On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Yitro: Breaking Down Labels

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, is named for the Midianite Priest, Jethro, and depicts his first encounter with Moses in the desert. The two forge a relationship despite their different faiths and ethnicities, and Moses ends up marrying his daughter, Tziporah. Rabbi Rick Jacobs recounts theirs as well as other interreligious relationships that are depicted in Jewish texts, and he asks us, what can we do to break down ethnic (and other) labels, and build even deeper connections.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Yitro and he asks when and how have you stepped out Bravely? Was it bravery, or just really the right thing to do?

[Rabbi Rick”] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Yitro from the Book of Exodus, named after Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro. I would also just say in terms of some wonderful milestones, this is the beginning of our third year of recording “On the Other Hand.” What an exciting adventure this has been! I was certainly one of the more skeptical people. I said, “Who's going to listen to a podcast every week on the Torah portion”? And the really smart staff here at the URJ, led by a Rabbi Leora Kaye said, “Rick, there will be people who listen.” So thank you, for all of you who have been listening for a while, and some of you who are new to the podcast.

So this Torah portion, named after the Midianite priest who becomes Moses’s father-in-law, is pretty extraordinary, if you think about naming a Torah portion after a Midianite priest. After all, he's the leader of another faith community’s religious work. And it's the Torah portion that talks about the revelation at Mount Sinai. But it's not called “Mount Sinai.” It's not called “Revelation.” It's called Yitro.

Now there are so many different phases of this to think about. Remember the narrative early in the Book of Exodus, you had Moses having to flee Egypt. And he had spoken up and acted with his conscience, and actually had to kill an Egyptian taskmaster. And he flees and he finds refuge by the well -- as it often happens -- and he comes to the aid of the shepherdess, who he doesn't know. But he sees the local shepherds harassing her. He is our guy -- he just steps in and he simply has to help. And as a reward, his father-in-law hears that there's this courageous former Egyptian who showed up and saved the day, and said to his daughter, “Why didn't you invite him in?” So they bring Moses in. Turns out it's not just a moment. It's a life decision -- and he ends up marrying Tziporah. And then of course, you know the rest of the narrative -- he goes back to Egypt and he leads the Jewish people and convinces Pharaoh with the Ten Plagues, and now is heading out and they're making their way through the desert of Sinai.

And that's why we pick up this week's parashah. What's pretty remarkable if you think about it is Moses is a ger, an outsider or a stranger in the land he grew up in, Egypt. He's a stranger, outsider, in Midian where he meets his wife Tziporah. And at the same time, Jethro at times is the outsider and stranger. And I'm just going to share a few insights from an amazing book by Dr. Adriane Levine who teaches at HUC in New York City, [she] teaches Bible. And her book is entitled “Biblical Narratives of Israelites and their Neighbors: Strangers at the Gate.”

She has a whole chapter on Jethro, and amazingly what she points out is that Moses’s actions rather than his ethnic affiliation are the ways he both meets Jethro -- and how Jethro's sees him. So again, a Midianite and an Egyptian, a Midianite and an Israelite. It's really who Moses is, he breaks the stereotypes. He is somebody who, as I described a moment ago, who simply jumps in and helps. And so the Midianite priest named Jethro doesn't see him as any of these labels. He sees a human being. He sees an incredible human being, who now becomes a member of his family.

Conversely, what does Moses see? He sees in the opening of Yitro, he sees not Jethro's affiliation as a Midianite priest. He sees this amazingly wise person who helps give critique and guidance to how he could do his work better, how he could not try to carry the whole load of leading the Jewish people alone, but bring others to help share the judiciary, help share the judging of others. And in the Book of Exodus, in this parashah in particular, you have Moses talking about Jethro not as the Midianite priest -- but eleven times in Chapter 18, he calls Jethro his father-in-law. So already it's taking the other, the stranger, and bringing them into his family. It's amazing.

Now what's the contrast that we need to pay attention to, is later in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 25, all of a sudden, we see that Midianites are fearful people. We have the encounter that Moses is in a sense countering an Israelite who is having a public relationship with a with a Midianite. And it shows, potentially, critique of Moses for marrying a Midianite, but shows that in Jethro's day, Midianites could be friends and allies. But later in the Torah, they become fierce enemies. It makes me think about two things: one, how does it happen that in one amazing sacred text called the Torah, Midianites could be very positive and friendly and warm, and then a few books later can be the arch enemy of the Jewish people? What does it say about non-Jews? What does it say about why, in one moment it's one way, and why in another moment it's another way?

I also think it's a bit of a relationship to intermarriage through these two episodes, Exodus and Numbers, and I think of the book of Esther and the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah. One, Esther, where there is this incredible Queen Esther who marries a non-Jewish King Achashveirosh. It's a very positive narrative about, you know, what sometimes the unfolding of life in the diaspora can be. Ezra and Nehemiah says, you know, you have to get rid of all the foreign wives. So you can have an internal polarity and internal tension. But I want to spend the last moments of the podcast talking about how do we break down ethnic and other labels and just meet people as they are.

So, I read this book over the end of December called “The Fox Hunt.” It's an amazing book. It's the it's a story of a refugee coming to America. His name is Muhammad Al-Samawi. He's from Yemen. And amazingly, he grows up in a very observant Muslim home in Yemen. He actually has a disability which, you know, really tempers a lot of his interactions, but he ends up meeting some Jews and Israelis as part of a larger peace effort. And those relationships end up saving his life when he's trapped in his apartment in Yemen during the Civil War. These people that he denigrated by his education and upbringing because they were other -- Jews were other, Israelis were other, people who worked for interfaith cooperation were other. They saved his life. And amazingly, this Muslim from Yemen becomes deeply, deeply connected to people that he was taught to hate. You, I'm sure, have stories in your own life of people that you've broken down the assumptions. Maybe they see you differently than the label that others would put to you. And I just think Jethro is the model for this. Because he breaks down the label and meets a man named Moses. Moses breaks down the label of Midianite, and meets not only his father-in-law, but his wife. We can do that in this world. And I think that part of what is so powerful about Yitro as a portion and as an example is what's also powerful about Mohammed Al-Samawi. We sometimes can conquer what we've been taught that's negative and limiting, and we can break apart some of those very, very constraining labels, and create relationships that can create a different today and a different tomorrow.

So here's the homework. “Oh no, not homework, Rabbi Jacobs, really? I’ve got, like, a busy life – I don’t have time for homework!”  -- but here's the homework:

Think about when in your life you've met somebody who by virtue of your education, you're not supposed to like. You're supposed to be fearful of, you're supposed to be cautious of, and even rejecting of. And yet, you were able to create a deep relationship that has deeply enriched your life and their life. And let's think about what we can do as people of searching, seeking faith to break down the labels, and to meet people and to build new possibility whether we grow up in Yemen, or we grow up in North America, or any other place. I think Jethro, Yitro, is commanding us, is calling us to break through. I know I have in my life had that experience. I'm pretty certain you have as well, and I'm absolutely convinced that as a people and as a community, that's going to be key to our succeeding and growing and mattering and shaping the future that we need -- in joy.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!