We are living through a time of great conflict—a time when sometimes it seems any hope of unity in our nation is out of reach, and factions have become so wildly different in worldview that the center cannot hold.
Jews are one of the oldest cultures on earth, and one of the reasons we have lasted so long is that at the heart of Jewish identity is an unshakable sense of being a people of law.
The roots of this foundational judicial tradition emerged just at the time of our formation as a nation, even before Moses ascended Sinai to receive the commandments. While our tradition needs the heroes who give us inspiration, like the Women of Valor we’ve celebrating tonight, it is the sober tenants of law set down for posterity that have allowed us to endure as one people for four thousand years.
The parshat for today is Parshat Yitro (יִתְרוֹ). In Yitro we meet three important converts whose stories represent the contrast between these two kinds of Jewish stories—two of the converts are inspirational heroes, but the third is the kind of person who works more in the background to establish the kind of legal tradition that has endured all these hundreds and hundreds of generations.
Converts have always been a part of Jewish history. We have always contributed to the strength of Jewish community and the richness of Jewish tradition. For more on that, I invite you to read my Jewish Journey talk about the unexpected gifts of converts in the D’var section of the KHN website.
Yitro is also the story of three important adopted people—two of them are the same two convert heroes I’ve mentioned already. The third is someone you know very well—I’ll get to that in a minute.
What is it about being adopted, I wonder, that can make a person so passionate about family, but also perhaps, free to see things in a different and new way? I’m not adopted, but as a therapist, I often work with people who are, and I think being adopted never stops being an important part of who you are.
It is rather remarkable to me that we Jews don’t often stop to think about the fact that our tradition places at its center, as our most important figure and leader, someone who was adopted.
Being adopted means being chosen… How did the experience of being chosen, being literally pulled from the river as an infant, and saved, chosen, and cherished by someone not his biological mother—how did this experience shape Moses?
But here’s something I didn’t know until I researched this parsha—it was not only Moses who was adopted. According to Midrash Talpiot, Moses’ adoptive mother was also herself adopted, as was her twin sister, Tzipporah. More on that in a minute as well.
So, this is the story of three people who adopted Judaism, and three people who were adopted, that completely changed our history…
Parshat Yitro begins with a joyful reunion—Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, hears about the miraculous Exodus and brings the wife of Moses, Tzipporah, and their two sons, to reunite with Moses in the wilderness. The first major episode of this parsha has to do with Jethro helping Moses establish the court system that begins to delineate this wandering desert tribe as a nation—a people of law. But in order to understand how it is that Moses so readily accepts Jethro’s authority in shaping this enormous decision, let’s go back a generation.
The Story before the Story:
Jethro is not a Jew. He is a Midianite priest who we meet not in Midian, but in Egypt, where he is serving a magician-advisor in Pharaoh’s court. Midrash Talpiot relates how Jethro and Pharaoh adopted twin girls—Tzipporah and Thermithis. Both of these adopted girls grow up to play a pivotal role in the life of Moses and therefore the liberation of the Jewish people.
Now wait—you’ve probably noticed the generational issue here—one twin becomes Moses’ mother and one becomes his wife? Don’t worry—they lived an extremely long time, and Tzipporah was magically blessed with keeping her beauty into old age. Ok, Back to the story…
So, the story of Pharaoh’s daughter exists in many versions, but the consensus is that, though she lived among idolaters, she was witness to her father’s cruelty and abuses of power, and rebelled against it. She was highly praised by the rabbis as a Woman of Valor. Some texts interpret the phrase “she went down to bathe in the Nile” as an expression of conversion from idol worship to Judaism, so she is counted among the Devout Women Converts (BT Megillah loc. cit.).
Whether she actually converted, what is clear is that she felt great sympathy for the suffering Hebrews, and she bravely chose to defy her father’s decree that all male Hebrew babies be cast into the Nile by bringing home a Hebrew child and cherishing him as her own. (Moses could be seen to be Hebrew because his was circumcised—one midrash states he was born circumcised! Ex. Rabbah 1:20). The texts describe Pharaoh’s daughter as lavishing the infant Moses with love and care as if he were her own son. For this God told her, “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; You are not my daughter, yet I will call you My Daughter (Batyah, which means literally “daughter of God”)” (Lev. Rabbah 1:3).
In this way, Moses was saved from Pharaoh’s severe decree, and was able to grow up and become the deliverer of our people, because of the bravery and compassion of Batyah, a Woman of Valor.
But who knew Batyah had a twin sister? And this twin was adopted by Jethro, who at that time was a magician in the court of the Pharaoh. And even back then Jethro was a wiley guy…
One of the midrash stories about Prince Moses was that he was so beautiful that no one could take their eyes off him—even Pharaoh. And Pharaoh used to hold Moses on his lap and let him play with his crown and even wear it…you know—like ya’ do. But some of the court magicians didn’t like that, and prophesied that it meant Moses would usurp Pharaoh’s power, and so they said Moses should be put to death.
So, Jethro speaks up with a plan. He says, “This child has yet no understanding. Why not test him? Place before him a vessel with a gold piece and another with a burning coal in it. If he reaches for the gold, he has understanding, and you may slay him. But if he reaches for the coal, he has no understanding, and a sentence of death is not called for.”
So, you all know what happened right? He’s a baby—Moses goes right for the gold. Angel Gabriel stops him. Has him grab the coal instead, and put it in his mouth, and that’s how Moses gets his stutter—“slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And in that way, through cleverness, Jethro saves Moses’ life, and Moses again survives to be the deliverer.
We don’t hear too much about Jethro and Tzipporah for a while after that, but we get the idea maybe Pharaoh’s court isn’t such a healthy place to hang out, and the next time Moses encounters Jethro, it is in Midan, after Moses has fled there from Egypt after smiting the Egyptian overseer. In Midan, he meets seven sisters at a well who compassionately bring him back to their father Jethro. Jethro shelters Moses, Tzipporah becomes his wife.
Now Tzipporah has grown up into something of a firecracker. She is a woman of action, and she’s fiercely loyal to the husband she chooses. Now remember, Jethro, her father, is not a Jew (at least not yet)—he is a Midanite priest, …and a pretty important one. So even though Tzipporah decides to throw in her lot with a Jew, Jethro makes one condition for the marriage—that their first child be reserved to his religion (Idol worship), but that any sons after that could be circumcised for Hebrew observance.
So, after Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah, but before the Exodus, they are heading back to Egypt. One night, camping in the desert, with no explanation, “The Lord met [Moses] and tried to kill him” (Exod 4:24).
Tzipporah sees what’s happening, figures it out, and does not lose a moment. She finds a piece of flint, circumcises her son, and flings the foreskin at “his” feet, crying, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me”—now we can’t tell from the text if this means the angel’s feet or Moses’ feet, because it could also be translated “You are a father-in-law of blood to me.” But either way, it stops the attack. Moses again survives to be our deliverer. I mean, thank God for these Women of Valor!
Moses goes back to Egypt…the Pharaoh…the Exodus…I mean, you know the spiel…
So, now we are back up to where I started, beginning of Parshat Yitro, Hebrews are camped at the foot of the mountain and Moses is attempting to adjudicate the law for all the people. This is an impossible task.
Think what’s just happened—you’ve all been to a Seder…
We’ve been through:
Pharaoh’s constant promises that he will let us go…
…that all turn out to be lies.
At last we break away, the waters close over Pharaoh’s chariots in a final recount that can’t be overturned by any court, and at last we’ve gotten used to being safe on the other side of the Reed Sea, sustained by Maddow…I mean mana in the desert….
…But then we can’t find water, and the people’s trust in Moses begins to fail. “Is God with us or not?” people complain…
And then there’s a siege—a surprise attack by the Amalekites.
The army prevails, but only just, and only because Moses holds his arms up in the air the whole time—every time his hands begin to sink, the Amalekites begin to win. Moses has to have Aaron and Hur help him, one on each side holding up a hand, for Joshua’s soldiers to finally win.
…I mean, you can see why Moses feels like everything rests. on. him.
And it feels like the center cannot hold.
So, here’s Moses, trying to hold the Jewish people together in the wilderness by sheer force of will, and Jethro shows up, and takes a look at his efforts and rightly says:
“This is not good”
You are going to wear yourself out.
What you are doing is not good you, and not good for the people.
…The center cannot hold.
And here we again see Jethro’s long experience as a leader, and the wisdom he has built over a lifetime of having observed the workings of politics in Egypt and in Midan.
And he lays out a detailed plan for Moses to design a tiered legal system, a judicial system that foresaw the need to prevent graft and corruption, with a built-in system of appeals:
You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to Him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain, and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. (Exodus 18:18-22).
And Moses follows his father-in-law’s advice.
Jethro has been cited by many rabbis to be an example among converts. When he met Moses a few scenes earlier and learned of the miracles of the Exodus, Jethro exclaimed, “Now I know God is greater than all other Gods.” One Midrash tells that Jethro was so inspired by these miracles, that he went into the wilderness, where the Shekinah met him, and he rejoiced and “circumcised himself” and became a Jew. (Zeb. 116a; Yer. Meg. i. 11; Mek. l.c.) By the time of the camp at the foot of Sinai, Jethro, whatever his early history in Pharaoh’s court, is clearly working wholeheartedly with Moses to establish a functional nation.
The idea that Jews can gain by accepting advice and wisdom from non-Jewish cultures is not a radical one. Rabbi Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall writes, “This perception that wisdom exists only within the context of religion is not a Jewish one. Thus, for example, the sages of the Midrash teach us: ‘If someone tells you that he has found wisdom among the gentiles, believe him, but if he tells you he has found Torah among the gentiles, don’t believe him’” (Lamentations Raba, 2).
But Jethro is a little more than just a wise old idolater who converted. He’s actually the guy who was in Pharaoh’s court and he was one of the two advisors that came up with the idea of throwing Jewish babies in the Nile in the first place. I mean, he ended up feeling terrible about it, and later repented. And he partly made up for it by saving Moses’ life with the coal thing. But Jethro is no hero, he’s a politician.
This is the same person who in late life, originated one of the most important foundational ideas of our system of law. And it was a good idea. But it was wisdom with a lower-case w. It wasn’t Torah. Parshat Yitro, that starts with Jethro constructing a judicial system and builds to the Ten Commandments, shows that, as a people, we need both small-w wisdom and capitol-T Torah to survive.
The wisdom that Jethro suggests to Moses is about delegation. When all law is dependent on one person, inspired by God, that law may be divine in quality, but there just isn’t enough to go around.
The center cannot hold.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has also written about this passage, and about why the idealized model of top-down justice becomes less meaningful when it cannot be applied with equity:
The passage is about what the sages called bitzua, or what later become known as pesharah, compromise. This is a decision on the part of a judge in a civil case to seek a solution based on equity rather than strict application of the law. It is not wholly unlike mediation, in which the parties agree to a resolution that they both consider fair, regardless of whether or not it is based on statute or precedent. […]
By delegating the judicial function downward, Moses would bring ordinary people—with no special prophetic or legal gifts—into the seats of judgment. Precisely because they lacked Moses’ intuitive knowledge of law and justice, they were able to propose equitable solutions, and an equitable solution is one in which both sides feel they have been heard; both gain; both believe the result is fair. That, as the Talmud says above, is the only kind of justice that at the same time creates peace.
If we have ever needed the kind of justice that brings peace, we need it now. We are exhausted by years of lies, economic hardship, and plague. In this tentative new era, our leadership can finally begin to turn the ship of state around, but it is so easy to be like the Israelites clamoring to Moses for water after wandering so long, unsure of our direction, finding it hard to keep ahold of hope…
How will we ever accomplish this great task before us?
We find ourselves asking, can the center hold?
Glenn Thrush wrote in the New York Times last week that, “Mr. Trump, who did not take the time to learn the levers of power, did not consistently engage with congressional leaders, beyond basking in their support or making last-minute demands.” For this reason, most of what Trump accomplished, other than his judicial appointments and his 2017 tax bill, will be easy to undo with another executive decree—a project on which Biden has been singularly focused in his first weeks in office.
Because of Biden’s half century of experience in the Senate, he knows that legislation—the creation of law—is a slower, less radical, but more enduring route for change. When Biden does not publicly state a position on Impeachment, but still emphatically insists that it needs to happen, I believe he is not playing a politician’s game of eluding straight answers, but rather, after four years of chaos and erosion of norms, he is restoring to the Senate their lawful role of hearing the evidence of the case.
Oh, don’t mistake me, we need inspiration! We need our Women of Valor. Our Batyahs and Tzipporahs, our AOCs, and Jayapals, and Abrams. We need the fresh viewpoints and the anger and energy and audacity of the young and progressive and the fierce. We need ALL those who will defy the pharaoh’s degree, and challenge false gods and fallen angels. We need the agitators of the Left to pull the center forward because a compromise between the Far Right and the complacent middle is no compromise at all, and with such a compromise the center cannot hold.
But, in this time of great division, we also need the seasoned and sometimes even jaded legislative abilities of our Righteous Converts, our repentant Jethros—our Bidens, and Garlands, and Harrises.
If we are to make a legacy that endures, we need pesharah—compromise.
We need for the center to hold.
Readings throughout service:
(Before the Blessing over children) CCAR Blessing for a Partner (adapted from Woman of Valor blessing):
A partner of valor I sought out
Valued above rubies!
You open your hand to those in need
And extend your help to the poor.
Our household prospers, and your righteousness endures forever
Light dawns in the darkness for the upright,
For the one who is gracious, compassionate, and just,
Your heart is steady, you will not be afraid,
Adorned with strength and dignity,
You face the future cheerfully,
Honored are you for all your offerings,
Your life proclaims your praise.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Minneapolis Protests:
If you’re out here calling for the end of unrest, then you better be calling for health care as a human right, you better be calling for accountability in our policing, you better be supporting community review boards, you better be supporting the end of housing discrimination…Because if you don’t call for those things and you’re asking for the end of unrest, all you’re asking for is the continuation of quiet oppression.
Pramila Jayapal to the House:
During House Judiciary today, I shared why the Equality Act is so personal to me and my family. I didn’t intend to say this today, but my beautiful now 22-year-old child told me last year that they were gender non-conforming, and over the last year, I have come to understand from a deeply personal mother’s perspective… My child is finally free to be who they are. With that freedom comes a responsibility. For us as legislators, to legislate with love and not fear.
Stacey Abrams Gubernatorial Concession Speech:
We are a mighty nation because we embedded in our national experiment the chance to fix what is broken. To call out what has faltered. To demand fairness wherever it can be found. Which is why on Election Night, I declared that our fight to count every vote is not about me. It is about us. It’s about the democracy we share and our responsibility to preserve our way of life. Our democracy—because voting is a right and not a privilege.
Kamala Harris accepting victory:
Because now is when the real work begins. The hard work. The necessary work. The good work. The essential work to save lives and beat this pandemic. To rebuild our economy so it works for working people. To root out systemic racism in our justice system and society. To combat the climate crisis. To unite our country and heal the soul of our nation.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
I see my advocacy as part of an effort to make the equality principle everything the founders would have wanted it to be if they weren’t held back by the society in which they lived and particularly the shame of slavery. I don’t think my efforts would have succeeded had it not been for the women’s movement that was reviving in the United States and more or less all over the world at the time.
Chief Justice John Roberts:
Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.