Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”
Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Yisro 5771: Our Biggest Fan
If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others. ~Haim Ginott
Yisro is an interesting character in a Bible literally filled with them. From the perspective of Jewish peoplehood he is given a singular honor as one of just three non-Jews with a Torah portion named for them. The others? Noah – as savior of the Earth – justly deserves it. Balak, a mortal enemy of Israel, well we’ll leave that aside for now. But why Yisro?
What about him and his life makes him so uniquely worthy?
Well yes, the Jewish tradition has it that he served as an advisor to Pharaoh’s court right up until the King ordered infanticide en masse; then Yisro, in protest, resigned.
But Lot stood up to Sodom and has no similar honor.
And yes, he was an outsider – a renegade even – in his own land, a priest who forsakes the false gods he had been serving and, as the Bible hints at, he did so under pain of great personal cost and danger to his own family. He also shelters & feeds a fugitive of Egyptian justice, who in short order he marries off to his daughter and finally, with his own blessings, allows Moses to leave his wife & children behind while he returns to Egypt & makes war against mighty Pharaoh. In today’s portion, Yisro reunites Moses with his family, and serves as the unofficial consultant to establishing the judiciary and legal structures of a fledgling nation.
But Shem & Ever had similar roles, offering prophetic interpretations to Rebecca and sheltering Jacob. Yet they have no Torah portion as their legacy.
Perhaps it is because Yisro is an honorary Jew? After all, he travels with the Jewish people from Sinai until what is to be their final desert march to the Jordan river and then their entrance into Canaan – that is, until the sins of the spies ensure a forty year detour. But at that moment, Yisro returns home to Midian. So it cannot be that we honor Yisro for joining the Jewish people.
To much of the world in 1831, the American republic was either unknown or ignored. But along came a young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent nearly a year chronicling the young nation. Democracy in America has earned its place in the canon of American history because it tells the story of America more truthfully than an American ever could. With an outsiders eye and with knowledge of the European way, de Tocqueville offers something an American never could: objectivity and context.
When de Tocqueville found something he admired, it came not from a bias or a limited understanding of the other options, but their exact opposite. And so it was with Yisro. As the chronicler the fledgling nation of Israel, he was not biased. He was after all, a father in law of their leader – if anyone could be expected to turn a critical eye on how Moses did things, and on the relative success of his enterprise, it would likely be Yisro.
But Yisro found a way to critique where needed but also praise when able. He became the cheerleader par excellance of the Jewish people. He was (in a non Kathy Bates way) the Jew’s biggest fan. In other words, Yisro was our de Tocqueville.
The Jews struggled to make sense of hundreds of years of slavery and hundreds more of being “different” and the persecution and hate that was already all too familiar and they struggled to understand the senseless attack by Amalek. Then, they voluntarily joined in a covenant with G-d and accepted their Lord’s Torah. Just yesterday they were a gaggle of former slaves almost wiped out by Pharaoh and then set upon by Amalek. Today, they had a Torah and a mission to be a priestly nation and a light unto the world.
They’d be forgiven for wondering how to make it work, how to succeed in this new mission.
And Yisro, able to tell them why they’re as good or better than the other nations of the world was going to help them. Yisro, as only an outsider could, told them how the rest of the world wonderously viewed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and the defeat of Amalek – how great is their G-d and how other peoples look upon Him with awe.
Institutions, communities, nations and even individuals could use a fan who can both advise on how to do better and praise when something’s well done, especially when we think we’re not up to the task or we can’t seem to give ourselves enough credit. We need a de Tocqueville, our own Yisro. And sometimes we ought be that fan and that cheerleader for others.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.