Parashat Yitro

From The Margins

Jethro's position at the margin of the Jewish people allowed him to understand how to make the Torah work for a multiplicity of people with a multiplicity of views.

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A Strange Story

The strangeness of this story is obvious. For one, there is the naming of this auspicious parashah after a retired idolatrous priest, who actually still has a certain reservoir of feeling for the culture and people who oppressed Israel, and whom he has, in theory, left behind.

In addition, why is Jethro, the stranger, the new-comer to the tribe and its beliefs, the only one who can see Moses's problem, and, moreover, come up with a solution; a judicial system which will more efficiently bring Torah and justice to the people? Why didn't Moses, or one of the elders, figure this important piece out?

And, finally, why does Jethro return home? Why does he not remain with his family, his newly-adopted people, and get some nachas (Yiddish for satisfaction) from pointing out to all who will listen what good advice he gave his son-in-law?

It seems to me that the answer to these questions lies in a central piece of post-modernist thought. Many post-modernists (Derrida, Foucault) see the marginal as being the place where the action really is. It is not at the center of a culture or a system where we will find its true nature or message, but, rather, at the margins, in the seemingly inconsequential. It is there that the system makes its most crucial statements about itself, its beliefs, and its concerns.

The parashah of Jethro would seem to be the Torah's way of teaching us about the value and importance of the marginal, and the view from the margins. The paarshah of matan Torah--the giving of the Torah--and the way to create the delivery system for that Torah--a network of courts--is best understood by someone at the margin.

For those who actually went through the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, only the most central authority figure--Moses--can be accepted as an adjudicator of Torah law. No one could imagine that other, less central, less authoritative, people could have the right or ability to also determine the will of God. It is Jethro, himself an outsider, a minor figure, who points out the need to look beyond the epicenter of Jewish life--Moses--to the margins, if Jewish life is to flourish.

The Real Strength of Torah

In other words, the real strength of the Torah, its ability to survive and sustain itself, will not be found at the center, with Moses, but at the edges, in the lower courts, among the thousands of junior jurists, who will determine, daily, for their peers, the will of God and His Law.

It is only Jethro, whose marginality as a convert gives him a sensitivity to the plight of the Egyptians not shared by the rest of the Jews, who deserves to have the parashah of the giving of the Torah named after him. It is precisely his sensitive, nuanced, ambivalent response to things--the chill he feels at the news of the fall of Egypt, along with the joy he feels at the salvation of Israel--which the Torah demands.

This is why only a Jethro could understand that what is needed in order to make the Torah work for the people is a judicial system made up of thousands of individuals who will, of necessity, speak with more than one voice, bring to bear more than one sensibility, and look at the Torah with more than one world view. Only Jethro, who, as a convert, carried a multiplicity of sensibilities within himself, understood the need for, and the value of, such a complex, nuanced world view.

The Torah of one man, even a Moses, is not the Torah of a nation. Jethro's plan democratizes, spreads out, and, therefore, complicates beautifully the message of the Torah, taking it out of the hands of any one individual and making it the property of the people. It is this Torah that we are meant to receive, not a monolithic Torah, interpreted by only one person, one sensibility.

And, finally, it would seem that Jethro understood and cherished his role as outsider, and, therefore, to preserve it, goes back, through the desert, to Midian, in order, perhaps, to retain that marginal world view, the insight of the outsider.

What must we do, to gain that insight? Where is our Midian? How do we get there?

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.