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Parashat Yitro 5782

January 21, 2022

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

This week the American Jewish community finds itself processing the events of last Shabbat, during which a rabbi and three congregants were taken hostage in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. As a minority in the United States, many are reflecting on the dangers of being Jewish in this moment. Our parasha this week mentions the names of Moshe’s sons, the meanings of which echo sentiments some of us may be feeling: Gershom, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land,” and Eliezer, “The God of my father was my help, and God delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Exod. 18:3-4). In some ways, despite having been a presence in North America for hundreds of years, we are still strangers, those who are misunderstood by the majority of people (as highlighted by the antisemitic motives of the Colleyville hostage-taker). We have unfortunately had many occasions in recent years in which members of our Jewish community have been threatened or harmed, but fortunately in this most recent incident the victims emerged unharmed, escaping the “sword.”

Gershom’s name not only speaks to our relationship with those around us, that we are perceived as strangers, but also to the nature of the place (in this case America) itself – “a foreign land” (אֶרֶץ נׇכְרִיָּה). In many ways it seems as though the land itself has become a place of foreignness. A place in which many inhabitants do not understand those around them, particularly those who adhere to a different set of political or religious views.

Eliezer’s name alludes to escaping the wrath of Pharaoh, but mentions a sword – an element missing from the earlier Exodus narrative. The Midrash fills in the gap, offering us a miraculous tale of how Moshe was saved from Pharaoh’s hand:

R. Yehoshua says: When did the Lord save him? When Dathan said to him (Ibid. 2:14) “Who made you a man, an officer and a judge over us, etc.?” and when Pharaoh heard of it, he said: “Seize Moses and bring him up to the (decapitation) block!” When they placed the knife on his neck, an angel descended in the guise of Moses, at which they seized the angel and let go of Moses, at which the Lord rendered them groups of mutes, deaf ones, and blind ones. They said to the mutes: Where is Moses? But they could not speak. To the deaf, but they could not hear. To the blind, but they could not see, as it is written (Ibid. 4:11) “Who made a mouth for man, or who makes one mute or deaf or seeing or blind?” Thus, “for the God of my father was my help.” [R. Shraga Silverstein translation].

In this story, which takes place after Moshe slays the Egyptian and before he flees to Midian, God literally saves Moshe from the sword. But there is something curious about the means of Moshe’s rescue. First an angel takes Moshe’s place, which ostensibly means that Moshe is out of danger now that his divine doppelganger has replaced him. But then God proceeds to take away the abilities of speech, hearing, and sight from the captors. If an angel already replaced Moshe, then why was it necessary to prevent these Egyptians from communicating with one another in a way somewhat reminiscent of the Tower of Babel? And if God prevented the people from interacting, to stop them from executing Moshe, why was it also necessary to replace Moshe with an angel?

Perhaps an answer emerges from the proof text offered towards the end of the midrash. The text quotes Exodus 4:11, in which God reminds Moshe that although he is one of heavy tongue and speech, God is the one who created him as such, and God will be with Moshe as he goes to Pharaoh. In this moment of theophany, Moshe’s inability to speak properly provides the space for God to be with him in his words and to instruct him what to say (Exod. 4:12). Moshe’s silence carves out a space for divine words to be uttered. In the episode of the burning bush, Moshe feels unable to fully use one of his abilities, creating an opening for God to step in. Similarly, the midrash brings together divine presence, in the form of an angel, with a removal of the faculties of communication. To set the Egyptians on the right path, they must lose senses – their ability to perceive, and thereby judge, the world. A divine messenger can then step in to set them on the correct course. Only when they stop seeing, hearing, and saying what they expect are they open to a more ethical alternative.

Too many people today only hear what they want to hear, and only see the world through their own eyes. This renders them blind, deaf, and mute to alternative possibilities, to perceiving the world from the perspective of the other. And many of us do not recognize this deficiency. It is only when we recognize the limitations of our own faculties, as Moshe does, that we can be receptive to the divine presence to help guide our senses to perceive something different than we normally encounter.

The events of last Shabbat are a stark reminder that in some ways we are still strangers, that the land is filled with a sense (and fear) of foreignness, and that we pray for God’s help to protect everyone from danger. But we cannot simply hope for divine intervention. The midrash on Eliezer’s name teaches us about the need to relinquish our dependency upon the way we have always seen, heard, and spoken of the world in order to make space for the Divine to guide us towards encountering the world, and those around us, anew. Only when people are open to such possibilities can we cease to be a stranger and only when people are truly open to embracing the other can the land cease to be a place of foreignness.

Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.