January 19, 2011
What Is in a Name?
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Who is wise? Where is wisdom? It is easy for us to answer simply and elegantly, “Wisdom is in the Torah.” Perfect! Because the Torah, in this week’s parasha, offers the wisdom that all of God’s creations, particularly our friends and neighbors, can be a source of great insight, of wisdom — if only we know enough to listen.
The early rabbis who established the division of the weekly portions could begin a parasha at any point. It is telling that Yitro, which includes the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai, begins where it does. Not with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, but with a moment nearly as miraculous — a son-in-law, Moses, actually taking advice from his father-in-law, Jethro.
This parasha is not only an example of good relations between machatunim (in-laws) as well as between Jews and non-Jews (Jethro is a Midianite priest), but it also reminds us that not all wisdom comes directly from God.
As the Israelites pass through to the other side of the Red Sea and set up camp, Jethro, who has been charged with protecting Moses’ wife and two sons, returns and escorts them back to the camp. Moses greets his father-in-law and takes him back to his tent to tell him everything that has happened to the Israelites in their escape from Pharaoh and Egyptian bondage. Upon hearing Moses recount the events of the Exodus, Jethro is in awe of what he hears and proclaims: “Baruch Hu” (blessed be God).
Jethro is the first person in the Torah to use this awesome phrase, which we repeat in every service throughout the year. He goes on to praise God and, based on these miracles, he believes that the God of Israel is greater than all other Gods. And even though he is a Midianite priest, Jethro makes a sacrifice to Adonai as an offer of thanksgiving for saving Moses and his people.
Pretty surprising, but what happens next is maybe even more unexpected.
The next day, Moses takes Jethro out to see him work. Jethro watches Moses judging the people and dealing with their disputes from morning to night. Afterward, Jethro says to Moses, perhaps as only a father-in-law can say to his son-in-law, “Why do you act alone? You’ll wear yourself out, and these people as well.” He tells Moses, “The task is too heavy for you — you can’t do it alone,” and advises him to set up a system of lower courts to hear the smaller cases.
The Mishnah asks: Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.
Jethro’s otherness is not an impediment to wisdom, insight or affinity for his people — rather it is an attribute. This is the lesson of this week’s parasha and why it bears Jethro’s name.
Jethro cares about this people, admires our God and, because he is an outsider to the camp, he sees things Moses does not and can give advice Moses doesn’t hear from anyone else. His voice and insight are crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. And, credit to Moses, he does not dismiss Jethro because he is not literally an MOT (member of the tribe) — he hears and he listens.
Jethro teaches us that there is plenty of room for human innovation and wisdom when it comes to bringing Torah to the world. Lo bashamayim he (it is not in heaven), we read later in the Torah. The answers are not mysteries, hidden beyond our comprehension; they are here in the world for us to uncover, explore and understand.
The story of Jethro, placed as it is before the giving of Torah, reminds us that Torah is not the only source of wisdom in the world. Human beings have wisdom as well.
The fact that the source of this wisdom and insight was from outside the Jewish people only goes to further enhance the possibilities for learning from “the other” and benefiting from wisdom in other cultures and peoples. As it says in Midrash Tanchuma 4, “Why is he called Yitro (from the root YTR, to add)? Because he added something to the Torah.”
Jethro reminds us that Torah is not only the voice of God but also the voice of people. At its core, the Torah is a dialogue between God and the people, not a one-way conversation of proclamations and declarations. The people have a voice, they respond, they question and they illuminate answers. Like any conversation, if we only listen to one side then we are not listening at all. All of God’s creations, particularly our friends and neighbors, can be a source of great insight, of wisdom — if only we do as Moses did and hear what they have to say.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana.