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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yitro: A Gentle Gentile

The Yitro story follows the war with Amalek and proceeds Matan Torah, two Biblical sections of paramount resonance and fame. This peculiar placement begs the question: “מה ענין יתרו אצל הר סיני!” (What's one thing got to do with the other!)

Questions of structure and order always deserve analysis, but Yitro’s case is highlighted by a millennia-long debate. For a list of important but tangential reasons, some claim that the entire story actually happened after Matan Torah. (See Mekhilta, Ramban, and Ibn Ezra on 18:1.) Our question thus rings louder: if Yitro’s story transpired after Har Sinai, what thematic message does the Torah express by presenting it beforehand!

A careful look at the Yitro text reveals a series of fascinating literary links, which together suggest why the Torah communicates Yitro’s story exactly where it does.

Four distinctive phrases appear in both the Amalek and Yitro narratives, highlighting the dramatic contrast between the two adjacent figures.

1. Both Amalek and Yitro are introduced as “coming” from afar to engage the Israelite camp. While Amalek comes “to wage war,” (17:8) Yitro approaches – escorting Moshe’s wife and children - because “he heard all that God had done.” (18:1,5)
2. Both sections contain a mila munakh, or tone-setting key word. For Amalek “lachem,” to fight, appears four times, while for Yitro the same can be said for “tzil,” to save.
3. Both portions use the term "yad” (hand) in relation to God’s enemies. Amalek’s assault is described as “a hand upon the throne of the Lord” (17:16), while Yitro praises God as “the Lord who saved you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharoah.” (18:10)
4. Both narratives can be split into two, with the term “makhar” (tomorrow) marking the latter phase. Amalek attacks, while the next day, the Jews go on the counterattack. (17:9) Yitro first greets Moshe and praises God for His many miracles, while the next day (18:13) he advises Moshe on how to run an efficient Jewish judiciary.

These examples showcase the dramatic difference between hostile, irreverent Amalek and amiable, helpful, devout Yitro.

But apart from distancing Yitro from Amalek, the text seems bent on linking him to Moshe himself. In several highly symbolic parallels, Yitro is raised to a strikingly Mosaic position:

1. Following Amalek’s attack, Moshe instructs his understudy Yehoshua to “choose for us men” to participate in the counterattack (17:9). After acknowledging Yitro’s sound advice, Moshe follows his father-in-law’s instructions and “chooses out able bodied men” for governmental positions (18:25).
2. Yehoshua obediently “did as Moshe said to him,” (17:10) while the Torah makes a point of stressing how Moshe “did all that [Yitro] said to him.” (18:25)
3. The relatively rare term kaveid, or heavy, appears in both stories. In the war with Amalek, victory is contigent on Moshe keeping his hands raised to the heavens. However, as he tired, his hands grew heavy, (17:12) and Aharon and Khur were forced to support him. Yitro warns Moshe that the burden of personally judging every Jewish court case is equally unbearable, whether or not Moshe feels the figurative burn. In the face of collapse, Yitro’s solution serves to lift Moshe out of an otherwise disastrous system.
4. After the miraculous defeat of Amalek, Moshe erects a sacrificial altar of gratitude (17:15). Similarly, in a moment of religious clarity and celebration, Yitro offers his own set of sacrifices (18:12).

These four connections produce a Yitro cast in the image of Moshe. In fact, combined with the contrasts between Yitro and Amalek, they represent a potential answer to our original question.

The war with Amalek and Matan Torah embody two of Chumash’s most Judeo-centric narratives. The Divine Election that culminated with Har Sinai crowned the Jewish people with a unique role, special laws, and distinctive relationship with God. At the same time, the Amalek story symbolizes (to this day!) all evil and baseness perceived in “the nations of the world.” Between these extreme accounts of Gentile aggression and Jewish election, enters Yitro. Lest we fall into the trap of narrow Jewish self-absorption or myopic xenophobia, the Torah presents the image of a cult priest that is nothing like Amalek and, at times, eerily resembles Moshe himself. Lest we mistake our role as “a kingdom of priests and a sanctified nation” (19:6) for mere ethnic selectivity, the Torah unveils the image of the pious, upstanding, spiritually complete Other, daring us to envision and recreate a world that is entirely Yitro.

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