Yitro: The Most Jewish Thing We Can Do.

What's “the most Jewish thing” we can do?  

Say the Sh’ma?  Light and bless Shabbat candles?  Fast on Yom Kippur?   Keep kosher? Tell a Jewish joke?  (For the latter, see Pew Report opinions). Give Tzedaka?  Circumcise our sons?  

I suggest that the answer is studying Jewish texts and seeking to relate them to our own life and experience.  This is one of the main things, if not the main thing, that has bound Jews together in each generation and with all past and (G-d willing) future generations.  “V’talmud torah c’neged kulam.” (Mishnah: The study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot because it leads to them all).   

I had such a “Jewish moment” this week.  At Timnah Park in Israel’s Aravah (20 miles north of Eilat), I learned that the mining and smelting of copper and bronze (a copper-tin alloy) were conducted there at least a thousand years before the Exodus.  Recently, archeologists dated some of the work to the time of Solomon, hence “Solomon’s mines.” http://www.jewishpress.com/news/proof-of-solomons-copper-mines-found-in-israel/2013/09/08/

The mountains and weird weather-sculpted rock formations were beautiful. But the work must have been appalling; summer air temperatures exceed 120 degrees, and copper was smelted in small, above ground ovens that burned charcoal, made from local acacia trees, at over 1,000 degrees!  Archeologists have recovered thousands of artifacts at sites such as this in Israel, including serpents of copper/bronze.  

Then I did “the Jewish thing.”   I opened a Chumash and read this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  At Exodus 20:19-20, G-d says to Moses: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: With me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” 

With copper and bronze on my mind, it occurred to me that the Divine prohibition did not extend to these metals.  Was this why Moses cast a serpent out of copper/bronze rather than gold or silver?  (Numbers 21:9 tells of Moses making a copper snake upon which the snake-bitten could look and live.  The serpent was eventually destroyed by King Hezekiah: 2 Kings 18:4).

Surely, I thought, our sages must have commented upon this.  So, I began checking.  First, Michael Carasik’s, The Commentators’ Bible, The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus [ISBN 0-8276-0812-8].  This wonderful, easily accessible resource complies foundational medieval commentaries of Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Eza, Nachmanides, and others.  Then Haim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky’s The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash [ISBN 0-8052-4113-2].  Then, a sampling of modern commentaries: The Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Study Bible [ISBN 0-19-529751-2]; J.H. Hertz’s The Pentateuch and Haftorahs [ISBN 0-900689-21-8]; Samson Raphael Hirsch’s The Pentateuch [ISBN 0-910818-66-5]; Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses [ISBN: 0-8052-4154-X]; W.G. Plaut’s The Torah [0-8074-0055-6]; and The Soncino Chumash [0-900689-24-2]. Finally, two on-line resources:  www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org and http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com.  

Had I still been in Jerusalem, the world center of Jewish learning, I could have checked many more resources in the Hebrew Union College library downtown and/or the Hebrew University libraries on Mt. Scopus and Ramat Gan.  And I would have asked other rabbis whom I regularly see in schul and at lectures.  But I was traveling from Eilat back to Fullerton.  

Reading the mentioned sources upon my return, I learned a lot about what our sages had to say regarding Exodus 12:19-20 and Numbers 21:9. Surprisingly, however, none of these references addressed my specific question: why copper/bronze rather than gold or silver?  I still think that I will eventually find the answer in another source.  But just maybe, my question and suggested answer -- the greater availability of copper/bronze and Exodus 20:19-20’s prohibition of gold and silver -- will add a tiny contribution to the ongoing process of Jewish textual inquiry that has played such an essential role in “keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this season.”

The hours that I “spent” on this little research project could have been passed doing many other things: sleeping, earning money, watching TV, reading the newspaper or a novel, surfing the web, etc.  But none of those would have been an “investment” in strengthening my Jewish identity.   I am extremely blessed to be able to live part-time in Israel, where simply “breathing Jewish air” helps to strengthen Jewish identity.  In the US, however, it takes a conscious effort.  

Still, that effort need be no more difficult than taking a (your or your child’s bar/bat mitzvah) Chumash or Tanach off the shelf, blowing off the dust, and starting to read and discover yourself in this week’s Torah portion. Then, discussing what you find of interest in it with other Jews.  

Who knows what contributions to your own Jewish identity, to theirs, and to that of future generations may result? 

Why not try it this Shabbat?  

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb