Friday, June 24, 2016
PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA 2016
Three weeks ago, during the Shabbat of June 3rd through June 4th Rabbis Aviad Bodner and Gavriel Bellino welcomed a community group for a Shabbaton in their respective shuls in New York. This group was ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Jews. As a result, a group of about six Orthodox Rabbis shouted loudly and vehemently that these two Rabbis should be put in Cherem and should not be considered Rabbis for accepting LGBT community members and validating them. Rabbis Bodner and Bollino stood their ground and took the heat. The Shabbaton was an amazing success, I am told.
Two weeks ago, my husband, Ken and I were at a wonderful gathering of about 300 Jews from all parts of the continuum of Jewish observance as part of the Center City Kehillah’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot for the Greater Philadlephia area. People in our home community of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania as well stayed up all night to learn, share and think seriously and intentionally about what it means to be who we are in a real and personal way. We did as so many Jews did around the world did -- as we re-enacted the waiting for the receiving of torah, as Shavuot commemorates for us annually. In the early morning hours, news began to sift to all of us about a horrible tragedy in Orlando. We were stopped in our tracks – within the joy and uplifting nature of the celebration of which we were in the midst.
Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi in Washington D.C., quickly responded as follows to the tragedy that occurred:
When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.
As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the Internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.
We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers. I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.
Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.
Here in our community of Elkins Park/Cheltenham, my colleagues Rabbi Lance Sussman and Dr. Ruth Sandberg immediately began to plan a Memorial for Orlando service on Sunday, waiting for me to finish my observance on Monday night to finalize plans. We had 24 hours to plan a service for Wednesday night, at which I am told by some who counted we had about 140 in attendance. Moslems, Jews and Christians – gay and straight – people of all colors – people across the Jewish spectrum – and just human beings all came together to mourn, to share and to gain strength from each other as we all work together to reboot after yet another assault on who we are as members of the family of humanity. As one gay woman said to me afterwards, “This was really important, I hadn’t thought about how this had an impact on the Moslem community.” That says it all – this impacted all of us in different ways, and our respective recoveries will take time and while they may follow different trajectories there is so much we will all share.
So, what would Yitro think? You know, the Midianite Leader that was Moshe Rabbeinu’s chief advisor! We have often read and discussed his advise to Moshe, his Jewish son-in-law. In this week’s Parsha, BeHaalotecha, we confront a question that began in the Parsha that carries his name and has followed us up to this point regarding Yitro, that is fundamental to our understanding of who he was and appreciation of what he did.
We read as follows in Chapter 10 of this week’s Parsha: 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them.
It is of note that we read texts dealing with both יתרו and רות during שבועות which we all just observed and it is the journey of רות that is chosen for our model of conversion and affirmation of faith while יתרו comes to teach us something completely different in our reading today. While some of our commentaries such as Rashi want to pitch the idea that יתרו did convert (for how could we have a Midianite priest be the chief advisor to the leader of the B’nai Yisrael – it just would not look right! – and here point to his name used -- חובב – to indicate his unwavering love of Torah and Ramban proposes that this was the new name he took upon his conversion in שמות to indicate his love of the Jewish people, here we are taught by these and other commentaries of the same ilk that יתרו is given many reasons by Moshe not to leave the people and to return to his land where he knows he has designated property. His knowledge of the Jewish people, familiarity with other nations, witnessing to the greatness of HaShem are all good reasons, actually GREAT reasons for him to stay. YET, the Torah DOES NOT DEFINITIVELY LET US KNOW the end of this interchange. These commentaries assume he stayed with the Jewish People for the self-same obvious reasons. However, others, such as Sforno, say NO – he did indeed return to his people.
Sforno finds colleagues who are willing to take this perspective in more modern iterations of interpretations of the Torah text. In the Etz Chaim edition of Torah commentary, for example, we are actually confronted with a question regarding Moshe’s motivation, namely “Why does Moshe plead with his non-Israelite relative to be their guide?” Notice that this question presupposes that Yitro did NOT convert back in the series of events narrated in Sefer Shemot. Yes, Yitro, according to this reading, heard all of the wonderful deeds that HaShem did for Moshe and his people and did in fact join in celebration with Moshe’s brethren but does this effect in toto conversion, as Rashi would have it? Clearly there is not agreement on this point.
What distinguishes Yitro in terms of the decisions he makes, when compared with say Avraham when he states that he WILL LEAVE all of those familiar places to which Yirto wants to return and Ruth when she claims that she too WILL LEAVE all that is familiar to join with Naomi and her people and place? Can we carefully consider the text at hand with minimal interpretive lenses? Maybe, just maybe, Yitro comes to teach us something completely different also needed in our lives.
Sharon Sobel teaches as follows (on the Reform Judaism website) regarding Yitro:
The Torah portion …Yitro, teaches us that we must look beyond the superficial qualities when it comes to choosing a good leader. It helps us understand that there are certain criteria for leadership that transcend political, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Parashat Yitro enables us to make a distinction between the characteristics that make a great leader and those that make only a good leader. Ultimately, these qualities enable leaders to create meaningful relationships with those around them so that together they can work for the betterment of all.
Yitro provides us with two models of excellent leaders: Jethro, the Midianite priest who is also Moses' father-in-law, and Moses. Jethro is an example of a wise and seasoned leader. He is an impartial observer who is willing to share his knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with Moses. Moses is still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people. He is a reluctant leader who ascended to his position only at God's insistence. Moses is humble: His ego does not get in the way. He is an excellent example of a leader who is able to listen to and learn from others. One of his great strengths is that he listens carefully to Jethro's wise advice and does not hesitate to integrate and incorporate that advice into the manner in which he leads.
So Yitro teaches us about outside impartiality and wisdom and Moshe teaches us the value of listening to everyone, both inside our camp and outside! These are two very valuable lessons.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and so many others teach often about the value of interfacing with and listening to others as we build bridges of understanding. He points to anthropological research in terms of the value of listening to our innermost beings in understanding who we are and balancing that with what we learn about ourselves from the objective outside. Perhaps this is what Yitro teaches us – the value of advising from the outside and appreciating the anthropological value of the people whom he was advising while acknowledging at the end that his place was really with his own. Does this make him any less of a role model for us … or perhaps even more so an important model?
Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld was definitely someone from the outside when he walked into the gay bar in Washington and yet he built really important bridges as an outsider. Many of us who were involved in Memorial services these past two weeks crossed numerous lines of gender identity, religious belief, ethnicity and nationality, sexuality and so much else in becoming part of these collectives. YET NO ONE SUFFERED THE GENUINE NATURE OF THEIR IDENTITY BY LISTENING TO AND INTENTIONALLY SHARING SPACE WITH SO MANY OTHERS. This helped ALL of us through very difficult days.
I think that Yitro understood this. When Moshe implored him to stay with these words from 7:31:
31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes.
Yitro responded…. Well, as already indicated, we do not know how he responded. I personally suspect that if he joined the B’nai Yisrael, this would have been reported as such given the general tone and choice of topics we find in the Torah. I do believe that he returned to his people, understanding that we can all come together in times of pain and angst and hardship and help each other while never negating who we are. We do NOT need to leave our people to be helpful to others. While Ruth may serve as the DUGMA of the Convert for us, I think we need to think of YITRO as the DUGMA of the leader from another people with whom we can negotiate. Both of these models are so important when we think of the giving and receiving of Torah in our lives and how we apply it’s teachings. Rabbi Sacks is always asking us and challenging us to be on the lookout for such leaders and to be that ourselves when we join public spaces with others. This I believe is the lesson of Yitro and it is a lesson that the Rabbis who threatened Rabbis Bodner and Bollino, and others who refuse to understand someone “other” than themselves would do well to learn. And those of us who do frequent these shared spaces are hopefully here to teach precisely this lesson through our actions and so much more.