The world seems to be very us-and-them these days, especially regarding the war in Gaza. Whether on social media, in our schools, in our houses of worship, or even in our families, we sometimes feel more polarized than ever. As we become firmer in our beliefs — and others become firmer in theirs — we feel isolated and lonely. We find it difficult and often insulting that some of our friends do not see our point of view. As a result, even after trying to convince them of our point of view, some of us may have even lost friends.
In our Torah portion this week we are introduced to Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who was not Jewish. The Torah describes how Yitro came toward Moshe, bringing Moshe’s family with him. In turn, Moshe greeted Yitro and shared with him all the hardships of the Israelites and “how the Lord had delivered them” (Exodus 18:8). Yitro responded by rejoicing over how God redeemed the Israelites. Eventually, after watching how Moshe alone adjudicated the judicial cases of his people, Yitro also gave him a lesson in delegation.
In this short but meaningful passage, through the relationship of Yitro and Moshe, the Torah teaches us about what it means to learn from the other and be together with one another, despite our differences.
When many of us think of Yitro, we think about how he taught Moshe about delegation. We use this story to talk about the importance of interfaith relations and how we can learn from people of other backgrounds.
But the story goes in the other direction as well. According to Rashi (11th-12th century France), when Moshe recounted to Yitro the experiences of the Israelite people — the good and the bad — what he really was doing was “drawing his heart nearer to the Torah.” Moshe wanted to share with Yitro more details about the values of our people. How lovely.
So here we have a symbiotic relationship between Yitro and Moshe. Despite their differences, they can learn from one another. But their relationship goes even further.
According to Gersonides (13th-14th century France), Yitro heard about how God meted out plagues on Egypt, how the firstborn were killed, and how the Israelites took the spoils of the Egyptians — and therefore initially Yitro thought that these actions were unjust. However, says Gersonides, once Moshe shared more details with Yitro about Pharaoh’s decisions and how God intervened, only then did Yitro agree that God acted justly. In other words, by meeting Moshe and listening to what he had to say, Yitro changed his own feelings regarding God’s plagues upon Egypt. He changed his mind!
But how did it all start?
It all started when Yitro came closer to Moshe and Moshe came closer to Yitro. It all started by just coming together.
In November, my community held an interfaith vigil after the attacks on October 7. It was led by clergy members of all faiths in our town. We knew it would be a precarious gathering, that we could not take a political stand on any issue, lest we marginalize one group of people in town over the other. And we had an important question to answer: Is there value in just gathering together to support one another as members of the same community? Is there value in coming together to say that we care about others even if we may not agree — or even if we don’t even know the positions of other community members regarding the war in Gaza? Is it possible to create a safe space for all our community members?
We decided that we would try. And because we did, I can honestly say that it was likely the most meaningful gathering our interfaith group has ever sponsored. We started by making broad statements about what we agreed upon. We condemned terrorism and all forms of hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia. We named the nuances. And, most importantly, we showed that we cared. As a Jew, it felt good to hear from my Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Baha’i friends: “We care.” Even if they didn’t know what to say beyond that, a hug from them felt transformative to my healing.
If the goal of gathering with others in interfaith settings is to convince them that we are right and they are wrong, then we’ve got it wrong. The goal is not to get them to “side” with us, even if we would love for that to happen eventually. Rather, the power of interfaith community-building in such a scenario like this is in the coming together — in and of itself. Anything that happens beyond that is a bonus.
It’s so easy to “de-friend,” “un-follow,” or “block” someone out of our life. And sometimes someone’s actions may warrant this decision, when they make us feel unsafe or say things that cross a line. On the other hand, it’s a lot harder to say: “Hey, I don’t know if we’ll see eye to eye, but let’s just get together and talk about it. Let’s just show we care about one another.”
We may not be able to convince others to agree with our views on Israel — or on anything, for that matter. But, like Yitro and Moshe, we can nonetheless take that one first, brave, but very holy step of just moving toward…the other.