Two weeks ago, I had the intention on starting a new sermon series. It was Parashat Bo, and two years – according to the Hebrew calendar, that is – since I had first preached on a ‘novel coronavirus’ that had put a Chinese city in lockdown. For two years, our Jewish communities have been tested in new-to-us ways that we had not envisioned and I wanted to craft a series on how Judaism can add meaning and courage to our lives as we navigate the latest iteration of the pandemic. ‘The Torah asks of us: how can we build resilience to the recurring crises of our world?’
This was the question that I wanted to use as a prompt to explore various aspects of Jewish living over the next few weeks. And in my Google Docs, I had already made a note of the next topic: prayer. What would have been a more perfect Parashah than Parashat Yitro to explore the complexity and experience of Jewish prayer?
Then, last Shabbat, I found myself anxiously praying indeed, and reciting Psalm 142 while nervously tracking the news in real time. ‘Holy One’, I prayed, ‘may You give the hostages courage and calm and soften the heart of the gunman, that my colleague and his congregants may be delivered from this mortal peril.’ ‘Tza’akti eleicha Adonai, amarti ata machsi chelki be’eretz ha’chaim; hakshivah el rinati ki daloti me’od hatzileini merod’fai ki amtzu mimeini’ – ‘So I cry to You, o Eternal, I say, ‘You are my refuge, all I have in the land of the living; listen to my cry for I have been brought very low; saved from my pursuers, for they are too strong for me.’ (Psalm 421:6-7)
As the light faded on Saturday evening, our worries increased until we learned that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants had indeed delivered themselves from mortal peril, and law enforcement had provided them with protection and support.
A week has passed. A week of processing, scrambling, evaluating safety procedures, reflecting. A week of conversations between rabbis and our partners in lay leadership. A week of talks between Jewish parents and their children. A week of prayers and vigils, of tears and anger, of support and solidarity. A week of difficult, complex emotions and challenging, real world implications. An utterly exhausting week for so many of us.
Now, we find ourselves anchored again by another Shabbat. Parashat Yitro, that lofty Torah portion that in some ways represents the pinnacle of the Torah’s narrative: Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Ten Utterances; our great gift to the families of the earth. And we are left wondering how we can answer that question of Jewish resilience in the face of this all?
Let’s take a different route, the road less travelled and leave Revelation for what it is—for now. If we hearken back to last week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, we read the story of the attack of the Amalekites, told at the very end of the text, almost like an afterthought. The Children of Israel have been redeemed from enslavement and taken through the Sea of Reeds. Only later, during the start of their wilderness sojourns are they confronted with hope followed by hardship: the Amalekites strike them in the rear end. Between and betwixt their enslavers and their enemies at first battle, this fledgling nation encounters the hostilities that our people have known so well, for thousands of years. The ideology that guided antisemites from that day on to a Texan suburban Shabbat is the spirit of Amalek. It is a hard and bitter truth to face, during the biting winter season, when we move through the Jewish calendar that gives us Antiochus, Haman and Pharaoh. Indeed, last week’s Parashah tells us that God instructs Moses to ‘inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it around to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!.. Adonai will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.’ (Ex. 17:14-16) It is not surprising that Amalek has become the paradigm for all antisemites and Jew-haters, from Haman the Agagite to our day.
Last Shabbat, we were again forced to confront a new and perilous iteration of this ancient hatred. It is hard, frightful and isolating. It is lonely and infuriating. It is defeating and nihilistic. Whatever each of us may feel about the Colleyville hostage-taking or the rise in antisemitism in general, we are allowed to feel it. We must claim the space to feel it. And stake out the opportunity to sit with it and process it. My brothers and sisters, my siblings of the covenant; we are still in that moment of processing it.
It must have been the same for Moses and his people; the disillusionment so fresh after their redemption. The Torah acknowledges this pain in this week’s Parashah: Yitro. Immediately after, with the opening of chapter 18, we read: ‘Vayishma Yitro Kohen Midian choten Mosheh et kol asher asah Elohim l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo ki hotzi Adonai et Yisrael mi’Mitzrayim.’ ‘Yitro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, God’s people, how the Eternal had brought Israel out of Egypt.’
Keen rabbinic eyes have noticed: what was it that Yitro ‘heard’? The tradition gives two possibilities: the splitting of the Sea of Reeds or the battle with Amalek. Yitro would be destined to be one the few Gentiles after who a Torah portion is named, alongside Noach (before the Abrahamic covenant) and Balak (a hostile Moabite king). The Etz Haim commentary wants us to know that ‘…the Sages understand that the Torah reports this event right after the encounter with Amalek to assure us that not all Gentiles are wicked enemies of Israel. Although there are Amalekites, there are also Jethro’s (Ibn Ezra)’.
Yitro is a remarkable character both in spiritual gifts and leadership potential. There are many enticing and surprising Midrashim that develop his character but in summary, the rabbinic tradition has a vested interest in turning Yitro into a righteous proselyte, a convert. While there is no direct evidence for that in the Biblical text, it is clear that his attachment to the Jewish people is both authentic and profound. Only a few verses later, we learn ‘and Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that Adonai had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians. Blessed be Adonai, Jethro said, who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh… Now I know that Adonai is greater than all gods…’ The Rabbinic tradition is intent on reading this as Yitro’s, well, ‘Beit Din statement.’
For the purpose of this sermon, I’m not actually interested in Yitro’s Jewish identity. I am more interested in his proximity to our community and the powerful connection and healing we can experience through Yitro’s model. See—Yitro wasn’t just wise and discerning; he was compassionate and kind. And not only that; he intimately tried to understand and lift the burdens of our people. He shifted the weight off Moses’ shoulders, lightened the load of leadership and brought love and resilience to a bruised and traumatized people that made them able, only a few chapters later, to receive the transformative, humanitarian truth of Torah. This portion teaches us not that Amalek and Yitro are a binary but that they are a continuum. Both the threat and the humanity of living in a majority Gentile world are real. Yitro invites us to consider the alternatives to fear and hatred, not through naive idealism but through genuine committed concern and solidarity.
This week has seen solitude for many of us; this idea that we Jews dwell alone, in some sense, a sentiment echoed later in the Torah. But this is the Parashah that balances that truth. We are called to be a ‘mamlechet kohanim’ and an ‘am kadosh’, a ‘Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.’ We are borne on eagles’ wings. Or, to put it in the last verse of the very Psalm I recited, Psalm 142, ‘hotziah mimasger nafshi l’hodot et shemecha…’ – ‘Free me from prison, that I may praise Your name.’ Yitro shows us a map on how to just be, how to process trauma and then move from the night into the dawn, to strengthen the bonds internally in our own covenant-community and with the righteous of all nations who work towards Jewish flourishing and common human redemption. Yitro gave the Jewish people the gift of resilience; it is a gift that each of us can give ourselves. It is the offering of our heart that will lead to deliverance and freedom, and a world where we get to be Jewish on our own terms, with love and joy.