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Parshat Yitro

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

Taking Advice from an in-law

There are six parshiot (Torah portions) named after individuals. (See if you can name them. The answer is at the bottom of this section.).We first encounter Yitro as Moshe’s father-in-law in chapter three of Shemot. Moshe ask permission to return from Midian to free his kinspeople, and Yitro immediately agrees. Now, hearing what has transpired, he brings Moshe’s wife and two sons with him to meet up with the escaping Isralites.

The “mission of Israel” as articulated by the prophets, is to be a “light unto the nations”. Here in our parshah, after Yitro hears a description of the events, he celebrates the goodness that HaShem has done, and declares “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them.

עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-גָדוֹל יְהוָה מִכָּל-הָאֱלֹהִים: כִּי בַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם

Is Yitro the first among the nations to learn of and recognize HaShem? Probably not. After the war of the kings (Breshit, Chapter 14) Melchizedek King of Salem offers bread and wine, then says: ‘Blessed be Abram of G-d Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be G-d the Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ But Yitro has heard of signs and wonders greater than anything Melchizedek saw in his time; the liberation of a people. Like Melchizedek, Yitro also brings an offering; in this case two different sacrifices.

Yitro also makes a lasting contribution to the embryonic Israelite people, suggesting to Moshe that he institute of system of judges to handle the caseload of the people. What is often overlooked is that Yitro not only mentions a numeric organization – thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, but specifies judicial characteristics as well. He tells Most the judges should be “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain” (Shemot 18: 21). When we think about the intersection of religious values and the larger society in which we live, this might be a good place to start.

We might also think about Yitro’s contribution when wrestling with the concept of “chosen people”. This was never meant to suggest that Israel (us) is greater than any other people. We would not have become who we are as a people without the contributions of many fellow travelers and admirers. Indeed, we have a long history of borrowing from the surrounding culture and making something “our own.”

Davar Acher: (Literally “another matter”; it is a way of announcing a change of subject) It is challenging and provoking to be joyfully telling the story of our people’s liberation at a time when so many around the world are not free. We are commanded to tell the story of our liberation. Why? In gratitude, but also as a reminder to pay attention to those who are crying out, just as HaShem heard our ancestors (us) when they (we) cried out.

Whether it is refugees in Darfur or from other political conflicts, or outnumbered Tibetans, or women and minorities in the Middle East without rights, homeless on our streets, we should each involve ourselves in hearing the crying out of another, and of course, responding as best we can. This is, in essence, what Rabbi Hillel taught while standing on one foot.

Shabbat Shalom

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