Drash on Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Melbourne, Victoria
With God’s repeated ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart’ over the previous portions, the modern reader might have serious cause for concern. The result is widespread destruction, loss and sickness and, with the last of the ten plagues, the death of the first born Egyptians across the land. Since they seem to have had little say or power in preventing the Israelites from leaving, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is collective punishment on the widest scale. In last week’s portion, yet again, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and those of his counsellors, and he sends out his troops to catch up with the Israelites and cut them off – but it is a trap, and the entire army is drowned. The stated purpose is so that all Israel and all Egypt shall know that God is the most powerful. When the Israelites cross the parted sea, and are provided with manna to eat, and when Moses smites the rock and fresh water spouts forth, these are all signs of God’s presence with the Israelites.
So I find it fascinating that this week’s portion starts with Jethro, who has heard about ‘all that God has done’ (18:1), and even acknowledges that ‘Adonai is greater than all the gods’ (18:11), yet chooses not to join the people, but to return to his own land (18:27). This occurs immediately before the momentous episode that the portion which carries his name is known for: the giving of the ten commandments (the Hebrew is the ‘Ten Statements’ – the first one establishes that ‘I am your Eternal God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt...’ – it contains no commandment!).
This sets the stage for the Jewish position that ‘there are many paths to God’. Our tradition teaches that ‘You don’t have to be Jewish’ – indeed, you only need to observe the laws of basic human decency to have a ‘place in the world to come’. These have become known as ‘The seven laws of Noah’, and, though we don’t have a biblical list of them, they are agreed to include such things as ‘do not murder’, ‘ensure courts of justice in your land’, and ‘do not tear a limb from a living animal’.
The mysterious ‘Druze’ religion which lives on in Israel and the area, and is very secretive about its belief and practices, features Jethro, who is considered to be an incarnation of the ‘Universal Mind’, and who is known as Shu’ayb.
Perhaps it is because the Hebrew bible records an older tradition than Christianity or Islam, and perhaps it is because we have never achieved the numerical strength and dominance that they have. The fact is that this acceptance of other legitimate religious frameworks makes us unique in the world of monotheism. Maybe this is one reason why Jews have always been so involved with trying to develop inter-faith understanding and harmony.
Before Jethro returns home, he undertakes some ‘work analysis’ consultancy for Moses (apparently not requested, as advice from parents-in-law often isn’t, but valuable all the same, since Moses adopts Jethro’s ideas to institute tiers of judgment – a structure we would still recognise today in any legal system). An interesting aspect of this is that, nearly forty years later, when Moses is summarising all that has happened to the people, he includes his restructuring, but omits to mention the consultant who advised it! (Deut 1: 9-18). We can learn from this as well – all traditions draw on and observe and learn from each other, even if they don’t initially admit it, and even if they strongly deny it! No one (and no religion) is an island, to paraphrase John Donne. A colleague, Rabbi Michael Hilton, has shown that even the white tablecloth and the two candles that we identify so closely with Shabbat are actually borrowed from the Catholic altar, where they appeared somewhat earlier!
Our religious traditions are rich and deep and full because of the learning, the borrowing and the experience we have gained from each other. And I believe that our Progressive Jewish approach, whether it is reading and applying the Ten Commandments of this week’s portion, or the rest of our tradition, is the most effective, wonderful and appropriate way for many of us to enjoy a wise, spiritual and insightful framework for Jewish life in our challenging modern world. Shabbat Shalom.
This week, Rabbi Keren-Black is celebrating his 10th anniversary since arriving from the UK to serve the Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism in East Kew.