Parshat Yitro

Parshat Yitro

Saturday Morning


1. Shabbat Shalom

2. It is hard to figure out sometimes the relationship between Moses and his father in law, Yitro. I don’t mean to disparage Yitro, but his son in law surely must have been more educated and worldly than the desert sheik whose daughter he had married. But for the mission that Moses found himself on, bringing the fickle and unruly people of Israel to the Promised Land, Yitro certainly had the experience of traveling in the desert and the practical knowledge of human nature that were qualities that Moses had yet to learn. Yitro arrives at the camp of Israel having heard the wonders that God had performed for them and he wanted to help Moses learn how to transform the band of former slaves into a free people.

3. When it comes to Israel today, the land and the people, to understand what is happening in the State, one needs an expert who has experience in the land and a practical knowledge of who the people of the land are all about. I spent this past week in Israel, following my guide who tried to give me a deeper understanding about what modern Israel is all about. The news from Israel is often bad news. A lot of terrorism and rioting. But even the United States has its problems of terror and rioting as do many countries in Europe. Israel can’t be just about the bad news. I went to Israel to see for myself what is going on in our homeland.

4. My guide and host was Israel Bonds. We were all members of the Israel Bonds Rabbinic Cabinet, Rabbis from all over the USA who had come to see for ourselves the story of Israel under the story we read about in the news. This would be a three and a half day intensive look into what is going on In Israel.

5. I had wanted to arrive early to join the group preparing food for a homeless shelter in Yerocham. But sometimes what happens somewhere else affects others in ways that are surprising; the record snowfall in London closed the airports there, delaying my plane from reaching NY on time. The three hour delay made me miss this important part of the program. The best I could do, after arriving so late, was to donate the tzedaka money to Yerocham, the money I had been given as a Shaliach Mitzvah.

6. The Rabbis I met on the trip were from all over the USA. Some were Conservative Rabbis I knew from other times, some were older colleagues; they were Orthodox and Reform, men and women, who all came on this trip to try and understand the deeper reality of Israel. We were based in Jerusalem and returned to our base every evening; we didn’t have to travel far to the north or far to the south to see the reality of modern Israel. One day we were in Ashkelon, another day we were in Tel Aviv and one day we made it only as far as Modin, the new city half way between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea.

7. In Ashkelon we tackled the important issue of water in the Middle East. Israel relies on the Kineret for most of its water supply. That supply depends on rain and this year, the rain has come late and only because there was a severe storm a couple of weeks ago, there is still much concern about water. We visited in Ashkelon the world’s largest plant to desalinate water. We later talked to a professor from the Arava Institute about how Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians are working to resolve the issues of sharing limited water resources. They hope to have a plan where the water can all be shared and maybe an industrial byproduct of that agreement could be peace.

8. In Modin we planted trees with school children from a very special school. A religious boy’s school shares its space with a secular mixed school and the older Orthodox boys take time from their day to tutor some of the younger children from the mixed school. It was hard to believe that in the same small State of Israel, where a nearby town has children spitting at each other, here there is harmony and cooperation. They had a tree planting ceremony where they sang songs and danced together and they invited us to help them plant the trees on their new campus.

9. In Tel Aviv, we spoke to an embassy official about the peace process. We asked if the current administration believed that Israel has a partner for peace. She told us that Abbas does have many reasons to want to bring peace between Palestinians and Israel but this new unity government with Hamas will be a problem. If Hamas does indeed join the Palestinian government then there will be no partner to talk peace with Israel. She noted that there is no friction that she is aware of between Netanyahu and Obama and she noted that even if there should be a problem, the ties between Israel and the United States are much stronger than the feelings of two individuals.

10. The most meaningful part of this trip, for me, was a visit to the Shalom Hartman institute in Jerusalem. There we met with the President of the Institute, Doniel Hartman, who is the son of the founder Rabbi David Hartman. Doniel Hartman, who is also a Rabbi, shared with us a new way of teaching and speaking about Israel. He said that until now, the discussion about Israel has always been a secular argument. We talk about the right to exist, existential threats and the survival of the Jewish State. But what does any of this have to do with Religion in general and Judaism in particular? We talk a lot about how important Israel is as a Jewish State but we never give a religious answer as to why it is important. We are unhappy when there is friction between secular and ultra Orthodox Jews but we don’t know if there can be any solution to the problem. In a new book, written by Rabbi David Hartman, he notes that to the Orthodox community, the establishment of the State of Israel, after over 2000 years of exile, has made no difference in the way they practice their Judaism. The loss of our holy land 2000 years ago had a terrible effect on the way Judaism was practiced. Now that it is again in Jewish hands, what new ways should we have that reflect the spiritual significance of the State of Israel?

11. For example, we always talk about the problem of Israel being a Jewish state and being a democracy. How can it possibly be both? Such a country could not be like the United States but there are many examples of democracy in the world that do not feel as if they have to choose one side or the other. England is a democracy and the Queen of England is also the head of the Church of England. France sees itself as a Catholic country. Greece, the cradle of democracy is attached to the Greek Orthodox Church. In fact, many European countries have majority religions and are quite democratic. The issue is not the religion and state (which is the unique problem in the United States) but how to prevent the majority from pushing its religious agenda on the minority, and how to prevent the minority from insisting on its agenda against the majority.

12. Recently France, a Catholic country had a huge problem with Islam. The French government thought that Muslim women should not cover their heads in public. The issue was the use of ID cards and whether the women could be identified by the picture on her card if her hair or face were fully or partially covered. It was a case where the needs of the majority and the needs of the minority clashed and the French government had to find a way to sort it all out.

13. So too, Israel will have to find a way to live in peace with its Ultra Orthodox citizens, its Armenian citizens , its Arab citizens and the many Jewish refugees from so many different countries who all have different ways of looking at Judaism and have customs that differ from the usual Ashkenazi or Sephardi customs. In a democracy, it is usual for a minority to push for its agenda with the government. It is also part of the process for the majority to push back when they push too hard.

14. The real surprise is that Jewish law does have rules that apply in these kinds of cases. We have Talmudic law as to make sure there is justice for every citizen without forcing them to leave and without damaging the faith and practice of the majority. Rabbi Hartman pointed to the most basic law of the Talmud, the place where almost every student of Talmud begins. At the beginning of Bava Batra the Mishna teaches, “Two men grab hold of a tallit. Each ones says that it belongs to me. The law mandates that they divide the cloth. So too, in our Jewish state, when each side demands full rights that will take rights away from others who claim full rights, they will have to compromise and perhaps only walk away with half of what they wanted.

15. Judaism and democracy are both possible at the same time. Israel is not just a one-dimensional land. It is full of complex ideas and rival directions. There is a way to resolve the issues, no matter what the media may report. We get all upset when MK Liberman wanted only non-Jews to have to take a loyalty oath to the State. But he was only one voice. Democracy won when the Israel Attorney General said that while the Knesset could pass any bill they wished, the Attorney General’s office would refuse to defend the lawsuits that would surely come. The matter was dropped.

16. Israel, even thousands of years since our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds ,still need the experience and advice of those who have come before us to give us the reason and direction that we need so much in these turbulent times. It is true that Yitro, the father in law of Moses is not with us to guide us through this wilderness. But Moses, Yitro and the other ancient leaders of our people left us a record of the lessons they learned so we would never be left groping in the dark. We have Torah and Talmud, we have Midrash and Halacha; the idea is not to just follow the law blindly but to discover the ways that Judaism can show the way to the future.

May God bless us always with those who are wise and experienced like Yitro as well as those who are strong and confident as Moses and may we as a people always draw the best from life through the lessons we learn from our faith and from our leaders as we say…


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