Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23

Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23

Moses' non-Jewish father-in-law

How are we to understand the legacy of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and the person after whom our Torah portion is named? (For the sake of us Baby-Boomers, we will call him Yitro. The name Jethro, for anyone who grew up watching television during the 1960s, brings to mind Jethro Bodine from “The Beverly Hillbillies” and that takes us in a completely different direction.) Yitro was a man of many names (the Torah also calls him Reuel and Hobab) and many talents. He was a priest of Midian, according to the Torah, and a man of great wisdom, advising Moses on how to handle the many disputes of the people of Israel. Still, first and foremost, to us, Yitro was the father-in-law of Moses and thus Yitro was and is part of our family.

For the ancient rabbis, this special relationship between Yitro and Moses prompted a great deal of speculation. As a member of the mishpocha by marriage and by merit (in addition to helping ease Moses’ burden, Yitro blesses God on hearing of the rescue of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s troops at the Red Sea), the rabbis of the Midrash hold that Yitro actually became a proselyte, that he cast his fate with the Jewish people. Rashi, the great 11th century French expositor of the Torah, teaches in his commentary on our portion that Yitro’s very name bespeaks his conversion to Judaism. His original name Yeter, meaning “added to,” was given an additional letter “vav” when he converted and fulfilled the mitzvot.

Yitro became a Jew. This is an understandable rabbinic leap of imagination. For a pagan to have so fully embraced the God of Israel and the people of Israel, he must surely have become one of us. Still, this “conversion” is not found anywhere in the plain meaning of the Torah text. Yitro was and forever remained a pagan, Moses’ non-Jewish father-in-law, our wise and loving non-Jewish family member.

Perhaps calling Yitro a “non-Jew” is insufficient. For his identity was more meaningful and consequential to us than just being our opposite. Yitro never became a Jew but he came close. Yitro was truly a kerov Yisrael (one who drew near and close to the people of Israel).

Now, at the risk of running rough shod over 3,000 years of Jewish history, let’s move from the time of Moses to our own day. We live among non-Jews as Moses lived among non-Jews. And we marry non-Jews, as Moses married a non-Jew. And, yes, we have misgivings about marrying non-Jews, just as Moses’ family had misgivings about his marrying a non-Jew (Numbers 12:1, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses for marrying a Cushite woman; the motivation is unclear). And, thankfully, some of us have non-Jewish relatives who are kind and good and share a closeness with Judaism and the Jewish people, just as Moses had Yitro, the first kerov Yisrael.

I believe that we should read our Torah portion as instructing us to acknowledge the Yitros among us, members of our larger mishpocha who through their dedication and love are worthy of the title krovay Yisrael (those who have drawn near to our people). Fathers who support their Jewish children by shlepping them to religious school and helping them with their bar/bat mitzvah preparations. Grandmothers who purchase Chanukah menorahs for their Jewish grandchildren and make sure that they participate fully in Jewish holiday celebrations. Mothers who stand by their precious babies’ sides as the mohel performs the brit milah, l’shem gayrut (For the sake of conversion). These modern day Yitros are not, and may never become, fully Jews (as much as we may desire, just as the ancient rabbis desired, for that to happen). Still, they are worthy of our appreciation and our praise. They are worthy of a positive identity and not a just negative identity. They are kerovay Yisrael.

Intermarriage is great challenge for the Jewish people. I share the anxiety of those who argue that intermarriage will deplete our ranks and open the door even wider to assimilation. No doubt, there are many children of intermarriage who are lost to our people.

Still, I believe that a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew may also result in blessings to the Jewish people. When we reach out to the non-Jewish members of our family, when we share with them the joys and triumphs of the heritage of our people (just as Moses brought Yitro news of the triumph of Israel at the sea), we may find out that they, in turn, are ready to draw closer to us. Some may chose to convert and become Jewish (and we should welcome that possibility with great joy). Still others may never convert but will choose instead to be kerovay Yisrael, modern day Yitros, shlepping their children to religious school, encouraging them in their Jewish studies, learning and teaching by their children’s side. We all will benefit from their dedication and grow stronger from their love.

I would like to thank the Federation of Jewish Men’s Club of Conservative Judaism and Rabbi Charles Simon for teaching me this lesson through the good work of their Keruv program. Also, I would like to thank Alayne Pick, the chair of Temple Emanuel’s Keruv program, for living this lesson each and every day.