February 14, 2020
Shevat 18, 5780
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, which begins with an important encounter between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, the Midianite High Priest. Jethro is portrayed as much more than just a close relative – he serves as Moses’ trusted adviser and mentor as well. When he sees Moses struggling to adjudicate for the Israelites all by himself, he suggests the creation of a judicial system to handle the lesser cases. Thus we learn that the ancient Israelite judiciary was actually created through the counsel of the Midianite High Priest!
Jethro is a unique character in the Torah. A member of a foreign nation, he nonetheless takes in Moses as a member of his own family after Moses flees Egypt. (Tellingly, he is almost always referred to in the Torah as “Jethro, father-in-law of Moses”). He is the High Priest of an idolatrous people, yet he is openly and unabashedly appreciative of the Israelites’ God. (“Blessed is Adonai” he says upon greeting Moses, “who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh…”) (Exodus 18:10). It is sobering to contemplate that the one of the most classic portions in Torah – the portion in which Israel receives the law at Sinai – is actually named for the High Priest of Midian.
Indeed, in a portion that so strongly emphasizes the Israelites’ uniqueness, their relationship with Jethro represents an important counter-balance – a reminder that Israel is still intimately connected to the family of nations. Even as we prepare to stand at Sinai, we are reminded that we are both separate from the nations and of the nations.
Astute readers of the Torah might well point out that this positive portrayal of Jethro is puzzling when we read later episodes that describe less than savory encounters with Midian. In one infamous passage, for instance, God commands the Israelites to attack the Midianites in retaliation for illicit sexual unions (see Numbers 25:14-18)
How can we reconcile such contradictory portrayals of the Midianites? Biblical scholars would likely point out that these accounts represent the work of different Biblical authors with very different religious and political agendas. Others claim that Jethro was a member of the Kenite clan of the Midianites, who were historically allied with the Israelite nation and eventually became assimilated into it (see Judges 1:16).
On the other hand, maybe we don’t need to reconcile these portrayals at all. Perhaps these contradictory accounts are precisely the point. Who are the Midianites, after all? The answer can be found in one little throwaway line back in the book of Genesis:
Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah (Genesis 25: 1-2).
That’s right: Midian was orginally a son of Abraham! This means that the Midianites are, in a sense, step-siblings of the Israelites. They are mishpoche.
These so-called “contradictory” Midianite narratives are only contradictory if we choose to view the world in terms in absolute terms, as “Us vs. Them.” But there is an important thread in Torah that resolutely resists such dichotomies. Indeed, this thread is at the center of one of our congregation's core values: "A Judaism Beyond Borders:"
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our religious services and educational programs promote a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. Membership is not restricted to Jews or those who are partnered with Jews; our community welcomes all who share our values.
In other words, while we may be a unique part of the family of nations, we are still family. There is no “Us and Them.” At the end of the day, there is only “Us.”
We'll continue to explore this powerful Torah portion at our Shabbat service tomorrow morning. I look forward to seeing you there.
Rabbi Brant Rosen