Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed,
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed;
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude…
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)
Well the first thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire;
Kin folk said Jed move away from there;
Said California is the place you oughta be,
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly…
(Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars)
Given my penchant for beginning my essays by quoting poetry, I acknowledge that using the lyrics from the theme song of the 1960’s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, might come off as clownish. No TV show of that era in American television was more ridiculous than this one, with its preposterous plot of a backwoods family that strikes it rich in the oil business and moves in among the Hollywood set, yet continues to act and dress like it was still shooting squirrels off of trees. Among the show’s zany cast of nouveau riche hicks, no one is more ridiculous than Jethro Bodine. He is the young stud who moves with his family — Jed, Granny, and Ellie Mae – from the Ozarks to their millionaire McMansion in Tinseltown. He has a big mouth, an even bigger heart, and a brain the size of a pea. He is, putting it kindly, a simple man, what in classical biblical and rabbinic Hebrew we call an ish peti,
A cardinal feature of midrashic thinking is to draw highly inventive analogies between the stuff of daily life and the content of the Bible. This is actually a common sermonic technique going back at least two milenia in Jewish religious history. Each year that we read the narratives about Jethro, the father in law of Moses, in the book of Exodus, I always consider drawing just such an analogical connection between the two Jethros in one of my sermons. In years past, I have dissuaded myself from doing so, and with good reason. Totally unlike his foolish 1960’s namesake, the Jethro of the Torah is a shrewd, dignified man who advises Moses on developing a judicial system for applying the Torah’s laws fairly and logically; he is a man who, according to legend, saved the life of baby Moses while serving as an advisor to Pharaoh. Could there possibly be even a remotely reasonable connection between Jethro the Midianite and the chief goofball of the Beverly Hillbillies?
There is, in fact, one very meaningful connection between the two characters that the scholar, Avivah Zornberg helped me to understand through her interpretation of how the ancient rabbis viewed Jethro’s spiritual journey. As she points out in her commentary on Exodus, our sages referred to Jethro as an ish peti, naïve and simple, similar at first glance to our country bumpkin, Jethro Bodine. (I come by this interpretive stretch quite honestly. At no point does Zornberg compare the two men.)
This is not how Jethro, the priest of Midian started out, as I alluded to before. The Bible and the later rabbis viewed him as a very powerful, sophisticated, and politically savvy man, whose influence extended to the highest reaches of Egyptian society and its machinery of oppression. He then rejected his power and his sophistication, along with the taint of his association with Pharaoh, and ran, almost like a child, to Moses and his people in the barren wilderness. Why did he do that? According to the rabbis, Jethro was willing to give up kevodo shel olam, all his worldly honor, when he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, and the defeat of the Amalekites who had attacked the people of Israel. Jethro’s cleverness, power, and prestige were no match for the awe he felt when he heard the reports about God’s presence in nature, in the Torah, and in the fight against evil. He recognized that God, not he, was the center of the universe, and that whatever sophistication and control he thought he possessed, was never really his. He gave up his foolish illusions of ruthless self sufficiency by becoming a simple hillbilly, an ish peti, for God.
What does this mean in real human terms? Religion is often (at times rightly) accused of giving easy cover to the worst authoritarian impulses of religious communities and their leaders. Speak long and forcefully enough in God’s name while encouraging a communal culture of intimidation, and you will succeed in creating simpletons who park their brains and their free will at the door of any house of worship. That is an ugly abuse of religion. Equally ugly is the abuse of corporate power, culture, and communications to foster much the same spirit of authoritarianism. We moderns have become so hard wired by what the mega-powers tell us will make us free, connected and sophisticated, that we risk losing sight of how trapped we are by the false gods they use to keep us apart and to dumb us down. Pharaoh comes in many varieties, not merely the religious ones. As it did for Jethro the Midianite, religion has the potential to call us to disentangle ourselves from all those false gods and to shatter them by becoming anshei peti, spiritually simple, though not simplistic. Religion challenges us to cut through our illusions, to get to who we truly are and can be, by asking us to create real community with others; it calls us to achieve genuine sophistication by seeking wisdom which transcends mere intellect and cleverness; it offers us the opportunity to find real freedom in service to God, not merely ourselves. To do all these things, religion, in our case Judaism, gives us the words of Torah, the ever speaking voice of God at Sinai which allows us to become simple again: to be open, uncomplicated, and humble enough to actually listen to God’s voice instead of the many voices of hubris and falsehood, our own and society’s, that thrum incessantly in our heads.
To be anshei peti, simpletons for God, we are not obligated to become Jethro Bodine, fools without critically thinking brains. We do need to become Jethro the Midianite, thoughtful people who abandon the trappings of this world of clever illusions long enough to see reality as God would have us see it.