Take a Step Back: Moses, God and Tzimtzum (Yitro)

We have Shabbat for many reasons.

First, and perhaps foremost, it is commanded to us. Not only that, it's commanded to us in this very portion, as part of the ten commandments, the 4th commandment to honor and remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.

But I'd argue that's not REALLY why we decide to celebrate Shabbat. There are lots of commandments in the ouvre of Jewish laws that we don't follow, so why Shabbat?

It's joyous, it provides a fixed time to be with friends and family, joining in prayer and song with community.

Shabbat achieves another purpose, however ... Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about Shabbat being a monument of time. 6 days a week, we build things ... We make monuments of space. But on Shabbat, we honor time itself.

And so, today, and once a week, we are given a gift. We step back, we reflect, we take it all in. We step back.


In this week's Torah portion, Moses' father-in-law Jethro gives Moses advice. In short, Jethro teaches Moses to delegate, explaining that if Moses keeps going the way he has been, he will be burnt out, and not be able to do the holy work that God commands of him. Jethro advises his son-in-law that he should appoint people he trusts to serve as magistrates and judges over minor matters, and thus Moses will only serve for the really important issues. Moses takes his advice, and becomes a better leader because of it.

Moses displays an incredible skill for all; the willingness to learn. The openness to change. He's willing to have someone suggest a new, different, and possibly better way of doing things.

In this portion, Moses stepped back, looking at himself and his works from another persepctive. It's not unlike what we do on Shabbat, relaxing and praying, yes, but also reflecting, as we look at our lives from a higher altitidude, a different perspective.


This ties together with a Kabbalistic concept known as tsimtsum. To explain, we have to go back to the very beginning.

The Kabbalistic notion retells the creation story. It takes place just before God said, Let there be light.

The idea is that God was the universe. There was nothing else, no separation. And so, God could not create anything else, but God took up too much room; there was no place for anything else! You can look at our Kiddush table as an example. The tablecloth over the table represents God. There's not room for anything else, except for that tablecloth.

Because God wanted to create the universe, and ultimately human beings, God contracted Godself in order to make room. This process is the tsimtsum that I mentioned. God contracted Godself into 10 vessels. At this point, there was now space, metaphysically speaking of course, to begin the process of creation.

Put another way, God took a step back.


None of us have all the answers. NONE of us. We need so many experiences and relationships to help us on our way. We need to be told from time to time that we're going to burn ourselves out. We need Shabbat. And like God, we need the humility to sometimes stand back and make room for something else.


All of this brings us to this pivotal moment at Mount Sinai, hearing the 10 commandments.

The ten commandments, the mitzvot and the Torah are a means by which each of us can step back from ourselves, performing the same tsimtsum that God enacted in the very beginning. We take one step backward, and then, using the Ten Commandments and the Torah, take another step forward, toward holiness. Shabbat Shalom.

Which Hand Will You Pick? (Mishpatim)

Every Tradition Begins with a New Idea (Open House Shabbat)