Three years ago, my wife, Miriam, and I traveled to Italy. While the art of Florence, architecture of Sienna, and vistas of San Gimignano overwhelmed the imagination and tantalized the senses, our most meaningful experience of that trip occurred in Rome. With only one day to visit the sites of this ancient city, a very special shidukh was arranged between us and a Jesuit priest, Father John Navone (American by birth with deep family roots in Italy). As we quickly discovered, Father Navone knows every nook and cranny of this city that is so beloved to him and his family. He exuded not only a special affection for Italy but also a love for humanity.
Over the course of the day we spoke about our paths to religious devotion, Italian history and architecture, and points of contact between Italian and Jewish culture. Attentive to our interests, Father Navone showed us a number of Jewish sites as well. For a culinary break, we ate lunch at a fine kosher restaurant in what used to be the Jewish ghetto. We spoke of Buber and Heschel over lunch and just as we finished, Miriam and I explained the significance of Birkat HaMazon, the blessing over the meal. As we recited this expression of gratitude for the meal, tears welled up in Father Navone’s eyes. (We were concerned he would be restless — it was Rosh Hodesh and the birkat hamazon was extra long!) However, just as we finished, Father Navone explained how meaningful it had been for him to hear a prayer of thanksgiving in Hebrew — the language which represents the origin of his religious tradition as well. Rarely had Miriam and I stepped back to reflect on and appreciate the gift ofBirkat Hamazon — rarely had we reflected on this gift of blessing. And here we were, sitting in the heart of Rome with a Jesuit priest, engaged in one of the most significant ‘I—Thou’ experiences of our lives.
Our parashah this week, Parashat Yitro, named for Jethro, who was a Midianite priest and Moses’ father—in—law, presents us with a similar experience. The Torah narrates, “Moses then recounted to his father—in—law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. ‘Blessed be the Lord,’ Jethro said, ‘who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians…’ (Exodus 18:8—10). Professor Ze’ev Falk, z”l, points out in his commentary that Jethro is responsible for setting “the form of a blessing for praise and thanksgiving.”
Falk continues, “It is interesting that the form of the blessing was invented by a non—Jew and that it was accepted in the Jewish worship of God.” Professor Falk also notes that Jethro is in a long line of non—Jews that bless the God of Israel — No·ah, Melkhizedek, a servant of Abraham, Job, Hiram king of Zur and the Queen of Sheba. “It seems that Scripture wants to connect these blessings to the nations of the world and to their religious leaders so as to underscore that Divine interest includes all of humanity; and that Israel learns from them and turns it into the foundation of their liturgy” (Falk, Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 156). And so while Jewish particularity has the potential to propel us into isolation and a sense of cultural superiority, Jethro and all of his biblical predecessors and successors propel us to think otherwise — to be open to moments of revelation and blessing from the world outside of ours.
Undoubtedly, Jethro heightened Moses’ sense of gratitude and connection to God, just as Father Navone heightened our own spiritual awareness. In this week in which we mark the sacred memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we all become sensitive to the opportunities granted us by other nations and religions of the world to remind us of our own mission — to bless the God of Israel and engage in tikkun olam. Allowing ourselves to be receptive to such experiences will grant us the gift of affirming life. After Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Heschel remarked, “I felt my legs were praying.” May we all be inspired to broaden our definition of “holy encounters.”
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.