וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֮ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־יְהוָ֥ה דִּבֶּר־ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.”
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו לֹ֣א אֵלֵ֑ךְ כִּ֧י אִם־אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י אֵלֵֽךְ׃
“I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י ׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם׃
He said, “Please do not leave us, since you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide.
וְהָיָ֖ה כִּי־תֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ הַטּ֣וֹב הַה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵיטִ֧יב יְהוָ֛ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְהֵטַ֥בְנוּ לָֽךְ׃
So, if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the LORD grants us.”
This is one of those stories, where, hesitantly, I read it as imbued, infused, with the kind of generosity and nobility of spirit, the recognition of what is right, that - as I say - almost feels suspiciously too good to be true. The living out the value of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Which isn’t to say there is nothing transactional happening here, I just don’t think that’s the main thing. And that it’s not the main thing, is the lesson we need to heed this week.
The Jews certainly owe a debt to Jethro, one worth a trip to the Holy Land. For one, Jethro believes in God and freely acknowledges God’s power. Furthermore, being a nomad, the Jews recognize Jethro will have much wise counsel to offer for a nation who only recently were slaves and now find themselves in the wilderness. Finally, Jethro is the one who saved and helped train Moses, the instrument of their salvation.
But even with all that, even with the implication that Jethro will be their Bronze Age GPS, Moses’s offer doesn’t seem to stem so much from a calculation of what they can get off Jethro – Moses offers because they want to share God’s unbelievable blessings and favor with someone else. Sure, Jethro is a good and righteous man, but he’s not a Jew, he wasn’t a slave, so his claim to God’s bounty is the not the same. The Jews offer, I hope anyway, because they have learned the best way to express gratitude is to show it to others.
The story though, of the Jewish People meeting Jethro, a tribal chief from the wilderness, and welcoming him with respect and equality, speaks to our present-day trouble in America. We Jews today seem in danger of forgetting what it is to be the one Jethro before the multitude of Israelites.
Often enough in our history, we have been that outsider. And often enough, we were not welcomed generously, and certainly not on equal terms, either.
Yet when our parshah this week takes the time to relate this story to us, and when our People’s history tells it to us over and over – at least in terms of how it can go wrong, how is it we aren’t keen to see it all around us in the United States today?
For even though each of us may all be proper, kale-eating, NPR-listening, fabric shopping bag carrying, champions of human rights everywhere – we still seem to find ourselves in a society where a lot of racism and bigotry exist and go unchecked.
And I say this as someone who sighs at the narrow-mindedness of those who believe equality means imposing damnatio memoriae on the accomplishments of the great men and women of history simply because they did not share the values of today – wishing I could remind them that today is not the 25th of Prairial in the year 228 (the base 10, anti-royal, anti-church French Revolutionary Calendar date for today) for many and varied and good reasons, not least because it is a hubris to think we can curate history in that way.
But that does not mean landmarks and statues dedicated to traitors to our country should dot our landscape.
Nor should we use “well it’s always been like that” as an excuse not to scour court and custom for unseen bastions of prejudice - we must - though with the thoughtful eyes of centuries and millennia, and not of news-cycles and elections.
And it must not lead us to stand by and not act. Really act – which needn’t mean going as far as marching in the streets, but which equally doesn’t mean only grasping the lowest of all hanging fruit by changing your Facebook picture either.
Through donations, voting, educating, and listening, and also soul-searching, we can also accomplish much. Let us not be barriers to achieving the Torah’s ideal – because the danger that we are is real.
There is much more to say, but I’ll leave you with this from the Midrash on this passage. While many believe (like I do) that our story conclude with Jethro’s unspoken agreement to go with the Israelites, we also encounter this version:
When they had eaten with him, he said: “Give me permission to go to my own place.” Moses said to him (in Numb. 10:32): “IT SHALL BE THAT, IF YOU COME WITH US, IT SHALL COME TO PASS THAT WHATEVER GOOD THE LORD DOES FOR US WE WILL DO FOR YOU.” Jethro said to him: “I want to go and utter the Holy One's praise in my own place.” Immediately (in Exod. 18:27): MOSES SENT HIS FATHER-IN-LAW AWAY…. Now when the Holy One does miracles for Israel, they praise God, and because of Jethro, the nations of the world praise God, too, as is proved by what it says in Psalms, (Ps. 138:4): THESE PEOPLES, ALL THE KINGS OF THE EARTH SHALL GIVE THANKS TO YOU, O LORD, FOR THEY HAVE HEARD THE WORDS OF YOUR MOUTH.
The impact our good deeds and good beliefs can have on others is clear – the knowledge of God spreads in the world when we act towards others in a way that conforms with God – they repeat and amplify it – but then the opposite must also be true. Let us not send anyone away from hurting or hating – if we do not join together on our journey, at least let us part ways sharing our purpose to fulfill God’s will wherever we may be.