Skip to main content

Blessed be the USA

Although the names given to the Torah portions convey little if anything about their content, it is fascinating to discover that this week’s reading, containing the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is named for Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, Yitro. Very few portions are even named for a person. They are Noah, Hayyei Sarah, Korah, Balak and Pinhas. Like Yitro, Noah and Balak are not Israelites. Noah, however, precedes the Torah’s division of the world into Israelite and non-Israelite.

Moreover, Balak and Yitro descend from Israel’s enemies. And yet both offer words of blessing. Balak provides us with the well-known morning prayer, Mah Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24) This week we read, “Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. Yitro then said, ‘Blessed be the Lord.’” (Exodus 18)

Even though the ancient rabbis did not ascribe meaning to the names of the portions—they are mere locater words so that the portion can be found in the Torah scroll—this week we are made to wonder. Does their choice to begin the reading with the words, “And Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done...” imply greater meaning?

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that Yitro’s recognition of God’s power comes to teach us that not every gentile is our enemy. Coming on the heels of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites this passage serves as a reminder that everyone is not like Amalek. The world is not divided into us and them, Israelites and Amalekites. Ibn Ezra writes, “Although there are Amaleks, there are also Yitros.”

Everyone is not our enemy. In fact, our seeming enemies can sometimes offer truths that we cannot even see in ourselves. Those who appear to be our enemies may in fact be our friends, and even our family. Is this the underlying message of Balak and Yitro? Is this what our ancient rabbis wish to convey by beginning the revelation at Mount Sinai with Yitro’s words?

I take notice. I heed their hidden exhortation. I reflect on our own age. When political affiliations appear to serve as people’s primary identification, we would do well to remember this timeless lesson. We are not Democrats and Republicans, but Americans. We are indeed one family. We are at our best when we can likewise affirm this.

Blessed be the United States of America.

“Blessed be the Lord.”