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Learning From the Friendly Outsider (Parshat Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23)

02/05/2015 02:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

I always find it strange that this Torah portion is named for Yitro (Jethro), Moses' father-in-law. In this passage, we are about to approach the mountain to partake as we are able of Judaism's innermost "insider" event, the revelation at Sinai. This is the eternal moment around which all of Judaism is constructed, the event at which the souls of all Jews ever to exist are said to have been present. But before we get there, we have an extended story in Exodus 18 of Yitro's visit, of his perception of Moses as a leader -- and his advice on how to run things, which Moses gratefully accepts. In contrast, God, whom we might call the main character in the entire book of Exodus, is completely missing from chapter 18 -- except as a subject of human conversation.

I was thinking about this story as the aftermath of the recent terrible events in Paris were playing out on CNN in the next room. I was recovering from jetlag after another of my frequent visits to Israel, arriving back to my chosen home here in the American diaspora. Two thoughts came to mind. How we are perceived by outsiders makes a lot of difference. And try as we may to be fully authentic, true to ourselves and our innermost vision, outside forces shape us an awful lot.

Let me say a little bit about each of these, both in connection with this Torah portion and in relation to this world in which we live.

In Moses' biography, there is a strange detour between his life in Egypt and the moment when he is sent to liberate his people. He dwells in the camp of a Midianite chieftan, one in whose sight he appears like an Egyptian. That sojourn in Midian is somehow a safe space, a refuge along the way. From living there, Moses learns that the world is not just divided between Hebrews and Egyptians, slaves and taskmasters. There is a whole world out there of others, people who are not party to our particular conflict. They may treat us with kindness, welcoming us into their tent.

Moses then goes back, has his great confrontation with Pharaoh, and the whole drama of the Exodus ensues. Everything is black and white, good guys and bad guys, us against them. While the Egyptian people are fairly passive players in this drama, the Torah evokes rather little sympathy with them. The plagues are visited upon them because they are Pharaoh's people, presumably his willing accomplices in the oppression of Israel. The sea is split, our enemies are drowned, and Israel begins its life as a free people.

But now Torah is about to be given, a set of rules and values that are going to sustain a people to live for thousands of years, intermingling with many others, having all sorts of neighbors. Before we can receive that Torah, we are suddenly forced to remember those Midianites, a tribe that has meanwhile -- through marriage -- become family to us. "Don't forget," the Torah seems to be telling us, "that you have close connections to people out there." Despite the formative experience of oppression, you are not permitted to view the outside world as entirely hostile. See yourself as this friendly outsider sees you; maybe you'll learn something from it.

Torah comes from God, from Sinai, from the inner creative spark of the Jewish people; however you want to say it, Torah is ours. "If they tell you there is wisdom among the nations," says an ancient rabbinic proverb, "believe it. But if they tell you there is Torah among them, do not." Except, of course, for the whole structure of our judicial system, right from Yitro. Except, of course, for our holy Hebrew language, growing out of older Semitic cognates. Except, of course, for...

What I have to say next applies to both Jews and Muslims; I say it to both. You live inside a bigger world. Not everyone is your enemy. There are plenty of Midianites out there, outsiders to your particularity, who wish you well. Jews, because of our terrible legacy of persecution and Holocaust, have trouble believing that. Many Muslims, because of the legacy of colonialism, feel the same. That leaves us in the dangerous moral situation of feeling like there is no outside reference group we can fully trust.

Both of us, in different ways and to different degrees, are facing that problem. And we badly need the lesson of Parshat Yitro: As you "receive your Torah" -- and as you define your society, set up your collective absolute truths - have a good look at yourself in the mirror that only a friendly outsider can hold up for you. Be open to learning from what you see there - even if it comes to you in a form that may not be easy to take, whether friendly criticism or even a cartoon. And to the holders of the mirror: Walk a careful line, nudging others toward self-examination, but without insulting or so pushing their buttons that they just lock down and turn away.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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