Monday, January 21, 2008

Yitro 2

The Jews encamped around Mount Sinai were like converts in many respects, approaching Judaism for the first time. Until now they had been a family, the descendants of Ya’akov; suddenly they became a nation with common goals and aspirations. Though Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov had been monotheistic and spread this belief throughout the ancient world, there was no obligation to keep the commandments which define Judaism until Mount Sinai.

Furthermore, there was no concept of matrilineal descent until Sinai. Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah all came from the family of Terach, but were no more ‘Jewish’ than Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Their children were part of the ‘Children of Israel’ because they chose to emulate the beliefs and attributes of their parents, but Yishmael and Esav exercised the freedom to abandon this lifestyle and take a different path in life. Since Sinai, however, a person is Jewish either because their mother is Jewish, or if they convert through the principles of conversion laid down at Sinai.

It is appropriate therefore that the portion begins with the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, who was the first true convert. We have a tradition that Pharaoh had three chief advisors, Yitro, Iyov (Job) and Bilaam. He asked them for their advice about how to deal with the Jews, and whether to kill the baby boys. Bilaam agreed that Pharaoh should kill them, and consequently was killed by the Jews in the war with Moav. Iyov remained silent, and as a result suffered terribly later in life (as related in the book of Iyov). Yitro disagreed, and told Pharaoh not to persecute the Jews. He was forced to flee to Midyan and renounce his position of authority, but ultimately converts in this week’s Torah portion, and shares in the inheritance of Israel.

Yitro had also been the high priest of idolatry both in Egypt and in Midyan, and had tried every religion and cult in the world before coming to realise that Judaism was the one and only true religion. When Yitro says “Now I know that G-d is greater than all other gods” (Shemot 18; 11) he is speaking from first hand knowledge, as Rashi explains “This teaches us that he knew all the idolatry in the world and there was not a single idol that he had not served”.

Thus Yitro’s choice to convert to Judaism was motivated by his search for truth. It was this quest that allowed him to speak out against Pharaoh’s decrees, and the same goal led him to every religion in the world. Rashi’s language is carefully chosen; he not only knew every religion but had also tried them all, and experienced them. Often a belief system does not make sense unless one takes part in it, conversely often a philosophy seems utopian until it is put into practise. Only through studying and experiencing was Yitro able to come to the conclusion that Judaism was the only true religion.

Since Sinai we no longer have a need to experiment with other religions. We know the truth of Judaism from our parents, and they from their parents, in a chain of tradition stretching back to Sinai. However one who converts to Judaism often only reaches their decision to convert after having denounced other belief systems as false. In the famous story about Hillel and the convert (Shabbat 31a) we see that Hillel was sensitive to this affirmation through rejection of the other.

A person once approached Shamai and told him that he wanted to convert on the condition that Shamai would teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Shamai rejected him, and sent him away. The same person then approached Hillel, who told him “That which is hateful to you don’t do to others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary - go and learn it.”

Why did Hillel not simply quote the verse from the Torah (Vayikra 19; 18) “Love your fellow as yourself”? The answer is that Hillel appreciated the ability of the convert to discern truth from falsehood through a process of negation. This is possibly a higher level than simply accepting the truth. The Torah only requires one to examine what they enjoy, and to act in a similar manner with others. Hillel’s statement also requires the convert to search out what they dislike, to understand better how to treat others.

One of the most difficult things is to seek truth. We have become inoculated by the society around us to the point where we question the very existence of an absolute truth. Even once someone accepts that there is such a thing as truth, the search to attain it can last a lifetime and necessarily involves hardship in forsaking any comforts of falsehood. Arriving at the truth is the culmination of a heroic effort, and therefore the Torah instructs us to recognise this effort, and several times (e.g. Vayikra 19; 33 and Devarim 10; 18) enjoins us not to afflict a convert, and to treat him or her with special respect

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