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Peter J. Rubinstein
Jethro, the Other

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  February 13, 2004

This morning we return to Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, the man whose name graces the portion in which the Ten Commandments are given. Jethro is relevant especially because he had the intuitive legal sense to know that the way to incur the wrath of a citizenry was to make them wait for the settlement of disputes. Thus Jethro is known for the foundation of a arrangement which took a legal system seriously.

Yet, the background of Jethro cannot be treated casually. Jethro was a non-Israelite. That Jethro was not an Israelite compels us to plumb his involvement in Moses’ life and in the unfolding of our history and leads us to wonder how Jethro’s name became associated with the reading of the Ten Commandments.

The Torah is generally not favorably inclined toward non-Israelites. Often the Torah’s account of the indigenous peoples among whom the Israelites wandered and settled. is a story of rabid and violent enemies who challenge the existence of the children of Israel. The Canaanites and Hittites, the Jebusites and Hivites, the Egyptians and Edomites were idolaters who at their core professed a worship antithetical to the monothesistic mitzvah based faith of the Israelites. The worship of those “different” people who sometimes engaged in child sacrifice was abhored. God’s command to the Israelites to destroy the shrines and ashterot of the Canaanites was fervent and repetitive. Our God Adonoi didn’t want us to have anything to do with idolaters.

As an example, just three verses before we read Jethro’s name, the Torah tells of Amalek, the man whose name was to be utterly blotted out from under the heavens. Throughout the exodus Amalek often attacked the Israelites, usually by assaulting the weak and the straggler and the elderly. Amalek was, Amalek continues to be despised by our tradition and represents the most heinous of adversaries.

But then, just a few words later, Jethro appears. The great commentator Nachmanides doesn’t overlook the textual proximity of the stories of Amalek and Jethro. Nachmanides indicates that the Torah “having mentioned the evil which Amalek, a non-Israelite inflicted upon us, commanding us to requite him accordingly, now mentions the good which Jethro, another non-Israelite, did for us in order to instruct us that we should show him kindness.”

It may be the tendency of any religious, racial or national group to suspect or despise those who are different. But the Torah notes the difference. Lest we incline to believe that “those” people who are not Israelites or Jews are nefarious and despicable, the Torah immediate claims the goodness and wisdom of Jethro. Countering the mood of xenophobia and the racist tendencies to deny the redemptive values of others, the Torah teaches a fundamental lesson: Some who are different are despicable. And some who are different are exemplary. There is nothing inherently evil in being different.

Some people behave murderously and some behave wisely and we must understand the distinction.

Jethro’s name in Hebrew implies enhancement. Jethro himself adds much to Moses’ life. As Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro reminds an obsessed and tunnel-visioned Moses that while he, Moses, was busy delivering the Israelites from Egypt, he had forsaken his wife and children leaving them behind. Jethro helps Moses regain conscience and responsibility. Then Jethro teaches the need for a court system and mentors Moses on matters of leadership.

It was Jethro, the outsider, who reflected on the deliverance of the Israelites and who blessed God with the words “Baruch Adonoi” He said “Blessed be the Lord who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh. Now I know” added Jethro “that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

Quite stunning, isn’t it, that it was Jethro, the foreigner, the other, the outsider who held a mirror up to the Israelites encouraging them to know the greatness of their God. It was Jethro, the Midianite who helped Moses and the Israelites appreciate the miracle of their deliverance. It was Jethro, the foreign priest who led the Israelites in blessing and who acknowledged the greatness of Adonoi.

The person who is other can help us understand the strength of our own faith. The person who is other than we are can reflect the glory of our history so that we can appreciate that history better. The person who is different can urge us to comprehend our own destiny and compel us to appreciate the stories and values which give us life and strength. Jethro was such a man. It is fitting that the portion of the 10 commandments carries his name.

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