Shabbat Blog: Parshat Yitro

Friday, January 21, 2022
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ לְחֹ֣תְנ֔וֹ אֵת֩ כּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה

Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the LORD had done

וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֮ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

"Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. (Ex. 18: 8-10)

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the fourth Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty sees these verses as a lesson on how to tell a good story.   

He points out that the general practice is to make a blessing on the occurrence of a miracle only when one sees the actual place where the miracle took place. In this case, Jethro after just hearing about the miracles (w/o seeing the place) that God did for the Israelites, blessed God.

Rabbi Alter answers that Moshe told the story so well, with such detail and excitement that Jethro felt that he was actually witnessing the miracle. Rabbi Alter compares it to showing someone a picture of a place the way it looked in the past. It can transport us back.

This is a delightful teaching as it reminds us that the way we tell the story of our values and faith can transform the listener. If we share our thoughts about our religious life with our children by expressing excitement, wonder and that we feel privileged to be Jewish, there is a better chance that our kids will feel the same way.

Bruce Feiler in his book “The Secrets of Happy Families” writes: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Based on an Emory University study, he notes: The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges….” The study leaders “developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”

Feiler goes on to say: “Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that

is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

One of my favorite prayers is this one, which describes Judaism as: “Firm, established and enduring, right, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, pleasant, awesome, mighty, perfect, accepted, good and beautiful is this faith for us forever.”

Telling our family story with purpose and with a focus on the enduring messages and lessons is a way to fortify our family's connection to each other, to our faith and to our people. It is a way to bolster inner strength and to build intergenerational confidence and connections.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said it well when he wrote: “A family narrative connects children to something larger than themselves. It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born. It gives them the starting-point of an identity. That in turn becomes the basis of confidence. It enables children to say: This is who I am. This is the story of which I am a part. These are the people who came before me and whose descendant I am. These are the roots of which I am the stem reaching upward toward the sun.

Family Conversation starters:

  • Spend some time this Shabbat talking with your family about what you love about being Jewish.
  • Share the “ups and downs” of your family story. What did you learn from them? How would you do things differently in hindsight?
  • Create a “Top 10 moments of the XYZ family" and hang it on your fridge.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Gelman

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

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