A Lesson in Interreligious Dialogue

Yitro By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jan 15, 2014 / 5774

If one were asked to identify the most central parashah to Israelite identity and to Judaism, one would certainly point to Parashat Yitro, which describes the moment of revelation at Sinai. This experience transforms a band of former slaves into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” For this reason, it is surprising that this is one of the few parashiyotcarrying the name of a non-Israelite. Jethro (Yitro), the esteemed father-in-law of Moses, makes his substantive debut at the opening of this Torah reading. And while we often praise the advice he gives his son-in-law to delegate legal responsibilities, an earlier, more subtle comment often goes unnoticed: while Moses, in recounting the story of leaving Egypt, emphasizes the defeat of the Egyptians (Exod. 18:8), Jethro places his praise elsewhere—the deliverance of the Israelites (Exod. 18:1). How may we learn from Jethro’s words and wisdom?

Professor Ze’ev Falk elaborates,

Parashat Yitro expresses a striking alternative to that which appears in the Song of the Sea: “The nations hear, they tremble” (Exodus 15:14). Here, in this parashah, is described a positive relationship from the angle of non-Israelite nations toward ‘choosing’ Israel . . . Jethro emphasizes “all that God has done for Moses and the Israelites,” while Moses, in his telling of the narrative, underscores what “God has done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.” For Jethro, the priority is that the Israelites were saved; for Moses, his emphasis is on the defeat of the enemy. This response is typical of one that has been saved from a life-threatening situation, delivered out of the hands of the enemy. It is out of his personal suffering that Moses narrates his story . . . even though Jethro’s question is simply with regard to their rescue. (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 155)

While Professor Falk is psychologically astute in acknowledging Moses’s response, he is also exceedingly sensitive in underscoring the import of Jethro’s words and behavior. Defeat of the enemy is crucial, but more important is saving a nation entrusted with a sacred mission. Not only does Jethro bless the Israelite God for having rescued these lives, but he also offers sacrifices (Falk notes, too, that this is tantamount to making a covenant with the Israelites). Simple, wise actions and words by a non-Israelite compel Moses and us to eschew celebrating the destruction of another people and to look forward—affirming life and building (prefiguring the teaching that “one should not rejoice at the downfall of one’s enemy” (Prov. 24:17). Perhaps naming the parashah after a non-Israelite is a deliberate message from the Rabbis. Juxtaposed to the oppressive Egyptians, Jethro presents us with a caring and inspiring model, reminding us that relationships among Jews and non-Jews are a blessing to us and to the world.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.