in the eyes of the beholder
At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the Children of Israel were given the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the archetype of the vicious and immoral persecutor of the Jews. As if to balance this negative image of the non-Jewish world surrounding us, this week’s portion opens with the arrival of Yitro, Moses’ father in law, and the archetype of the sympathetic supporter of the Jewish people.
But Yitro is more than simply a supporter. Watching the development of the Jewish people from afar, he is able to see clearly things that the Children of Israel cannot see.
In particular Yitro has two insights that even Moses does not realize:
When Yitro arrives at the Israelite camp, he is astonished to discover Moses exhausting himself judging the disputes of the entire people. He gives Moses some basic management consultancy, advising him to create an organizational structure and delegate his responsibilities. The fact that Yitro is responsible for the first conscious decision made as how to govern Jewish society prompted the 18th century Moroccan commentator Ohr HaChayim to observe:
It seems to me that the reason [that the advice on how to organise a society came from Yitro] is that God wanted to show the Israelites of that generation – and of all generations – that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect.
It might perhaps be expected that Yitro, with his leadership experience as High Priest of Midian, would have managerial expertise to share with Moses. But the other insight that only he realises is more surprising. When Moses recounts to his father-in-law all the events of the exodus, and the deliverance from Pharaoh, the Bible describes Yitro’s response: “And he rejoiced over all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, saving them from the hand of Egypt. And Yitro said: ‘Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from Egypt and from Pharaoh’.”
Since the exodus took place, the Children of Israel, who actually witnessed the miraculous rescue themselves and benefited from it directly, have done little but complain about their living conditions in the wilderness. It is Yitro, the outsider, who is the first to recognize the remarkable nature of the events that have befallen the Israelites, and to acknowledge the goodness that God has shown in saving the children of Israel, and to bless Him. Sometimes, it seems, it takes the perspective of an outsider to appreciate the unique events surrounding the history of the Jewish nation.
Indeed, while today the phrase “baruch hashem” – (‘blessed is the Lord’) – is regarded as uniquely Jewish, it is striking that the three times the term is used in the Bible, it is always by non-Jews (Noah (Genesis 9:26), Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) and, in our portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:10)).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his remarkable book “A Letter in the Scroll” tells how a group of Jewish students sent questionnaires to prominent Jews, asking them what being a Jew meant to them. The students were dismayed that out of hundred of questionnaires they received only a few replies and that almost all of these were ambivalent or even hostile. “I am neither proud of it nor embarrassed by it” wrote one. “I have no doubt that I would have felt the same had I been brought up as a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist or Hottentot”, wrote another. While a third, an Israeli, described being Jewish as a “hereditary illness” on the grounds that “you get it from your parents, you pass it along to your children… and not a small number of people have died from it”.
To find any appreciative description of the history and destiny of the people of Israel, the students had to turn to non-Jewish observers of Jewish history. Like United States President John Adams, who insisted that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation”, and the eminent historian Paul Johnson who determined that: “To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind…”
From the time of Yitro, it seems that we Jewish people have had a strange psychological quirk; we are only prepared to believe positive things about ourselves when we hear them from others. This unusual characteristic is given poetic expression in Psalm (the Shir Hama’alot song that opens the Shabbat Grace after Meals), which describes how the nations of world comment on the remarkable destiny of the Jews – and how, only then, do the Jews themselves come to appreciate it:
“Then have the nations declared: ‘the Lord has done greatly with these people’; Indeed the Lord has done greatly with us and we rejoiced!”
In others’ words
In the early years of the State, Lova Eliav was responsible for the resettlement of immigrants in the land of Israel. When the noted anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Mead visited Israel, Eliav showed her around the resettlement project. After showing her around for three days, he asked if he had any suggestions or comments on Israel’s approach. Eliav recounted her response:
“Well,” she said, “I think you’re proceeding in this matter in a bad, wrong and disorganised fashion.”
“So,” I said, “perhaps you’ll explain what you mean.”
“Well Mr. Eliav,” Dr. Mead said, “I’d have had gone about it in the following way: first I’d have appealed to the appropriate U.N. bodies and requested them to investigate all aspects of the subject…
They’d answer you a few months later that they were acceding to your request, and would be sending a commission for an on-the-spot preliminary study of this weighty subject. At the end of three years of ramified research, the commission would request a year’s extension for writing its report. At the end of the extra year, you’d receive a report – a thick volume containing hundreds of pages. At the end of the book, under ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’, only one line would appear: ‘It cannot be done’”.
I had gradually caught on to the fact that Dr. Mead was pulling my leg, and now, at the end of her speech, I noticed the mischievous glint in her wise eyes.
“And so, Mr. Eliav”, Margaret Mead concluded, “you went your own way. You didn’t call on the U.N. and its bodies, nor did you wait for the advice of sociologists and anthropologists such as myself. And a good thing, too. This is a great human adventure, and may God bless you.”
Lova Eliav, No time for History , quoted in Aryeh Ben David, Around the Shabbat Table
On a lighter note
During the war, a Jew travelling on a train reading the Yiddish newspaper was shocked to see a friend of his sitting opposite him reading the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. “How can you possibly read that terrible paper?” he shouted at his friend in anger. The friend looked up at him calmly. “So what are you reading? In your paper we Jews are in danger, there is widespread persecution, and all our rights have been taken away. Personally I prefer to read the Nazi paper: We own all the banks, we control all the governments…”