Parashat Yitro

Friday, February 5, 2021/23 Shevat, 5781
Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1–20:23

Dear Friends,

Of the fifty-four Torah portions we study each year, there are only six named after individuals, and three of those are named for people who are not Jewish. There is a portion named Noah, for the prophet, who created a boat, saving countless creatures’ lives during the flood, and whose descendant Abraham would become the first Jew. There was the Moabite King Balak, who tried to curse Israel and failed. Indeed, his descendants would one day include Ruth, King David, and our traditions teach us they will one day include the Messiah. This week’s portion is named after a Mediante priest named Yitro, or Jethro.

Yitro welcomed Moses when he was a stranger wandering the desert and soon became Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 2:20-21). When God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, instructing him to free his people from Egypt, Yitro responded by encouraging him. “Go in peace,” he said (Exodus 4:18). This week’s Torah portion begins with Yitro praising God for bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and giving Moses advice about how to best serve his people (Exodus 18).

It is not so striking that a portion would be named after a man who had such a profound effect on Moses and, by extension, the Jewish people. However, it is profound that the Torah portion, which includes revelation (receiving the Ten Commandments) itself, would be named after a man who was not Jewish.

We learn that every person in the Jewish family was present at Mount Sinai, including those who had already died and those who were not yet born. It includes Jewish people and people who are Jewish-adjacent, people of different colors, backgrounds, and languages. It consists of every individual who is reading this message.

Years ago, a parent came to me as we were preparing for her son’s Bar Mitzvah. “I’m not Jewish,” she said. “Am I… allowed to sit with my son on the bima? Can I pass him the Torah and offer him a prayer?” Although this mother was not Jewish, she had been the one to bring him to religious school, read him PJ library books, and create the most beautiful Seders. “Yes,” I told her. “You have helped your son to become a proud, educated, and insightful Jew. You are also a welcome and celebrated member of our community. I look forward to you being an integral part of your son’s service and many other honors in the years ahead.”

In naming the Torah portion Yitro, Jewish scholars were offering a powerful message of inclusion. Just as everyone in the Jewish family was welcome at Mount Sinai, so too is everyone welcome in our temple. This Shabbat let us celebrate how lucky we are to have a diverse Temple Beth El family, filled with intramarried and intermarried families, with people born as Jews, people who chose to convert, and people who are Jewish-adjacent. At Temple Beth El, all are welcome and celebrated.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail