Frederick L. Klein

Parashat Yitro: Yitro and Amalek

I have just returned from Israel, during one of the heaviest weeks in memory.  I arrived on Tuesday, after the terrible news of the deaths of twenty-one soldiers.  The very air felt heavy as I arrived.  The next day I met with a friend, whose daughter is a spokesperson from the IDF.  After the building collapse she was texting a friend who was communicating with one of the medics on the ground, rescuing the injured.  She related to her that the unit was triaging the injured, attending first to the most critically wounded.  She noticed a soldier slumped over against a wall, looking a bit shell shocked, but other than scratches seemed to be stable.  She therefore attended to the critically injured.  Some time had passed and she finally turned to this soldier.  He looked up and began to scream.  “What about this person!” as he pointed to the stretcher that lay before him.  “Are you going to leave him to die?  What about him?”

Looking down, the medic saw no one.  The stretcher was empty.

The hallucination of this soldier reveals far deeper wounds that this war presents.  There will be the visibly injured- those who have lost their lives and their limbs.  However, the price this war extracts is far reaching, as one cannot visibly see the inner wounds of an entire generation, the psychologically and emotionally  compromised.   A body can come back from a war, but will a full person come back, or will they be a ghost?  Bodies are being bloodied, but so are our souls.  In this way, the entire body of the Jewish people are wounded to various degrees, concentric circles of trauma. The traumas of history are being replayed for so many of us.  As one Israeli colleague said, “Nothing is ever going to be the same.”  While he may have referred to the contours of Israeli society, I suspect more accurately it reflects the contours of the individual hearts of every Jew and how our scope of vision may be indelibly impacted by these devastating days.

Indeed, the level of anxiety, uncertainty, and even rage pulsates in the hearts and minds of every Israeli I met.  The levels of internal woundedness is really hard to fathom, and in the midst of war few have the luxury to tend to these injuries.   On the contrary, from the far left to the far right, I received a unified message.  All physical, emotional and spiritual energy must be directed to a united mission: defeating Hamas.

When this ends and when we are safe, only then can we deal with the internal carnage this war.

For not a few, Jewish mythic memory and texts contains the chaotic inner emotions, as it provides a framework through which one can begin to process what has happened.  In present events we can see echoes of past events. For not a few, the ghosts of Amalek are being awakened, a warlike people who attacked the Israelites upon leaving Egypt for seemingly no reason at all.  Hamas (and disturbingly for some people all Palestinians) are heirs to the ancient Amalekites.[2]

At the end of last  week’s parashah we are introduced to the Israelites first encounter with them in Refidim. Moses commands Joshua to record the event and charges the Jewish people to battle this people for every generation, to destroy them completely.   It is clear that the battle is not a onetime battle about material wealth or land, but an ongoing battle against Israel and its God.  While for most of history this all out battle with a warring tribe was allegorized as a spiritual battle, during times of particular anxiety the theological framework very much describes how many feel.  While Pharaoh oppressed the Jewish people, his motivation was at the core economic.  He attacked them at the Sea of Reeds upon realizing the slaves were escaping, the foundation of the Egyptian economy.  The core of the war with Amalek was not for any specific goal, but to obliterate the Israelites and their values.  With forces such as this there are no accords or accommodations.  There is only absolute war. In this sense, the war with Hamas is very much akin to the war with Amalek.

Looking at the events through this prism is understandable when it comes to a murderous force like Hamas.  However, looking at the world in a binary fashion can blind us from future opportunities.  The fight or flight reaction so common for those experiencing trauma can potentially blind us to future possibilities of reconciliation, even if at the moment this simply is not possible.  For some commentators, the beginning of our Parashah, juxtaposing the battle with the murderous Amalekites and the arrival of the righteous gentile Yitro is purposeful.

You will remember that Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law, and he hears of all the miracles done for the Israelites upon leaving Egypt.  He comes to the desert with Moses’ wife and two children.  Upon arriving the two leaders embrace, and Moses proceeds to tell Yitro of all the blessings God has given them on the journey- the ten plagues, the splitting of the Sea, and the miraculous food in the desert.  Hearing all of this, Yitro rejoices and blesses God, and realizes that the God of Moses is the God of all.  He then offers sacrifices to God and eats a meal with Aaron and the leadership.  For many commentors, these actions constitute a form of conversion; at the very minimum, Yitro has a religious awakening and deeply relates to the God of Israel, and subsequently even advises Moses as to how to administer God’s justice.

Various commentators of antiquity and the Middle Ages argue about the timing of Yitro’s arrival.  Some state it was following the splitting of the Sea, while others speak of the miracles in the desert.  However, not a few argue that in actuality Yitro comes after the revelation at Sinai. (This would make sense on a number of levels, as it says Yitro comes to ‘the mountain of God’ before that mountain is introduced, and advises Moses upon administering justice, possibly implying the Torah had already been given.[3]) Those that argue this opine that chronological considerations are not the only factor in the way the Torah records events.  If Yitro truly comes after revelation, why is the narrative introduced before revelation?  The twelfth century commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra provides an explanation.  The sections is placed here to contrast the two. The Amalekites committed unspeakable evil to us, but Yitro did a great kindness to us.  While the Ibn Ezra speaks of the advice he gives to Moses later in the parashah, we also must remember that Yitro welcomed him into his home many years earlier when he was an Egyptian on the run.   If I were to interpret Ibn Ezra in a modern way, he is arguing that just as we must recognize evil, we must also recognize the goodness of others, and not allow our trauma to define our future interactions.

It is critical that in our deliberations even now that we make distinctions, as the trauma we experience today may blind us to nuance.  Even the Biblical text indicates this, as King Saul later battles the Amalekites. Saul specifically calls upon on Yitro’s descendants- the Kenites- to depart from their midst, “for you have done a great kindness with the entire nation of Israel” (Samuel I, 15:4).   The welcoming of Moses as a refugee many years earlier and his continued support of the Jewish people is a kindness which is remembered hundreds of years later, as much as the lingering memory to destroy Amalek.   Both memories need to inform our visions moving forward.

We do not know when another Yitro will arise.  I suspect not in the near future. However, we must hold out the hope that there will be a Yitro, and we will be ready to embrace him.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The following words were inspired in part from my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s thoughts in his weekly parashah reflections as published in his book Shemot: Defining a Nation (Maggid), as well R. Amnon Bazak’s weekly parashah reflection on Yitro in Nekudot Peticha (Yediot Achronot Books)

[2]nI am focusing on the Jewish suffering, but admittedly, the traumatic wounds brought about through the heinous actions of Hamas and a subsequent war will take generations to heal among Palestinians as well.  As Jews and human beings, we must distinguish between the perpetrators and the innocent.

[3] See Ibn Ezra at the beginning of the Parashah for many more arguments.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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