By Shari Berman
January 29, 2005
Yitro…Jethro…I have been contemplating this parsha for several weeks now. It’s rich with activity and subtext. I’m struck by many aspects of this portion, but my focus has changed over the past week as we are a community in mourning. What can we call upon in Yitro that can give us strength? I believe that some valuable insight can come by looking at the man for whom this portion is named.
The question that always comes up first is why is there a Torah portion named after Jethro? Yitro, choten moshe, by most accounts means Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. Choten moshe, however, can also be translated to mean that Jethro was the brother-in-law of Moses. I will use father-in-law in my discussion, but in either scenario, Yitro is an in-law of Moshe, but not a Hebrew. He is a Medianite priest, or sheik. Moses is a major player in this portion and all of Exodus, yet there is no parsha named after Moshe. So, why Yitro? Yitro was a priest of idolatry. The Torah says of him that he knew all the idols of the world. So here Yitro stands as leader of that which is the farthest away from our core belief. But Yitro is extremely proactive and exerts great influence on us. Yitro is a person of action. And this portion, parshat Yitro has a thread that runs through it that calls our attention to influences from the far margins, from the periphery, from that which is not necessarily Jewish.
To begin with, let me go back through the English rendition of some of the Torah narration you just heard: “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). Vayomer Yitro baruch Adonay And Yitro said blessed be the Lord… Blessed be the Lord…Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Professor Ze’ev Falk, points out in his commentary that Yitro is responsible for setting “the form of a blessing for praise and thanksgiving.” Falk further remarks, “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 Gd.”
In the very next line, Yitro, upon seeing what Gd has done for Moses says “Now I know that Adonai is greater than all the gods.” Yitro has a long background of idol worship, yet he proclaims Adonai’s greatness. It is fair to say that by this time people all over the region have heard of Gd’s deeds and how he delivered the people of Israel from the Egyptians. So what makes Yitro special? Yitro, as I said earlier is a person of action. He speaks out about it, he openly praises Gd and Yitro eventually comes to be a believer in Gd so he goes from a ger v’toshav a friendly sojourner among the Jewish people to a ger tzedek (a righteous convert). In the commentary on Yitro found on the Shema Yisrael Torah Network online, the author, whose name is not given, compares Yitro, this person of action to the average person of inaction. The author cites Proverbs 26:14 As the door turns on its hinges, so does the lazy person on his bed. Like a door that just moves back and forth, many of us barely move and don’t really get anywhere.
Judy and Jerry Rothstein, of blessed memory, were people of action. The newspaper write-ups have repeatedly used the term activist, but I prefer to remember Jerry as a modern-day Yitro, a man of action. Jerry was on the first board for the group that eventually became Kona Beth Shalom. Their son was the first Bar Mitzvah of record on the Big Island. Jerry and Judy were contributing to the community as part of our tu’beshvat celebration last Sunday. The terrible accident that claimed their lives occurred on the heels of sharing in the performing of numerous mitzvoth with our community members that day.
After hearing this tragic news, I could only think about how it is imperative that we live our lives like Judy and Jerry. We need to not be the door hinge, but the Yitro, the one who speaks out, the one who participates. We need to be people of action.
We go on to Reading Two, where Yitro counsels Moshe, who we learn is working himself to the bone as a judge. Yitro points out to Moshe that if he keeps up his current pace of judging and teaching Gd’s ways from morning until night that he will burn out. He tells Moshe that it is necessary for a leader of his importance to delegate responsibility. He suggests that Moshe appoint a number of judges rather than bear the burden alone. Moshe takes Yitro’s advice. Once again, Parshat Yitro teaches about the importance of outside advice.
In the linear version, Parshat Yitro goes on to include Matan Torah. Many find it curious that we have this whole discussion about judgment between Moshe and Yitro before the giving of the law. Some of our sages believe that Yitro actually came to see Moses after the giving of the law at Sinai and this brings up the interesting idea that there is no early or late in Torah, before or after doesn’t matter, Torah transcends time and the Torah is not bound by time.
While we could discuss the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments as we often call this, at great length, I want to go back to our thread about things on the periphery, marginal things. One analysis I read pointed out the language in the beginning of the first commandment. Anochi Adonai Elohecha. I am Gd your lord… Once again we have Anochi, which although similar to the Hebrew word for “I” is actually the Egyptian word for “I. Of the 40 languages of the day, Egyptian was the language considered to be the furthest from the holy language Hebrew. We are back to this theme of Parshat Yitro emphasizing what we can learn from the outside and the fringes.
Perhaps the strongest symbolism we see in the Ten Commandments is that it is a major framework for our lives—some basic rules that teach us to maintain good relationships with our families and others. It is in our darker hours that we long to go back to these basics. In addition to the tragic loss of the Rothsteins, another man in our community, Neil Westreich died this past Monday at his farm in Ocean View. Although Neil was only able to join us occasionally, he is described by his friend Lois-ellin Datta as a thoughtful man, a good man—a spiritual and observant man, who was proud of being Jewish. Neil cared lovingly for his wife and four daughters He was always the first to help others, the last to take any bows. Lois-ellin goes on to say that he will be remembered with grief at his too-early passing, with love for his goodness and spirit.
Although we don’t read the later readings aloud in Hebrew in our congregation, as I mentioned Parshat Yitro is the traditional time to read about the giving of these laws and to say the Ten Commandments out loud. Judi Steinman sent me a lovely Yitro commentary by e-mail from Rabbi Rafael Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein works in a hospital and as his commentary for Yitro this year, he shared a newspaper obituary of the young daughter of a nurse with whom he works. Sarah Beth Thursby passed away last summer of a rare, aggressive cancer. Her mother composed a list entitled: “Things we learned from Sarah.” I would like to read this list and hope that these words of wisdom can soothe our own heavy hearts:
• ONE Accept life as it happens. It is what it is. Banging your head against a wall gives you a headache.
• TWO Chill. Useless energy is best spent petting a dog.
• THREE Love all God’s creatures, especially the small furry ones. All life has inherent worth.
• FOUR Accept yourself as you are. Even bald and yellow.
• FIVE Laugh out loud whenever possible.
• SIX Recognize that there is energy in your hands.
• SEVEN Always have a positive outlook. Negative people are energy suckers.
• EIGHT Enjoy life. Dance if you can. At the very least, move your shoulders.
• NINE Have no enemies.
• TEN Be good to your friends.
• ELEVEN Be patient. It is what it is and takes the time that it does. You’ll get where you’re going anyway.
• TWELVE Make Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” your theme song.
• THIRTEEN Inner strength can come in soft packaging. It is infinitely more durable than a steely exterior.
• FOURTEEN Be calm in a storm. There’s plenty of time to flip out later.
• FIFTEEN Trust that most people are acting with good intentions.
Rabbi Goldstein goes on to say:
I am sharing this list now, because this week’s Torah portion culminates with what we know as the Ten Commandments, the original list of ways we are supposed to live our lives, by establishing and maintaining a good relationship with God, our parents, and with other people. The rabbis didn’t want the Ten Commandments to be holier or more significant than all of our other mitzvot, to be the only rules people might observe. All of the Torah is holy, and all the rest of the mitzvot are important.
I wore this dress today, because the woman who makes them reminded me that this line was one of Judy Rothstein’s favorites. Let us remember our dear departed friends for all of their various mitzvoth. In the past week, I resolved to start my own mini exercise program, which involves several trips up and down my driveway. I have taken to stopping on one of my trips and appreciating my substantial patch of aloe plants. Jerry Rothstein brought those to a friend’s birthday party and insisted that we take them home and plant them. Let us continue to be inspired by these strong people of action that we lost this week.
Mahalo for allowing me to speak here today and Shalom.