Ichbid from Bethlehem came to my house a few weeks ago to make sure that my balcony would not collapse from structural damage. He came to my house every day for a week; one of the bloodiest and most tense weeks in recent Israeli-Palestinian history. The wear and tear over the years had taken its toll; a rocky and rusty foundation in need of dire repair.
Each morning as my children whooshed out the door like galloping stallions, I’d fill the teapot with water as Ichbid and his team arrived. With the kids out the door, I was able to take a deep breath and feel the quiet tension in the air subside only to be reignited by morning news that sounded promptly on the hour. The water boiled and the kettle whistled, as we both half-listened to the news about this epoch in history. We sipped tea and nibbled on my poor attempt at a tea-biscuit.
When the news ended, he quietly muttered, “My wife has a great recipe for cookies, if you want.” I nodded, having eagerly been waiting for an opportunity to break the ice between us.
Over the next week, Ichbid told me about his family. He had six children, from two different mothers. His current wife was a “queen” and he would wake up even earlier than four in the morning if it meant making her happy. Ichbid told me that it wasn’t such a big deal to wake up at the crack of dawn, because it meant that he’d cross the checkpoint and meet his boss without any added stress or time pressure. I asked him if it was hard having to cross borders and work endless hours, but when he wanted to complain, he just praised God instead. In his accented Hebrew he said, “B’ezrat Hashem, I have what I have and with God’s help, I will see you again tomorrow.” Sometimes he praised God so much that I became concerned.
While the construction was a messy nuisance, I couldn’t help but wait for Ichbid to arrive each day. Meeting him and living even in the slightest vicariously through his eyes was revelatory. It is easy to forget that there are human beings that exist between the words of international headlines. And as the world listened to news about rising tensions in the Middle East, we were sitting in my living room talking and praising God for the goodness in our lives.
In this week’s sidra, Parshat Yitro, we meet Moshe and the people of Israel after having been exalted by God from slavery to freedom. Moshe, overwhelmed by the journey, the task and holding the weight of any entire people on his shoulders, meets his family who had not been with him during the exodus from Egypt. While he does not reconnect to his wife or sons, he does greet his father-in-law, Yitro, and goes on to tell him about the tales of his people and the goodness of God.
“Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how Lord had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians. ‘Blessed be the Lord,’ Jethro said, ‘who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people]. And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father in law.’” (Exodus 18, 7-12)
Yitro, not of the people of Israel, hears Moshe’s retelling of the exodus and it moves him. He says, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.” The commentators insinuate that this scene, where Yitro makes a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and breaks bread with Moshe, is a declaration of his new found faith in the Hebrew god, Elohim; that he has renounced his previous beliefs and now counts himself amongst the people of Israel. This moment juxtaposed next to the Divine revelation at Sinai a few sentences later, implies that even one who did not leave Egypt can still feel as if they were exalted themselves by God. Yitro, had felt both the hardships that had befallen the people of Israel and also had rejoiced in the glory of their salvation; the bitter and the sweet always mixed together in the same batter.
As Ichbid and I bid farewell on the last day of the balcony reconstruction, I wished him well and asked that if I were to ever visit Bethlehem, that he should make me tea as well. He obliged, smiled and said, “God willing,” and then “Lehit’raot”.
In all likelihood, due to our lives and this reality, we will never cross paths again. However, I will thank God that despite the adversity of this moment, that despite the pain that exists in the fibers of our being and the grains of this turf, we shared interpersonal revelation. I will thank God for a minute of holiness through connection. And if we do meet again, inshallah!
May we follow in the path of our brethren Yitro and Ichbid; feeling exaltation, creating revelation and seeking connection whether over burnt offerings or burnt tea biscuits with a cup of sweetened mint tea.
Originally published for Rabbis for Human Rights.