Parshat Yitro

Becoming a Nation of Priests Mandates Self-Care


“Becoming a Nation of Priests Mandates Self-Care”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development


“You will surely wear yourself out, …the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone…They will make it lighter for you, and bear the burden with you.”  Exodus 18: 18, 22.


When I studied Torah weekly with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, he would begin each session with the line: “This is arguably the most important parsha in the Torah.” Certainly, such a case could be made for each week’s offering but, in this season of award ceremonies, I nominate Parshat Yitro to take home the prize.


Parshat Yitro encompasses the message of Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, in the above recipe for self-care as well as the revelation at Sinai. These frame God’s pronouncement that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” What a wise gift we are given when self-care is coupled with the Ten Commandments! This guidance for balanced human behavior (aka our priesthood) is a blueprint for a life well lived.


The injunction that we find at the very center of the Torah, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This assumes that we would treat ourselves with love and respect. We care for ourselves in order to care for others. Self-care, as mandated by Torah, has two intertwined components:  what we do for ourselves, and what we do for others. This is reminiscent on the instructions we receive at the beginning of an airplane flight: to put on our own oxygen mask before that of our neighbors. We are to do so with the understanding that in addition to protecting ourselves, it will better equip us to help others.


Self-care begins each morning, as we wrap ourselves in the straps of the Tefillin. Did you know that “phylacteries” has the same root as the word, “prophylactic” (from the Greek root meaning “to guard”)? This ritual is an attempt to protect ourselves and maintain our alignment with YHVH.  We begin our prayers with these words:


I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me with justice, and with law, loving-kindness, and compassion. And I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness and you will know God. Hosea 1:21-22


Self-care (and Jewish Spiritual Practice) start our day as we literally tether ourselves to these values. Day after day, we betroth ourselves to these exquisite attributes, and by doing so, God abides within us. If I am looking to know God, I need to search no further than this morning practice.

Also part of the morning practice is the daily recitation of the “obligations without measure,” which put the values above into action:

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward too, is without measure: whose fruits we eat in this world, but whose full reward awaits us in the World to Come: To honor father and mother; To perform acts of love and kindness; To attend the house of study daily; To welcome the stranger; To visit the sick; To rejoice with bride and groom; To console the bereaved; To pray with sincerity; To make peace when there is strife; And the study of Torah equal to them all, because it leads to them all.

These are the activities of our priesthood– the concerns of our days if we are to live up to Parshat Yitro’s charge of being the nation of priests. At first glance this appears to be a list of  “good deeds” that we do for the benefit of those more vulnerable than ourselves. However, a response to Yitro’s warning to Moses that “You will surely wear yourself out” (Ex. 18:17) and its prescription for a balanced life has been subtly woven in, as “fruits we eat in this world.” According to 21st-century research in positive psychology and the science of generosity, happiness and the enhancements to the immune system accrue to those who are generous and righteous.

I can personally attest to the fact that regular attendance to the house of study is not just for the benefit of filling up the synagogue.  The depth of the relationships I have formed with those with whom I have studied Torah sustain my life. The intimate sharing that occurs in the white spaces between the letters of Torah have enabled me to see myself more clearly and experience all the benefits of being part of a caring community of intelligent and engaged individuals.

“Praying with sincerity” or, “with penetrating reflection” (iyun tefillah), might be another way of saying “meditating.” The scientific evidence of the benefits of meditation to our health and wellbeing are recounted hourly in the media, along with the similar benefits we harvest when performing the generous actions that the other lines mandate.

With the second half of Yitro, and the three following parshiot, we find explication of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls our mission statement as “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” God dictates to Moses in his forty days on Mt. Sinai the instructions for building this Nation. We will see in tangible, concrete images what the Priestly Kingdom will look like, as the details are given. But do not forget Yitro’s preamble that mandates self-care as essential priestly behavior.  Shabbat Shalom.

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