ט״ז בשבט ה׳תשע״ד (January 17, 2014)
Jethro was happy about all the good that G-d had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians – Ex 18:9
After many years of doubt and disillusion with his heritage, Abe decides to leave the religion. His long-suffering wife pleads with him to reconsider, but his mind is made up. He makes an appointment with the local parish priest to convert and soon leaves the faith he has been brought up with. He is a new man and his family are forced to toe the line.
Weeks pass, and the novelty wears off … he misses his friends in shul, the friendly kiddish, the tefillin and the feeling of Shabbos. As winter ends, and spring is in the air, he turns to his wife, “Sadie, you were right. It’s not for us. I’m going to ask the Rabbi tomorrow to take us back into the fold.”
“Are you crazy?” Sadie yells at him, “Can’t you wait until after Pesach!”
This week’s parsha is probably the most pivotal in the entire Torah: It contains the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the declaiming of the Ten Commandments to the entire Jewish people. The Hebrew year is 2448 and the Jews are now not only free, they are a people united with a G-d, a mission, a Torah and a homeland.
Our parsha begins with Moses’ family arriving to the desert to join him – his wife Tzipporah, his sons Gershom and Eliezer, and his father-in-law Yitro (Jethro). Yitro had been well known as an idolater … a priest who worshipped pagan gods, yet after hearing of the miracles that G-d had done for the Hebrew slaves, he converted to their belief in an invisible and indivisible Creator … the G-d of Abraham.
Rashi, commenting on the use of an unusual word “vayichad” in the verse above, tells us that although Yitro rejoiced with the Jewish people at their salvation, he was nevertheless uneasy at the Egyptian defeat – the details of their drowning gave him the chills. An important message is spelled out in Rashi here, of the need for sensitivity: Even though Yitro was on the right side, he still felt uneasy about the loss of his former co-religionists, he still felt a connection to them. One who converts to Judaism will probably feel (perhaps even subconsciously) some attachment to their previous faith and this, says Rashi, lasts for many generations … be sensitive to this.
Converts play an interesting and often pivotal role in the history of our people. Although Judaism does not encourage proselytising those of other faiths, we welcome those who genuinely wish to convert and they and their children become as Jewish as one born to a Jewish mother. Some of the greatest figures of Jewish history were converts; Ruth, Shmaya & Avtalyon, Onkelos, Ovadiah … revered leaders, sages and prophets, and of course Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law.
The question is often asked why the name of this week’s Torah reading – a reading which is so pivotal and even contains the Ten Commandments – is named after a former idolatrous priest, Jethro. Maybe the answer is that by naming the parsha after a convert we are being taught a valuable lesson for generations of Jews, from 2448 through to today. Maybe we are being taught that the way we are to approach our faith, our G-d and our Torah is through the eyes of someone who was not bornwith those beliefs, did not have parents and family who followed all the traditions, and yet who desires with all their heart to follow this way of life.
It is all easy for those of us born into a certain lifestyle to take it for granted, and more often than not we begin to practise by rote, because we have done so for so many years, as did our parents and ancestors before us. What we learn from the name of this parsha, and from the converts through Jewish history, is to look afresh at what we have – to look with new eyes at what we believe and what we practise … and to fulfil the mitzvot with passion, excitement and dedication, as if we only just received the Torah today.
If we can manage that, we can be sure that every mitzva we do, every service we attend, every bracha we make, will become a totally different experience – something we look forward to, and that our children and grandchildren will look forward to sharing too. Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Zalman Lent