Wisdom from Strangers

A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Yitro
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

Dear friends,

Listen, Sh’ma! 
Our Torah portion begins with Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, who listens and hears.

Jethro, Priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.
 (Ex. 18:1)

He hears of the Exodus, of the wonders that God performed for the Israelites, and he travels from Midian to join them in the wilderness.

Who is Yitro? Zohar describes Yitro as the one of the three wise men of Pharaoh of whom it says, “there was no worship or prince, minister or star ruling its domain for which he did not know the appropriate ritual and service.” He was a priest of priests and a shaman of shamans. This Midianite priest, the consummate outsider, is also always described in Torah as the father-in-law of Moses. Torah insists on reminding us that Moses is married to a Midianite woman, not an Israelite. Moses, our greatest teacher, is intermarried.

Yitro enters the story as a true outsider, a master of foreign worship. He acknowledges the God of Israel and offers praise and sacrifices to the One God. But this is not simply a story of the triumph of the God of Israel over the gods of Egypt. Yitro brings a gift with him from the outside that enables Torah to be fulfilled in the world.

Torah tells us that Yitro sees how Moses is adjudicating the law, sitting all day and night listening to all the people and becoming exhausted. He tells Moses literally, this is too heavy for you. This is unsustainable and you are going to burn out. You must select others who can share the burden with you and thereby set up a viable judicial system.

To Yitro’s advice Torah states “vayishmah Moshe,” Moshe listens.

This story that precedes the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai is framed by two men who are capable listeners. Each hears a great truth and responds to it.

Yitro acknowledges the truth of One God. And Moses learns that his leadership must be shared with others. Moses cannot receive the full revelation of Torah until he is capable of empowering others and trusting in their leadership. In order for the justice of Torah to come to life, Moses must create a collaborative system of support. Sharing responsibility and empowering others lies at the heart of true leadership. What I find most beautiful and true about this story is that Moses acquires this wisdom through Yitro, the embodiment of the religious/spiritual outsider.

Without the vision of the priest of Midian, no matter how beautiful, powerful and true the revelation of Moses, it would have been doomed to fail. It is therefore a most fitting and powerful statement that this portion which contains the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the ten commandments, should be named Yitro.

I am reminded of the story from the Jain tradition of India about the six blind men who gather around an elephant and try to discover what is this thing they have encountered?
One takes hold of the little tail and claims: It is like a rope.
One touches its legs and states: It is like a pillar.
One feels its trunk and says: It is like a snake.
One touches its ear and states: It is like a big fan.
One touches its side and claims: It is like a huge wall.
One feels its  tusk and knows for certain: It is just like a pipe.

We can only approach wholeness, sh’leimut, when we listen to the wisdom of others, especially those from different cultures and traditions who can offer new perspectives and illuminate our blind spots.

Following on the heels of Tu BiShvat, we can also learn a similar lesson from the trees. In California, the redwood trees soar to the heights and live for hundreds of years. Part of their strength to withstand storm and wind is that their roots are intertwined with one another. They exist and thrive in a web of support that each provides to the other.

Every aspect of the natural world expresses this same truth; that all existence depends upon the support of all existence. Like the blind men in our story, we are all too often blinded to this sense of wholeness that is our world.

What is unique to Yitro is that he, the foreigner, is motivated by a desire to support the success of Moses’ national project. He has the best interests of Moses and the Israelites at heart when he gives his advice.

As we make our way through these days of increasing polarization in our land, in Israel, and in the world, let us remember the great value in listening to the wisdom of others, including those from outside our own camp, when the speaker’s intent is for the good of the whole. That is the key. Amid a din of political voices, we would benefit by asking the question, does this speaker have the best interests of all the people, of the whole community at heart?

Yitro reminds us that it is often the outsider who can see a productive path forward more clearly than those embroiled in their own personal interests and passion. Like Yitro and Moses, let us learn how to be capable listeners.

With blessings
Rabba Kaya

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