Decimation and Affirmation: A Tale of Two Non-Israelites

Beshallah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jan 30, 2013 / 5773 | A Taste of Torah

The opening of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro, stands in stark contrast to the conclusion of last week’s parashah, Beshallah. In both narratives we are introduced to powerful non-Israelites. At the close of Parashat Beshallah, we are chilled by the brutality of Amalek in his brazen attempt to annihilate the newly freed Israelites as they journey from Egypt. Now, Torah provides the tikkun or antidote to Amalek in the person of Jethro. Jethro, or Yitro in Hebrew, is the father-in-law of Moses, and a Midianite priest. Exodus 18 opens, “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” Jethro then goes on to bless the God of Israel and advise his son-in-law on issues of leadership. Amalek seeks destruction; Jethro desires construction. Jethro is wholly life affirming. So what is it that Jethro hears that propels him to leave Midian and join the Israelites?

Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, writes that Jethro had heard about “the splitting of the Reed Sea and battle with Amalek.” Why does Rashi isolate these two events? Rav Shmuel Avidor HaCohen explains,

[O]ne must pay attention to the nature of both of these events. The splitting of the sea was, at its essence, a miraculous deed—supernatural and performed by God, the Redeemer of Israel. There is a completely different quality rooted in the battle with Amalek. Here too we see the hand of God, but more than that we see Joshua choosing soldiers and going out to wage war in an effort to weaken Amalek and defeat him. This was a military victory for Israel. If Jethro had heard only of the splitting of the sea or only of the war with Amalek, perhaps he would not have been moved to join the Israelites . . . One must assume it was the combination of the both of these events, God’s power and the gumption of the Israelites, that compelled him to leave home and celebrate with the children of Israel.” (Likrat Shabbat [in Hebrew], 72)

Avidor HaCohen teases out the essence of Rashi’s commentary. What impresses Jethro so deeply is both the power of God and the strength of humanity as shown by the Israelites. God bestowed miraculous blessings on the Israelites in freeing them from Egypt. And the Israelites rose to the occasion of redeeming themselves when faced with another enemy in the person of Amalek. Notably, it takes an “outsider” to the Israelite community to point out the gifts with which they are blessed. Jethro is truly an inspiration—in the eyes of the Israelites, in the eyes of Rashi, and in our own eyes today.

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