Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Greater Than All The Gods

When Yitro (Jethro) hears of the unbelievable events that have recently transpired in Egypt, he immediately prepares himself to travel to the desert and reunite with his son-in-law Moshe. However, the actions he takes suggest that he is worried he may not be well received. First of all, he sends word to Moshe to inform him of his upcoming arrival, as if to "test the waters", as we read:

And Yitro said, "I, Yitro, your father-in-law, am coming to you - and your wife and her two sons with her.

Rashi highlights the insecurity that is implicit in these words:

If you will not come out for me, come for your wife; if not for your wife, at least come for your two children.

Why is Yitro apparently concerned that Moshe will not want to see him? After all, Moshe spent the better part of his life in his father-in-law's household, and the two men clearly had a positive relationship with one another. Indeed, when comissioned by Hashem to return to Egypt after his sojourn in Midian, Moshe first requests Yitro's permission to depart. Why does Yitro seem to believe that their close friendship has been compromised?

Examination of subsequent verses leads us straight to the answer. After receiving a detailed report of the Exodus and its attendant miracles, Yitro exclaims,

And Yitro rejoiced on all the good that Hashem had done for Israel; that He saved them from the hand of Egypt. And Yitro said, "Blessed is Hashem Who saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of the Pharaoh; Who saved you from under the hand of Egypt.

Rashi notes that the Torah uses an unconventional term for "rejoiced", "vayihad." He cites a Midrash to elucidate this:

His flesh became covered in goosebumps because he was pained by the destruction of the Egyptians. Based upon this is the common saying, "One should not disparage a gentile in front of a convert, even after ten generations."

This observation of the Midrash provides us with an insight into Yitro's ambivalence about Moshe and the Exodus. On one hand, as a spiritual seeker, Yitro was impressed with the reports of Divine intervention in Egypt and wanted to fully comprehend their implications. The miracles attributed to the God of Israel put other deities to shame, and certainly warranted further investigation and study.

On the other hand, Yitro felt uncomfortable because he suddenly viewed himself as an "outsider" relative to Moshe. After all, these miracles had been performed on behalf of the Jewish people and their leader Moshe and had caused great suffering to Egypt, a gentile nation. Yitro, a non-Jew, identified with the Egyptians and wondered whether God's special concern for Israel excluded him by definition. Would Moshe want to have any further dealings with a person like Yitro? Was there any place for Yitro in a community that seemed favored by God only by virtue of its ancestral heritage - a heritage he did not share?

Despite his initial misgivings, Yitro had an intellectual breakthrough that changed everything for him:

Now I know that Hashem is greater than all other gods; for in this matter did they deal wickedly with them."

The commentaries explain that Yitro was deeply moved by the poetic justice of the miracles at the Sea. The very same instrument that the Egyptians attempted to use to annhilate Israel - the water into which they cast the Jewish babies - was the means God utilized to orchestrate their downfall. As the Midrash comments with a due measure of irony:

In the very pot they used to cook, they themselves were cooked.

What about this element of the miracle inspired Yitro to declare the superiority of Hashem to all other objects of worship? A consideration of the nature of pagan religion can shed light on this. Idolatrous gods were local gods who were believed to maintain highly exclusive relationships with the residents of "their" respective cities. Provided that a local god was worshipped with sufficient diligence, it could be expected to unquestioningly support its devotees in times of trouble, and to help them prevail over their enemies in war or conquest. In this sense, pagan gods were like cosmic politicians who championed the causes of special interest groups in exchange for "votes".

This is where Yitro perceived a stark contrast between the God of Israel and the gods of other nations. The God of Israel is a God of Justice who holds all of His creations to the same moral standard. The Egyptians suffered not because they were gentiles, and not even because they were enemies of the Jewish people, but because they were morally corrupt. The very mechanism of their destruction - the mighty waters of the Sea - sent a symbolic message to the Egyptians; namely, that their evil deeds, and not the arbitrary whims of a pagan deity, were responsible for the tragedies that befell them.

The lesson for us is clear: any group or nation that perpetrates injustice is equally culpable in the eyes of God, regardless of its religious, ethnic or racial background. Hashem's providence transcends nationalism, shows no favoritism and is untainted by partisanship. A relationship with Him must be earned and can neither be taken for granted nor can it be secured through bribery.

This universalistic dimension of Judaism was exactly what Yitro found so attractive. It meant that his concerns about being excluded or discriminated against were unfounded and that, despite his lack of Jewish blood, he could have a deep and satisfying connection to the God of Israel. Precisely because Hashem displays justice in His dealings with mankind as a whole, He makes Himself equally accessible to all human beings, not only to Jews. No individual or nation can claim exclusive rights to His providence.

Indeed, from earlier narratives in the Torah, we can see the important role that Yitro's love of justice played in his life. His passion for justice effectively laid the groundwork for the spiritual kinship he was able to form with Moshe in Midian.

When Moshe intervened to save one of his own brethren from an Egyptian oppressor, literally risking his own life to salvage another, the victim that he so boldly protected was tragically ungrateful. Instead of guarding the secret carefully and keeping the man who saved his life out of harm's way, the Hebrew slave put Moshe's life in jeopardy by spreading the news of what had happened. This was taken by Moshe as an indication that the Jews had become debased through their servitude and had lost their appreciation for the values of justice and charity. They would have seemingly been content betraying Moshe to the authorities in order to win favor with the Pharaoh; sadly, they had no regard for the moral significance of Moshe's heroic act.

By contrast, when Moshe saw the daughters of Yitro being harrassed by shepherds and courageously intervened to assist them, Yitro insisted, on principle, that his deed be recompensed. He enthusiastically invited Moshe for a meal in his home and eventually encouraged him to become a member of the family. Unlike the Jewish people in Egypt, Yitro not only acknowledged but deeply admired Moshe's pursuit of justice and forged a strong relationship with him on that basis.

The centrality of justice in Yitro's worldview explains another curious aspect of the first narrative about him. After expressing his newfound religious conviction in no uncertain terms, the Torah tells us:

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took burnt offerings and peace offerings to God; and Aharon and all of the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe, before God.

This verse is remarkable because it breaks a Biblical "rule" that is identified by our Rabbis in the Midrash. Whenever sacrifices are discussed in the Torah, they are always dedicated to the four letter, proper name of Hashem, the Tetragrammaton (YKVK). We never find a sacrifice associated with the name "Elokim" ("God") in the Torah, except for the offerings of Yitro in this Parasha. Why does this story so obviously deviate from the pattern?

The four-letter name of Hashem refers to His unique, incomprehensible Being. When we offer sacrifices in the Temple, our primary objective is to emphasize the transcendence of God; therefore, sacrifices are generally linked to the Tetragrammaton.

The name "Elokim", on the other hand, connotes Hashem's role as the source of both natural and moral law. And, as we have seen, Yitro's understanding of Hashem was primarily rooted in his recognition and appreciation of the beauty of Divine justice. It was through the prism of the objective and universal moral order that Yitro discovered the One God of Israel. Therefore, it was fitting that Yitro's sacrifices be associated with the name "Elokim", which captured the aspect of God's Providence that was the main focus of his contemplation at that time.

In the next post, we will consider how Yitro's commitment to justice expresses itself in his critique of Moshe's leadership style. We will also gain a better sense of how these two stories are connected with one another and why they are presented in the Torah immediately prior to the Revelation at Sinai.

1 comment:

Chaim B. said...

Some other points in the parsha which I think reflect the same theme: the constant repitition of the words "chosein Moshe", as if Yisro needed constant reinforcement of that identity, in contrast to the opening of the parsha which indentifies Yisro as 'kohein midyan', a part of his past we may have been trying to escape but which stuck with him. The parsha also sticks in the names of Moshe's children and the reasones for those names. Perhaps this was also part of Yisro's message - don't reject me as an outsider because as you recall from the name of your son Gershom, you too, Moshe, were once an outsider fleeing Pharoah.