This Dvar Torah is a response to the heated debate between the Polish government and the Israeli government, the United States and Jews throughout the world. There was a lot of posturing, invectives were levelled and age-old stereotypical prejudices re-emerged. As a rabbi in Poland, who has witnessed in the past four years remarkable openness, dialogue, and willingness to confront the past and build a better future, this saddens me greatly. I hope and pray that this episode represents an aberration from an otherwise positive relationship between Jew and non-Jew, Poland and Israel and all those who have a deep connection to the Jewish heritage in Poland.
The Parsha opens with a few simple words and yet a major debate emerged regarding their meaning:
“And Yitro Heard”
Rashi asks, ‘What did Yitro hear which made him come’? Rashi quotes the Midrash which offers various possibilities as to what motivated Yitro to act:
Rabbi Yehoshua—the battle of Amalek; Rabbi Elazar—the Giving of the Torah (there is a debate if Yitro came to Moshe before or after the giving of the Torah); Rabbi Eliezer—the splitting of the sea; Rabbi Shimon—the miracle of the Manna which fell from heaven; Rabbi Jose—the miracle of the clouds of glory which protected the Israelites; another position—he heard the building of the Mishkan.
What do all these positions have in common? They all heard something miraculous, something wondrous which motivated Yitro to uproot himself, his family, and come to the Israelite camp to bless God. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that each version represents a different perspective, a different viewpoint of the events.
Rabbi Joshua saw that Yitro ‘heard’ about a battle of good over evil. That theme of justice, of God not only saving a lowly people from slavery but also meting out justice—that was Yitro’s turning point.
Rabbi Eliezer saw Yitro ‘hearing’ the climax of the supernatural in the splitting of the sea. For Yitro, a priest of Midian, what moved him was concrete proof that God is willing to stop the natural order for His people. He was religiously motivated by the miracle.
Rabbi Jose read that Yitro ‘heard’ that this nation, the Israelites, a downtrodden slave subjected people for hundreds of years, suddenly rises like a phoenix. Yitro is mystified by this nation whom by all laws of history and politics should have disappeared, yet they have some magical protection, not entirely physical though, but more like clouds which should not provide refuge from the storm of slavery or assimilation. Yet, those ‘clouds of glory’ protected this nation and brought them out whole.
Each rabbi had his own Yitro! Each one brought his own vitality to the text, his own perspective which fashioned his view of Yitro’s motivation. In fact, they may have had very little in common; Rabbi Joshua told his friends, ‘you think this story is only about a small nation seeking freedom? This is a universal epic of good vs. evil.’ Rabbi Jose argued saying, ‘the greatness here lies in one people, one miraculous nation and one God who will always protect His beloved’.
Yet, despite each rabbi seeing a different Yitro and believing he heard something different, they all praised Yitro for his actions. Not so with everyone though!
Others also ‘heard and came’, yet their reaction was not one of praise, thanksgiving and blessing, rather fear, anxiety, and bellicosity. Amalek ‘came’ to fight against the Israelites, to upset this fairy book story of a people returning to their land, from exile to redemption. Amalek sought to cool down the excitement of the Israelites, change the narrative from one of optimism and joy to war and the most mundane affairs of man. The rabbis taught that Amalek knew they would lose but attacked anyway just to sour the story of the Exodus.
Balak also ‘saw’ and came to Bilaam with a plan. Not of blessing but cursing; not of recognizing the divine plan for the Israelites, but using the worst dark magic to destroy the spirit of the Hebrew nation, to soil their holiness simply because they were on the rise. Apparently, a Jew on the rise is enough of a provocation to use any means necessary to curse, halt, suspend their positive energy and hopefully destroy them.
The Torah sets up in our minds several non-Jewish responses to the success of the Jewish people, each one with his own perspective. Everyone hears what they want, everyone brings their own biases, prejudices and histories to their perspective on an objective event in history.
As a result, instead of harmony in recognizing the hand of God in the world, pandemonium ensued.
This message has never abated throughout all Jewish history.
The internet was on fire this week after the Polish parliament presented a new law which would criminalize the utterance of the words ‘Polish death camp’ as well as render illegal any statements which blame ‘the Polish nation’ for involvement in the Holocaust. Many interpreted this move in the most extreme way possible, which elicited extreme rhetoric. Sadly, everybody stiffened their backs and fought because of the egregious statements included in this law. Had the government settled with a specific law about the words Polish death camps it would have been understood; after all it is ludicrous to describe Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek or any of them as anything other than the work of the Nazi war machine.
But then to sweepingly generalize about no complicity on the part of the Polish nation in harming Jews during the Holocaust will render any discussion about the complicity of individual Poles impossible.
And so, everyone heard what they wanted to hear and lashed out to protect either their homeland or their ancestors. At a time when Poland was progressing in appreciating the complexity of their past, we are thrust into an ‘us vs. them’ battle which only draws deeper wedges and propagates more stereotypes.
If we all tried a little harder to hear the other voices and not be so convinced of our own understanding as ‘the only truth’, we would resume a path towards a more harmonious existence and not the reverse.
Let us hope that angers subside, the law is changed to reflect a more balanced understanding of history and the important relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, and that we try instead to rally around what should bind us all together—our common belief in God and of the miracle at Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.
“Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard of the miracle of God’s revelation and the giving of the Divine Word, and that made him get up and come to sing God’s praises”.