Sunday, 9 February 2020

Dvar Torah on Parashat Yitro

Amalek and Yitro: Non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews

At the end of last week’s Torah portion we read about Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people. This week we read about Yitro’s arrival in the Israelite camp to reunite Moshe with his wife and children. According to rabbinic tradition Yitro came to convert to Judaism. So at first glance there doesn’t seem to be many similarities between these two stories. However, our Rabbis have used the two stories to learn about the different attitudes that the non-Jewish world can have for us.

Amalek responds by trying to exterminate the Jewish people. Because Amalek is represented as the paradigm of an evil nation that fears and negates the presence of God, the Jewish people is enjoined to wage a war against Amalek, and all of those who are like him throughout the generations. Yitro on the other hand represents the righteous gentile, who upon hearing of the wondrous events of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea comes to visit the Jewish people in the desert. Indeed Yitro praises God for all the goodness that befalls the Jewish people.

The Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah chooses to place the two stories together to contrast Yitro and Amalek.  On the one side we have the evil that Amalek perpetrated against Israel and on the other the goodness of Yitro and his kind counsel.  Unlike Yitro, the Amalekites seek out Israel not to attach themselves to their exalted destiny, not to embrace the word of God that they journey towards Sinai to receive. Quite the contrary, Amalek brutally attacks in order to emphatically dispel those very truths that the people of Israel represent. 

However, if we take a deeper look at Yitro, there are some interesting things to be learned. The Torah says that Yitro was חד. This is a very difficult word to translate. The most common translation is that he rejoiced coming from the Hebrew word חדוה. Rashi also brings a Midrashic interpretation too. He writes that “Yitro’s flesh became prickly with goose bumps חִדּוּדִין חִדּוּדִּין because he was upset about the destruction of the Egyptians.

Rabbi Gabe Pransky, a fellow graduate of Yeshivat Hamivtar writes on the significance of Yitro’s goose bumps. “This Midrash teaches us something about the complexity of the human heart. Although consciously and overtly identified with the Jewish people, Yitro cannot, apparently, simply erase who he was and how he once felt. On a visceral level, he still retains his feelings for the Egyptian nation. His newer relationship with Moshe, God, and the Jewish people does not erase his old personality, or his old sensitivities. We are complex beings. We can consciously choose and espouse one set of values and beliefs, while at the same time, on a deeper, more intuitive level, harbor within us very different, even opposing, emotional connections and responses.

“It is not an accident that the Rabbis see Yitro’s body – his flesh – as the thing that gives him away, and reveals to us, and to him, who he really is, underneath. In addition to the conscious, intellectual choice which Yitro has made to praise God and recognize the miracles He has done for His people, he also has a set of deeply felt emotional commitments which he cannot simply decide to undo. Like the rest of us, Yitro lives somewhere in between who he is, and who he would like to be.”

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