This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, is remarkable. Only six Torah portions (out of a total of 54) are named for one of the individuals advancing the drama within its text. So for any Torah portion to carry the name of a person is quite unique. Yet this week’s portion isn’t just any portion. This is the portion in which Israel stands at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses receives none other than the Ten Commandments. This is the Torah portion to which every other portion in the Book of Exodus, and arguably, all of the covenanting stories of Genesis, have led thus far. This is the portion that contains the pinnacle experience of Revelation. And this portion, of all portions, is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro) — a non-Israelite, Midianite priest.
What does Jethro do that is so noteworthy for which he merits such an honor not only within biblical tradition, but also in the later tradition that assigned names to the Torah portions? According to the Midrash, Jethro had been looking out for Moses ever since he was a baby in Pharaoh’s palace:
“And she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter,” etc. (Exod. 2:10). Pharaoh’s daughter used to kiss and hug Moses, loved him as if he were her own son, and would not allow him out of the palace. Because he was so handsome, everyone was eager to see him, and whoever saw him could not turn his eyes away from him. Pharaoh also used to kiss and hug him, and Moses used to grab Pharaoh’s crown and put it on his own head. The magicians of Egypt sitting there said, “We fear this one who grabs your crown and puts it on his head may be the one, as we have been saying, who will take your kingdom away from you.” Some of the magicians suggested that he be slain, others that he be burned alive. But Jethro, who sat among them, said, “This child has yet no understanding.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:26) The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, Hayim Nahum Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (eds.), translated by William G. Braude, p. 60.
Jethro, according to the midrash, then devised a test that — while leading to the lifelong speech impediment for Moses — more importantly, successfully saved his future son-in-law’s life.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jethro once again rescues Moses from hardship. When Jethro hears of all the Israelites have been through in their escape from Egypt, all the wonders and marvels God has done for them, he sets out to meet Moses in the wilderness. There he finds his son-in-law overwhelmed by all of the responsibility and burden he shoulders. “Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening” (Ex. 18:13). So Jethro gives his son-in-law some advice: Develop leaders who can help you; cultivate others who can share some of your burden. You cannot do all that needs to be done alone.
It is good, sound advice — in fact, the training program for associate and assistant camp directors through the Foundation for Jewish Camp is called the “Yitro [Jethro] Leadership Program” to this day. And to Moses’ credit, he takes it. Rabbi Pinchas Peli teaches:
The greatness of Moses is also seen in the fact that unlike many leaders who invite expert consultants to advise them and then file away their reports, Moses immediately implemented Jethro’s plan. ... The Torah tells us that Moses welcomed the suggestions made by his father-in-law. He was not afraid to admit that even he, the celebrated leader and teacher, could learn a thing or two. (Pinchas H. Peli, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture [Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005], p.73)
Jewish tradition may put Moses up on a pedestal, as Deuteronomy tells us, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses,” (Deut. 34:10). But Moses had enough humility not to step onto the pedestal himself. He remained open and willing to learn from everyone — from the Blessed Holy One to a Midianite priest.
Later in Parashat Yitro, the Ten Commandments are revealed to Moses and the Israelites. Midrash teaches that Torah was given in the wilderness, as opposed to the future Promised Land, in order to teach that this sacred tradition belongs to anyone willing to heed its teaching and take its instruction to heart. Yet perhaps the anonymity of the wilderness also served to teach that Torah can be found anywhere — indeed it can be found everywhere and with everyone. If we’re open to hearing it, every person has their Torah to teach.
Whether by the hand of Moses or the mouth of Jethro; whether in our own home communities, or among people and places half a world away; whether we are actively seeking guidance or wise counsel finds its way to us unsolicited — may we, like Moses, be open and attentive to the many sources of learning and inspiration all around us.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.
“Oh my goodness, you’re Jewish? I love Jews. Y’all are God’s chosen people.”
Spending my formative years in Texas, I often heard this from classmates, teachers, and others who happened to notice the colorful Star of David necklace I wore throughout high school. These interactions made me incredibly uncomfortable, but not because I was ashamed of my Judaism. Rather, growing up in Reform synagogues and summer camps, this notion of chosenness rarely came up, and universalism was always emphasized over particularism. I simply did not know how to respond.
Yet, the notion of Jewish chosenness is there in its clearest iteration in Parashat Yitro. As the Israelites stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in the preamble to the smoke and fire and blaring of the shofar, the drama of Revelation, and of matan Torah, “the gift of Torah,” God speaks to the people through Moses, saying:
“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex.19:5)
Given that choseness is such a foundational concept, what purpose does it serve? How do we reconcile this with the values of inclusion, acceptance, and recognizing the inherent divinity in each and every person? Would Judaism still be Judaism without chosenness?
Some of the very people credited for foundational thinking of Reform and other progressive approaches to Judaism have determined that chosenness can — and maybe should — be left by the wayside. Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century philosopher, whose work sparked the Haskalah, “the European Jewish Enlightenment,” sought to downplay Jewish chosenness and peoplehood, seeking evidence within the tradition to encourage assimilation into the broader society and lifting up the universal as the way forward for the Jewish people (see Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion). More recently, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement and author of Judaism as a Civilization, insisted that any references to chosenness be removed from Reconstructionist liturgy, as they might draw accusations of claiming racial or national superiority.
On the other hand, there are those who maintain that any link to racial or national supremacy is a gross misreading of the text. Rather, they see chosenness as inextricable from Judaism and as designating a special role for Jews in God’s world. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the first President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), taught that the Jewish people has a unique mission:
“...to speak for justice and righteousness, not only because, as history has tragically demonstrated, we are the first victims of injustice, but rather because the Torah confronts us with a moral task which insists that we bring ever nearer the Kingdom of heaven and earth.” (The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, 1966, p. 121).
According to Rabbi Eisendrath We are chosen to be God’s partners in the ongoing work to build a more perfect world, for us and for everyone.
Others, like Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain from 1967 to 1991, argue that yes, the Jews were chosen for a purpose, but so were other peoples for their other respective purposes. He wrote:
“I believe every people, and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual, is ‘chosen’ or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. ... The Jews were chosen by God… as the pioneers of religion and morality.” (The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, 1966. P. 111)
Particularistic as this idea sounds, the fact that 54% of the world’s population today, almost 4 billion people, identifies with one of the Abrahamic faith traditions with roots in the Hebrew Bible — Judaism, Islam, or Christianity — shows that Jakobovits has a point: Judaism has been incredibly influential, and the influence of biblical and Jewish legal text and ethics extends well beyond self-identified Jews, and has arguably changed the world.
Still, others see the notion of chosenness not in the Jews’ special contributions to the rest of the world, but rather in Jews’ unique responsibility to one another. The Vilna Gaon, 18th century Talmudist and foremost thinker of non-Chasidic Orthodoxy, taught:
“No one can by [themselves] observe all the commandments, for some are addressed to priests, others to women, to owners of fields and houses, and so forth. Only all of Israel together can do God’s will completely, hence [we read], ‘all the people answered as one.’” (W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed, The Torah: A Modern Commentary [NY:UAHC, 1981] p. 530)
According to the Vilna Gaon, the Jewish people is set apart in that our covenant with God can only be fulfilled by being together, in community. The values that drive the Jewish people toward justice and concern for those in need — expressed constantly in prayer, study, and ritual — are essential to what Jewish feminist theologian, Judith Plaskow calls, “Jewish self-understanding.” These are not just values, but the hallmarks of Jewish individual and communal identity.
Over the course of history, peoples have risen and fallen, come and gone, and contributed to the world in myriad ways. Yet the Jews remain, and continue to pass the gift or Torah on to the next generation, while contributing to the ongoing process of Revelation, interpreting the text, and showing its eternal relevance. It’s true that we face threats and acts of violence that may lead us to downplay our identity and opt instead to assimilate and blend in. But just as the Israelites were chosen for Torah and bound by its commandments, transforming them from slaves and wanderers into a singular people, so too have we been chosen for the lessons and blessings of Torah, and for the sacred obligation to be a people, chosen to choose each other.
Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508-565; Revised Edition, pp. 468-506
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 407-426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710-713; Revised Edition, pp. 507-509