Friday, February 17, 2017

Parashat Yitro

    Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Yitro. Most famously the parasha of the Ten Commandments, it also gives a lot of insight into Moses’s domestic life. Yitro or Jethro, for whom the parasha is named, is Moses’s non-Jewish father-in-law, who shows great devotion to Moses and his people. As we know, at this stage in our people’s history, the covenant has mostly been through men. The Israelite men may take wives from other cultures, who are expected to take on Israelite practice and belief in the home. But Moses’s wife, Tzipporah, and her family appear to really embrace Moses’s God in a way the wives and extended families of our earlier Patriarchs didn’t. Tzipporah, on the way to Egypt, circumcised her son herself when Moses failed to perform this sacred task. And now, after the miracles of the Exodus, Jethro, a priest of Midian, a presumably devout follower of his native religion, declares how great Adonai is and offers a sacrifice to God.
    This scene happens at the beginning of the parasha, before the revelation at Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Ten Commandments, so the Kabbalistic resource, the Zohar, tells us from this we know that the Israelites were not fit to receive the Torah until after Jethro acknowledged the greatness of Adonai. Moses values Jethro’s opinions greatly, as we also see in this parasha when Jethro teaches Moses about the importance of democracy and delegating responsibilities. Although Moses was already willing to do as God asked, and although Tzipporah seems to have already long bought into the Israelite faith, they needed Jethro to sanction it as well. Jethro who was “the supreme priest in all the pagan world,” Jethro who was only Moses’s father-in-law and was not going to take on his daughter’s new lifestyle, Jethro who was Moses’s guide in many ways throughout Moses’s personal revelations as the leader of a new people, Jethro was the key to unlock a new standard for our people. The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic stories and explanations on the Bible, explains that Jethro’s behavior in this parasha is the meaning of the verse from Psalms, “Better a close neighbor than a distant brother.” Jethro being the close neighbor, who responds to the great miracles of God and comes to join Moses as he sets out on this journey, and Esau being the distant brother who despite having the opportunity see the divine intervention on Jacob’s part, preferred to keep his distance from his brother and the Israelites.
    After making his sacrifice to God, and giving Moses some advice, Jethro still goes back to Midian and continues his life as before. The family does not get in each others’ ways. This is a good example for how families and communities of mixed faiths or cultures can work together. In the books of Ezra and Nehemia, the stories of the priests who reestablished the Israelite community after the first exile, there is a lot of condemnation of interfaith marriages, particularly between Israelite men and foreign women. This may even be the start of the practice of matrilineal descent, of refocusing the religious inheritance of our people onto the matriarchs of the families instead of the patriarchs, since it seemed that in the time of Ezra and Nehemia, men who married foreign women did not remain committed to their own cultures. While it is still statistically true today that moms get to choose the family religion, we in the Reform movement know that we can follow the models of our Torah patriarchs and embrace patrilineal Jews and interfaith marriages as well. The key, it seems, is to not try to dissuade each other from native faiths, but let each partner stay as fully immersed in their own culture as is comfortable. Why was Moses’s son not already circumcised in Parashat Shemot? Presumably because he was not trying to force anything onto Tzipporah or her children, until she decided for herself it was the right thing for their family. Why does Jethro not follow the Israelites, even after making a sacrifice? Because he still has his own life to live in Midian. Why is Moses so willing to follow Jethro’s advice on how to lead these people when he already has God in his ear? Because this is a family that respects each other. It is an important value to learn. People who share family and community must respect each other, no matter if they have different backgrounds or faiths.
    May we always be willing to acknowledge the divinity in each other, in our families, in our communities, and in our differences, as Jethro and Moses were able to with each other. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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