Friday, January 17, 2014


Parsha Yitro is known for having the first mention of the 10 commandments in the Torah.  But the parsha opens with an interesting story.  Yitro, Moses' father-in-law, seeks out Moses and the Israelites after the miraculous stories of what happened in Mitzraim.  Yitro comes and acknowledges the power of the God of Moses as truly the greatest God, and even sacrifices to that God.  Now remember Yitro was a priest of Midian.  He had his own gods but came to worship the God that took the Israelites out of Mitzraim.  This story is often lost in the dense discussion in this parsha that immediately has Yitro as a wise advisor to Moses helping him set up judges to deal with the day-to-day problems of the people.  Then later the foundational story of the giving of the 10 commandments.

However the Yitro story interests me in terms of how the people in the time of the stories of the Torah viewed the gods of others.  Here we have a priest of his people, visiting his foreign son-in-law to give honor to his son-in-law's god, even proclaim that god as the greatest of all, then leaves to continue to worship the gods of Midian.  Recognizing the others' God does not take away from the connection one has to their own.  Even the God of the Torah recognizes the existence of other Gods in the ancient world among the people the Israelites encounter.  In fact referencing to not be seduced by them in the very 10 commandments.

This could be a lesson on how we should approach interfaith (multifaith) action in our lives.  Yitro in this story not only respects the God of Israel but acknowledges the power of the God, yet goes back to his own faith community.  This was typical in the ancient world.  Peoples often adopted the worship of a God of their conquerers, in part, because the idea that if you lose in battle your Gods were also defeated. But with Yitro this was different.  The Midianites were not the target of the plagues, but Yitro still found reason to acknowledge the power of Adonai, the God of Israel.

Today, most of us don't see our relationship with God in the same way.  Our successes and failures as a people, faith community, or nation are not seen as the result of the power of our God.  (though there is no doubt the some do).  Our faith is also not predicated on the idea that our God is in charge of all action.  Unlike people in Yitro's time, God's place in our world is deeper.   Yitro, as many in the Bible, acknowledge the Gods of other people as valid ways of worship.  It leads us to think about the neighbors we have that worship differently from ourselves today.  We can respect how our friends who are not Jewish or even not our branch of Judaism access God.  God is not a small thing that can be placed into a box.  God transcends religion, and while I don't think we have to believe the stories and concepts of another faith tradition we should be able to understand that it is part of who they are that leads them to how find God in their lives.  There was a episode of the Simpsons were Homer created a religion and asked Moe, the bartender, to join.  Moe quipped, "I was born a snakehandler and I will die a snakehandler".  A joke, but one that reflects how many people feel.  Their religion is a personal thing a gift of family and a legacy.  It binds us to a community and it is part of who we are.

For Jews, we are a people with a relationship with the concept of God in our daily lives.  Rabbi Brad Artson has said "knowledge of God is a private affair. Living in the presence of God, however, is the proper business of Judaism and the living community of the Jewish People. It is that cornerstone of Jewish living, our brit (covenant) with God that commands the attention of the sages of every period of history, and it is that realm which deserves our energies today as well. "  This works for us and does not diminish the power of God in the lives of others.  We can tend our own garden and still admire the fruits of our neighbors.  That is what Yitro does and that is what true multi-faith respect and dignity demands.  So when we experience another faith tradition, we can find it beautiful and valued without having to give up our own connection to our God concept.

Yitro can guide us, and I think there is one real thing anyone who reads the story can agree on, Yitro was a wise man and not a bad role model.  He even taught Moshe Rabbeinu a few things.

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