To obey or not to obey – the lesson of Yitro

For years I continued to parrot these exact same lines; no doubt I probably taught my own children and students from a similar playbook. However, as my hair turns to a lighter shade of blonde, I am more aware of the countless hues and shadings that were glossed over in the past. For example, this week’s Torah portion introduces the reader to the transformation of Yitro (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe. A cursory glance at the text will reveal that his journey was far from smooth. He was confused, mystified, and often bewildered. It states: Vayishma Yitro – and Yitro heard everything that God had done for Moshe and Israel. Although he heard of the miracles performed for the sake of the Israelites, the Kli Yakar maintains that Yitro was still unsure if he could believe in the God of Israel. He contemplated that perhaps there was a God of good (as in the Wizard of Oz) and another parallel God of evil. Yet, after hearing what God had done to the Egyptians he understood that the God of Israel has multiple dimensions.  After careful consideration he decided to embrace monotheism and join the Jewish people, at which time he immediately offered his son in law advice (perhaps it his new yiddisher kup working). He explained how Moshe could better utilize his time by setting up tribunals. Then it seems his influence wanes and he fades into oblivion, begging the question, why was he mentioned at all?

To better understand what Yitro brought to the table, it behooves us to question some of the deep rooted philosophies that we take as gospel. Are we permitted to have doubts? Are we allowed to question authority? As an outsider, Yitro has no appreciation for a hierarchical system of governance. He was not beholden to anyone nor did he accept a philosophy of azoi tit min – that’s the way we have always done it. By mentioning his personal challenges and addressing problems with the status quo, the Torah may be guiding future generations in how best to approach Judaism. The Talmud Sanhedrin teaches that although a student must respect his teacher, if he hears his teacher ruling incorrectly it befits the student to challenge his teacher. Only a misguided system posits that a few select men are infallible. This warped ideology leads to unconscionable acts perpetrated by adults against children (and other adults) as their innocence and naiveté allows them to blindly believe the integrity of an authority figure.

However, it’s interesting that when the Israelites were preparing to receive the Ten Commandments the verse states: Vayavo Moshe….. Vayosem lifneihem et kol hadevorim – And Moshe came and placed before them all these words. It continues Vaya’anu kol ha’am yachdav, vayomru kol asher diber hashem na’aseh, – And all the people collectively responded that whatever God tells us to do we will do. The Israelites are unanimous in accepting the word of God and they are willing to do whatever he requests even though they may not agree. However, in their humility and piety before God they leave out any reference to Moshe. Even though Moshe is the one communicating the words, they respond only to God as total blind acceptance is limited to only Him. This is not a disparagement of Moshe as they unashamedly state: V’ya’aminu ba’Hashem ub’Moshe – they put their trust and faith in God and Moshe his servant. On the contrary, total allegiance and subservience to another human being is demeaning. Even Moshe had faults and made errors, how much more so, rabbis that make edicts today. Last year a noted rabbi ruled that vaccinations are a hoax while some Chassidic leaders believe woman shouldn’t drive and must wear burka like clothing.  I’m not referring to imposters masquerading as rabbis; these are righteous and saintly people that are just ill informed or misguided.

Yitro directly challenges the doctrine by which I was raised. While he certainly acknowledged the greatness of his son in-law, he also sees in him human frailties and weakness. After spending considerable time with him he realizes that in spite of his greatness, his son in-law may be lacking some organizational skills. He understands that to be a card carrying Jew requires more than blind acceptance of leaders and dogmatic teachings. In his assessment, Judaism requires a philosophical dichotomy that is comfortable with questioning and clarifying all rulings while standing resolute against using that as an excuse to denigrate and diminish Torah Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel

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