Parashat Yitro

Sermon Birmingham Progressive Community
Esther Hugenholtz

Parashat Yitro – We Are All Jews-by-Choice

What does it mean to be Jewish?

I am sure there are as many answers as there are Jews and – you’ll find this very Jewish of me! – there’s not one ‘right’ answer.
Some of us may say that Judaism is about a profound sense of history. Others will say that being Jewish is about being a mensch. I am sure some of you might say that being Jewish is to feel an inextricable connection to the land (and people) of Israel. And yet for others, being Jewish is about tapping into a deep spirituality.

And the list goes on. We have so many ways of ‘being Jewish’. Flavourful matzoh ball soup on Friday night, the white-and-blue JNF tin for loose change. Faded sepia photographs of trade unionist grandparents in the garment industry. But also the habit of perking up with pride when a famous Jew is mentioned in the newspaper. For Jews of the Near East, being Jewish may mean kibbeh and choumous and Torah readings with every ayin and chet crisply pronounced. For Jews in America, being Jewish may mean kosher marshmallows toasted over a bonfire at summer camp.

Of course all these ‘ways of being Jewish’ are wonderfully clichéd. Being Jewish is so much more than ethnic stereotypes and Hollywood references. It is love, community and ethics, ambivalence, anger and a feeling of ‘I-don’t-know-what-I’m-supposed-to-do-with-this’. Being Jewish is chafing against our tragic, horrible, painful collective history and yet also taking great pride in that same history. It is about being called to serve the one God, in Whose image all of humankind is created.

But most of all, being Jewish is all about choice.

See, here’s a secret. We’re all converts - Jews-by-choice. Jews-by-choice come in many shapes and sizes. It might be the cherished cheder teacher. It might be the young parent who beams with pride when their child reads Torah for the first time. It might just be the completely ordinary congregant sitting next to you. Or it might even be the rabbi. In any case, it is all of us, whether we are born or reborn into the covenant.

And it has never been any different.

As special as many of the Torah’s parshiyot are, this week’s parashah feels particularly unique. Parashat Yitro is the joy of b’nei mitzvah children, cheder teachers and rabbis alike—a Godsend (pun intended). The reading is brimming with a riveting narrative and all the important Jewish themes you can think of: Covenant, the Aseret haDibbrot (the Ten Utterances), Revelation, the Giving of the Torah and even some pyrotechnics (because there’s nothing wrong with telling a good story with spectacular special effects). In fact, this parashah is so action-packed that you don’t really know where to start mining it for meaning.
But Parashat Yitro also sets the stage for some of our most beloved heroes in the Torah: Jews-by-choice.

The perennial Jew-by-Choice is the one man this parashah is named after. Yitro. Yitro is Tzippora’s father and Moses’ father-in-law. He is a ‘Kohen Midian’, a Midianite priest. The Midrash claims that Yitro was quite the religious pluralist: he worshipped every deity and idol under the sun.
I imagine Yitro to be a kindly and wise man, tolerant, with a sound, practical perspective on things. He gives Moses sound management advice and warmly welcomes Moses into his clan, during his hour of need.

Yitro was a man of many names. Yet, according to Rashi, when he felt compelled to choose Judaism, he, like Abram and Sarai before him, added a letter to his name, Yeter. Where Abraham and Sarah added the letter Hey, Yitro added the Vav. It is fitting that both these letters are part of the most sacred Name of God, as they chose to enter the Eternal’s covenant.

Tzipporah, his daughter, is another Jew-by-Choice. Like her father, the Sages of the Talmud indicate that she converted. And like her father, she is a personality writ large: a brave young woman who follows her husband Moses in his compelling yet controversial vision of deliverance. She sires two sons whom she names Gershom and Eliezer. Interestingly, these names hint at a deeper truth that we all as Jews experience: ‘Gershom’ means, ‘ger haiti be’eretz nochri’ah’- ‘I was a stranger there [in a foreign land]’ while ‘Eliezer’ means ‘ki Elohai avi be’ezri’ - ‘God [of my father] is my Help’ (Ex. 18:4). Perhaps these names point us to an answer of the question what it means to be Jewish. Matzoh balls and choumous aside, there is a complex yet beautiful dichotomy that we Jews experience. We sometimes may feel very alone in the world. Different, alien, unique, strange. But we also know that we find our strength in God, in the values that God represents, in the best and holiest and noblest of our tradition.

Parashat Yitro sets the stage by introducing these two monumental characters. (And let us not forget that Moses himself, although not a convert, is a Jew-by-Choice as he consciously embraces his Israelite identity!) Soon after, the narrative shifts: from individual stories to a collective experience. It is then that Israel stands at the foot of Har Sinai, ready to enter the covenant with the God Who bore them out of slavery ‘al kanfei nesharim’ - ‘on eagle’s wings’ (Ex. 19:4).

The preparations for Revelation are unique. The Israelites are commanded to wash their clothes and bathe. The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 46b) indicates that what the Israelites went through was a conversion ceremony and immersed in a mikveh. Until that point, they had been privileged to inherit the covenant through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, though through no merit of their own. But now, they were invited to choose.

And choose they did. ‘Na’aseh v’nishmah’, they responded at the foot of the mount, overwhelmed by the glory of flame and thunder and the deep, eternal silence within. ‘We will do and we will hear’.

The Torah instructs us. We are to follow Yitro and Tzipporah, this phenomenal father-daughter team, to embrace the covenant on our own. Love your Judaism, hold it close. Cherish it, believe in it. It is our beautiful ‘segulah’, treasure. It is only when Judaism becomes more than just a stereotype and a cliché that we can truly fulfill our mission of what our parashah calls us to be: a ‘mamlechet Kohanim’ and a ‘goy kadosh’ – a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex. 19:6). Every covenant is conditional. The contract has been written, the terms are set but the conditions are compelling. We made that choice thousands of years ago. Every moment we can choose again to be the best Jews we can be., Then we can, in the words of the prophet Micah, ‘love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with our God’. Now that’s something worth converting to!

Shabbat shalom!

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