Thursday, February 13, 2020

Father in Law Knows Best

One could argue that this week’s Torah reading containing the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, is the most important of portions. And yet is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. This seems curious. Why would the portion be called Yitro?

One answer is that the names of the portions have nothing to do with their content or meaning. The names are instead the portion’s first most important, or unique, word. The reading is never named for Moses for example because his name appears too frequently. The portion’s names are designed so that the Torah reader can more easily find the beginning of the reading. This is no easy task in a scroll that of course has no pages, but even more significantly no punctuation.

Then again, the rabbis, when dividing the yearly Torah reading into portions, could have begun this week’s reading with the following chapter, Exodus 19, in which the details of the revelation are described. Instead they begin a chapter earlier with the words: “Vayishma Yitro…Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel.” (Exodus 18)

The question therefore remains. Why begin the portion with Yitro? Why name the most significant of readings with Moses’ father-in-law’s name? There must be a reason. Nothing is by chance. Moreover, Yitro is not even Jewish. He is a priest to the Midianites, a future enemy of Israel.

Perhaps Yitro’s words come to remind us that wisdom comes from many sources. It does not always arrive as revelation. It does not just come as Torah from Sinai! In addition, Yitro comes to balance the concluding lesson of last week when we read about Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy. Everyone who is not Jewish is not our enemy. In fact, some are family. How quickly we forget. Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law. All are not Amalek.

We look to Yitro’s words for meaning. He shouts God’s praises. After Moses recounts all that God did for Israel by freeing them from Egyptian slavery and rescuing them at the Sea of Reeds, Yitro proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord!” He is therefore among the first to use our prayer book’s formulation, “Baruch Adonai.” The rabbis find this quite remarkable. How could Yitro offer words that neither Moses nor the people Israel say? “How shameful that Moses, and the 600,000, did not use phrase!” they remarked. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 94)

In their harsh judgment of Moses and the people they may have missed the most important of teachings. The nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe, Shlomo of Radomsk, reminds us that the Israelites praised God for what God did for them at the Sea of Reeds. Yitro, on the other hand, shouted God’s blessings and praises, for what God did for others.

It is easy, and to be expected, to give thanks for the blessings we receive. The greater faith is to rejoice in the blessings of others.

Such is the teaching revealed by someone other than Moses and someone who we first expect to be wholly other. Yitro, the priest of Midian, teaches.

The more profound faith is to see the gifts others receive not as the occasion for our own diminishment but instead as moments for our own rejoicing and celebrating.

Blessed be Yitro’s teaching.

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