This d’var Torah is part of a periodic series of guest posts highlighting senior student voices from the ALEPH ordination programs.
This week’s Torah portion, the one in which we experience the Revelation at Sinai, is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro.
Jethro wasn’t a member of the children of Israel; quite the contrary. He was a priest of Midian. Which means that Moses not only married outside the tribe; he married way outside the tribe.
And yet the ancient rabbis who divided the Torah into 54 sections chose to begin this all-important section with the chapter about the encounter between Moses and Jethro. They didn’t have to; they could just as easily made it the last part of the previous section.
If you recall, it relates the story of a lovely family reunion, in which Jethro brings Moses’ wife and sons to him (presumably they had stayed in Midian for safety’s sake while Moses challenged Pharaoh).
Moses tells Jethro everything that had happened, and Jethro “rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel..” and he blessed God. Jethro then gives sage advice to Moses on how to conserve his own energy by appointing others to help with the task of governance.<
I think the rabbis wanted to send us a message by including this chapter with the Revelation. Because at the beginning of the next chapter, God tells Moses “…you shall be my treasured possession among all the people. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6).
By juxtaposing these two passages, the Torah teaches that it is possible both to be “chosen” and to understand that we are part of a greater whole. By leaving the passages linked in one Torah portion, the rabbis gave us a signal that they agreed.
Their message? We are one human family. There is always something that we can learn from each other.
The founder of my rabbinical school, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, taught that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of collective humanity: our differences are meaningful, and our commonality is significant. He called this deep ecumenism.
“Deep Ecumenism teaches us that we can best serve the needs of all humanity when we not only respect other religious paths, but collaborate with them in our shared work of healing creation. No one tradition contains all the answers, but every tradition can be (in the Buddha’s words) ‘a finger pointing at the moon,’ directing our hearts toward our Source.” [Quotation source.]
The encounter between Moses and Jethro, immediately before the Revelation at Sinai, is a perfect example of the kinds of sharing that are possible. May we continue in their footsteps, building bridges between peoples and together doing the work of tikkun olam, healing the world.
Jennifer Singer is spiritual leader of the independent Kol Haneshama in Sarasota Florida, and is scheduled to receive rabbinical smicha from ALEPH in January 2017.