Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Listen! Sh'ma! Listen!
Our Torah portion begins with Yitro, Moses' father-in-law who listens, who hears. Jethro, Priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt. (Ex. 18:1)
He hears of the Exodus, of the wonders that God performed for the Israelites and he travels from Midian to join them in the wilderness.
Who is Yitro? Zohar describes Yitro as the one of the 3 wise men of Pharaoh of whom it says, "there was no worship or prince, minister or star ruling its domain for which he did not know the appropriate ritual and service." He was a priest of priests and a shaman of shamans. This Midianite Priest, the consummate outsider is also always described in Torah as the Father-in-law of Moses. Torah insists on reminding us that Moses is married to a Midianite woman, not an Israelite. Moses- our greatest teacher is intermarried.
Yitro enters the story as a true outsider, a master of foreign worship. He acknowledges the God of Israel and offers praise and sacrifices to the One God. But this is not simply a story of the triumph of the God of Israel over the Gods of Egypt. Yitro brings a gift with him from the outside that enables Torah to be fulfilled in the world.
Torah tells us that Yitro sees how Moses is adjudicating the law, sitting all day and night listening to all the people and becoming exhausted. He tells Moses literally, this is too heavy for you. This is unsustainable and you are going to burn out. You must select others who can share the burden with you and thereby set up a viable judicial system.
To Yitro's advice Torah states "vayishmah Moshe" Moshe listens.
This story that precedes the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai is framed by two men who are capable listeners. Each hears a greater truth and responds to it.
Yitro acknowledges the truth of One God. And Moses learns that his leadership must be shared with others. Moses cannot receive the full revelation of Torah until he is capable of empowering others and trusting in their leadership. In order for the justice of Torah to come to life, Moses must create a collaborative system of support. Sharing responsibility and empowering others lies at the heart of true leadership. What I find most beautiful and true about this story is that Moses acquires this wisdom through Yitro, the embodiment of the religious/spiritual outsider.
As a Jew it has always pained me to witness a type of arrogance in our people stemming from a sense of Jewish exceptionalism. Such an attitude denies the fact that we all possess only a portion of the truth and that in order to better our world, we clearly need to share wisdom. Without the vision of the priest of Midian, no matter how beautiful, powerful and true the revelation of Moses, it would have been doomed to failure. It is therefore a most fitting and powerful statement that this portion which contains the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the ten commandments, should be named Yitro.
I am reminded of the story from the Jain tradition of India about the 6 blind men who gather round an elephant and try to discover what is this thing they have encountered?
One takes hold of the little tail and claims: It is like a rope.
One touches its legs and states: It is like a pillar.
One feels its trunk and says: It is like a snake.
One touches its ear and states: It is like a big fan.
One touches its side and claims: It is like a huge wall.
One feels its tusk and knows for certain: It is just like a pipe.
We can only approach wholeness-sh’leimut when we listen to the wisdom of others, especially those from different cultures and traditions who can offer new perspectives and illuminate our blind spots.
In California the Redwood trees soar to the heights and live for hundreds of years. Part of their strength to withstand storm and wind is that their roots are intertwined with one another. They exist and thrive in a web of support that each provides to the other.
Every aspect of the natural world calls out this same truth; that all existence depends upon all existence.
Like the blind men in our story, we are all too often blinded to this sense of wholeness that is our world.
In the spirit of Yitro, that is, in the spirit of learning from sources outside of our tradition, I want to share some wisdom from the East- from Lao Tzu. He Lived in China during the 7th and 6th Cent BCE. From a Jewish perspective, he lived at the end of 1st Temple period, through its destruction and the first exile. From the Tao Teh Ching- Ch. 18:
Let all people return to their true nature.
Love, kindness, wisdom, family harmony and loyalty
should not be taught one by one,
separately from an honest life.
Then, once again,
people will regain the natural virtue of wholeness.
The world will be naturally ordered.
There will be no one who singly and cunningly
works for personal interest alone.
Let us each cultivate a natural awareness of the profound interconnectedness of all life. And may this growing awareness expand our compassion, soften our borders, and support us in creating a more just and peaceful world.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
More about Rabba Kaya