Wednesday, 27 Jan 2016

Written by Roberta Harris-Eckstein

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is the man, the outsider, who probably more than any other, had the greatest influence on Israel in the desert of Sinai.  He brings Moses’ wife and two sons to the camp in the desert, and Moses prostrates himself before him and makes him welcome.  Jethro is Moses’ senior in terms of the family party.  And there are two extraordinary things that we learn about him.  Jethro, who we are told is the Priest of Midian, acknowledges that the ‘God of Israel is greater than all gods’.  So he makes a burnt offering and sacrifices in honour of God and presides over a sacred meal to which Aaron comes with all the elders of Israel and they eat it together before God. 

That is pretty astonishing in my opinion; but then he has something to say about the way Moses is running the day to day life of Israel, its social and legal framework.  Jethro observes Moses running himself ragged acting as the chief magistrate for the people from morning to night.  And he comments that it really isn’t good either for Moses or for the people.  He suggests that Moses appoints men of good and strong character to act as justices for tens, fifties and hundreds and thousands – i.e., from magistrate’s court to the High Court, with Moses to act only as the Supreme Court and give God’s judgment to the litigants if all else fails. And that’s what happens.  Moses is saved from a major nervous breakdown and Israel is saved from anarchy as the ‘system’ breaks down.  After which Jethro leaves; not a bad day’s work all considered!

But in chapter 19 Moses, who now has time on his hands, goes up Mt Sinai (in Chapter 3 of Exodus when Moses encounters the Burning Bush the mountain is called Horeb) having learned once again how to shepherd sheep; only this time it is a human flock, thanks to Jethro.  Read one chapter further on and Moses receives the Ten Commandments and much else of the Torah besides.  All of which is in the parashah called by the name of Jethro, our favourite outsider  – an outsider who really made a difference.

It was the great medieval Spanish commentator called Nachmanides who first drew our attention to the fact that a few verses before Jethro appears on the scene, Israel is fighting off the Amalekites and then he makes us understand that there are good people and bad people in this world and it is their actions that show us which are which.  The Amalekites were the worst – God promised to blot out even the name of Amalek from the earth and to this day when scribes get the ink running in their quill pens in the morning, before they begin to write Torah, they write and scratch out the name of Amalek three times.  But then we have to set them beside Jethro of Midian, the best of the best of non-Israelites.  So we learn that not all outsiders are bad – just as not all are good.  But it is Jethro, the one who showed Israel the way to go, whom we remember as one of the good guys.

Do you see where I am going with this?  It’s pretty clear I think: Europe is currently receiving wave upon wave of outsiders; we call them refugees and asylum seekers.  They are coming from Syria, from Afghanistan, further east and from Africa to the south.  I hear public opinion changing as more and more people arrive desperate for food, shelter and a way to make a life for themselves and their children.  And yes, we know that not all of them are well-meaning; that there are terrorists among them; and we are frightened that if enough of them come, the lifeway, the religion and the culture of Europe will be compromised.  But I see on the news pictures of tiny children in uncomprehending misery – and then I hear that if they are allowed into Europe it will give an opening to the huge families they’ve left behind to come here.  I read about the importance of the Schengen Agreement and the need to police Europe’s borders (shades of Donald Trump) – and then I see the misery of life in the camps via the news reports on television: no warm clothes in a bitter winter and plastic tents torn apart by the wind, no proper bedding, not much decent food to eat.  I read of jihadists in Paris and of the bombing of the Da’esh in Syria – but not much about the innocent people bombed alongside them by the Allies or the Syrian government or the freedom fighters or the Russians.   And then I read reports of women attacked by young Moslem men in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve and I think of the Calais jungle.

There are good people and bad people in every age and in every society and even in every family, perhaps.  Jews know this; we’ve certainly enough of our own black sheep.  But think how many refugee Jews in this country alone, coming here virtually penniless, have contributed to the life and the culture and the wealth of the nation.   And we also know how we’ve been belittled over the years – worse than belittled in some cases.  I heard today about asylum seekers in Cardiff forced to wear a red wristband in order to be given food; and I thought about yellow stars.

Now I have no more answers than the next person to the refugee movement that is bidding fair to be the narrative of the present European decade.  But I do know the narrative of our own Jewish people and so I know that outsiders can – and many do – prove their weight in gold, as the saying goes, to the people they settle among – just as Jethro did on his short visit to the Israelites in the desert.  And one small step that each of us can take is to remember our Jewish story through the ages, and our own family history over the past few generations and refuse, just refuse, both privately and publicly to allow the blanket vilification of people who are far more unfortunate than we are in our comfortable, middle class, British lives.

Student Rabbi Roberta Harris-Eckstein

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.