up positive actions.

In next week’s Torah portion we read something that adds more force to this week’s and our current discussion.  The people respond to God’s commandments on Mount Sinai with the words, “Naaseh v’nishmah—All that God has said we will do and we will hear.”  First we do then we hear.

When we do, we hear.  You can only see the thunder when you transform your feelings into action. That is the meaning of the people seeing the thunder.

And so I resolve to leave fewer ideas locked in my heart.  I resolve to bring as much as possible to my hands.  It is in the doing that miracles are to be found.