Earlier today we did what all good Jewish Americans do on Christmas Day: go see a movie, and then have Chinese food. The movie we went for was Saving Mr. Banks.
As we were brought into the making of one of the Disney greats, I was loving the fact that they were bringing up what for me is the major message of Mary Poppins: that she comes to free Mr. Banks.
In 2009 I delivered my senior sermon at HUC-JIR on this very topic. Here is the sermon I delivered:
A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I decided that it was movie night. We took a look at the movie listings, and Bride Wars seemed to be our best option. Needless to say, I was unenthusiastic.
Then the phone rang. It was 7:30. Our friend Hope was on the other end. She had tickets for the 8:00 Mary Poppins on Broadway, and she was not going to be able to make it. Could we use the tickets? Bride Wars or Broadway show: my choice was just made easier. I am glad Hope called, because otherwise, I would not be enabled to proclaim that Mary Poppins is the best Broadway musical I have ever seen. It is one of those stories where kids hear one thing, adults another. When I was a child, the play was about the fun and frolic that a brother and sister have with their nanny. I was struck by the message I heard now as an adult.
Mary Poppins, carried by the wind, comes to 17 Cherry Hill Lane to serve as the Banks family nanny. In the process, she serves as an aid in the family’s realization, in the family’s revelation, that their love for one another is deep, and that they have all of the tools within themselves to care, keep, and bring up one another as strong and good human beings. Mary stays on only as long as she is needed. Then, the wind guides her to another family that needs her, another family, who could also turn their entire lives around.
Mary Poppins is able to take on her role for the Banks family because she is an outsider. She can see what those who are in the thick of it cannot. This freedom, this clear-sightedness, enables her to see what needs to be done—both what the Banks family needs to realize for itself, and what she needs to do to get them there. Parshat Yitro offers a similar example.
Vayishmah Yitro – and Yitro heard. He has heard all that God has done for the Israelite people. He has heard about God as the Creator of the world in six days, of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Isaac and the Akeidah, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel. Yitro has heard of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, of their wailing, and of God’s miracles in the Exodus.
After hearing the entire Israelite story, Yitro finds them off in the wilderness. He chooses to join the Israelites and, in doing so, gains the power that only an outsider can have. Yitro has perspectives that other leaders among the Israelites lack. Moses and the people are not aimlessly wandering in the wilderness; they are heading for something. They are like a bunch of people who bump around a dark room in search of the light switch. Yitro walks into that dark room, and his eyesight seems function just fine.
What does Yitro see? Vayar chotein Moshe et-kol-asher-hu oseh la-am—he sees all that Moses does for the people. From morning to night—min ha-boker ad ha-erev—Moses sits to judge all the people who stand before him.
“What are you doing?” exclaims Yitro, “Why are you sitting alone all day with the people standing before you?”
Meekly, Moses responds, “The people come before me lidrosh Elohim, to seek God. I judge between the people and explain to them God’s laws and teachings.”
“Lo tov ha-davar asher atah oseh. This is not a good thing that you are doing, for yourself and for the people,” explains Yitro. Moses’ vision is blurred, and his father-in-law helps him to see that the Israelites are engaged in inefficient bureaucracy. Yitro does more than simply give good consultation for public policy. Yitro recognizes that there are spiritual gains to be had; after all, he is a priest, a man concerned with the sacred. By freeing Moses from sitting before the Israelites all day, Yitro enables his son-in-law to become the spiritual leader of the Israelites; he can become who he is destined to be. By freeing the people from standing before Moses, Yitro beckons their rise from the dark valley of the wilderness to the enlightened slopes of Mount Sinai.
And Yitro not only motions toward the Sinai revelation. Before Sinai, there was Ha-S’neh. “Moses, shepherding Yitro’s flock, drove it into the wilderness.” There, Moses as a shepherd, as a ro-eh, comes upon a strange sight, ha-s’neh, the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. In this moment, Moses is transformed from simple shepherd into someone who is another type of ro-eh, into someone who sees. The burning bush is a moment of personal revelation. Moses hears God’s message, in which he then becomes a third type of ro-eh, a ro-eh El, God’s companion. Had Yitro not given Moses a home and a vocation, Moses would not have become ro-eh, a shepherd, an enlightened leader, someone who sees God face to face.
Upon learning his mission, Moses goes back to his father-in-law to seek his leave and return to Egypt. “Lech l’shalom,” Yitro responds, “Go in peace.” As Moses comes to Yitro and helps with the family flock, Yitro now sends his son-in-law back to shepherd the People of Israel. Yitro is an enabler of destinies, he foreshadows revelation, Yitro is in the business of bringing people out of the darkness and into the light.
Imagine we are in a cave, perhaps like the caves at Qumran, filled with dusty sandstone and dry, hot air. We sit bound down for our entire existence. The cave is dark, except for a fire lit behind us. Because we are stuck to our spots, we cannot crane around and see the flames. But, projected on the wall before us are the shadows of objects passed before the fire. We can see these. We know these shadows. For us, these shadows are our truth.
Suddenly, one of us realizes he is not bound down to his chair. He can stand and turn his body around. He sees the fire and the objects passed before it as they actually are—not only their shadows. For this person, he has entered into a new realm of reality. The shadows are true, but truth exists beyond them as well. He does not stop there. He—with everyone else still bound to his or her spot—discovers the opening to the cave. He can emerge into the light-filled world, a feeling that must be akin to the Israelites leaving the wilderness and emerging into the Promised Land.
At some point, though, our able-bodied person feels drawn back to the cave. His shackles were undone. Maybe he can help to free others as well.
Plato, a thinker outside of our tradition, helps us see that there are those who have the innate ability to break the shackles of rote understanding, who can move out of the darkness into the light, and then choose to return to the darkness in order to enable others to see the light.
So it is with Yitro. Yitro has already seen the light as he enters the wilderness with the Israelites. He understands what Moses is trying to do for the people—lidrosh Elohim,—to seek God and to make known God’s laws and teachings.
Before Yitro’s arrival, Moses only works with the shadows of God’s Torah. To seek God one must engage all of the senses, involve all of one’s being, b’kol l’vavcha u’v’chol nafshecha, with all one’s heart and with all one’s soul. That is the Sinai experience. Moses and the Israelites find that out amid the blasts of thunder and the rumbles of earthquakes. If we are to hear God’s message, to be present for revelation, we cannot remain in the cave staring at the shadows as if they are the full truth of things. Anyone can break the bonds, stand up, walk out of the cave, and straight up to the foothills of Sinai.
We are fond of saying that our calling is to be like Moses—to be teachers, to be interpreters. But part of our task is also to be like Yitro, to facilitate revelation for others.
We can help people to understand our tradition’s laws and teachings, but then we only show the shadows cast on the cave wall. We stand ready for our moment at Sinai, and we are simultaneously called upon to help others to turn around, to help others to see the flames, and to go beyond that.
To go beyond, we should take a lesson from Bahiya ibn Paquda, the 11th Century Spanish thinker, who said that we must not be content to believe that the intellectual pursuit is enough; rather, when we stand ready for God with our whole being, intellectually and emotionally, we cultivate an attention to God’s presence, we are on the watch for the Divine.
We must recognize that people come to us as the Israelites come to Moses. They seek meaning in their lives. They are looking for God as they wander in a sort of wilderness. We are tasked in that moment to respond as Moses, to teach Jewish tradition, and to respond as Yitro, to teach others how to be on the watch, to guide people as they emerge ready to stand at their own Sinai.