Joining up with the Jewish people

June 24, 2009

3 min read


Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

A few years ago, Vitaly, a Russian Jew living in Minsk, faced the difficult decision of whether or not to undergo a circumcision. After expressing his fear to some American friends, they tried to reassure him by saying that after a couple of days the pain would subside.

Vitaly looked at them askance - because it wasn't the physical pain that had given him pause. Rather, he said, becoming circumcised was putting his life at risk. "You see," he explained, "it was a circumcision that identified my grandfather as being Jewish - and the Nazis shot him on the spot. Given the uncertain circumstances in Russia today, I may well be putting my life at risk if I undergo a circumcision."

Vitaly's friends were shaken by his reply, and asked him why did he not simply leave Russia? Vitaly replied, "Because of my attachment to family and friends."

Vitaly's willingness to risk physical danger in order to remain with family and friends has been echoed countless times in Jewish history. As well, this idea is illustrated in this week's Torah portion, Be'halot'cha.

A major figure in the Parsha is Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses. Prior to his association with Moses, Yitro had served as High Priest for the nation of Midian. Then Yitro heard about the many miracles God had performed for the Israelites in coming out of Egypt. So he journeyed with the Israelite encampment, became an advisor to Moses, and reached such a position of prominence that the Torah portion which recounts the giving of the Torah ­-Parshat Yitro - is named after him.

Yet despite all of these factors, there came a time when Yitro decided to return home. "I want to go to my land, to my birthplace," he told Moses (Numbers 10:30). This decision appears shocking, given that Yitro knew the truth of the Living God and had seen many miracles. How could Yitro abandon the Israelite camp and return home?!

Most commentaries explain that Yitro only wanted to take a physical - not a moral - leave of the Jewish People. Yitro had converted to Judaism and his intention was to return home and convert his family and fellow Midianites to Judaism before returning to the Israelite encampment. Buttressing this view is some later scriptural evidence that Yitro's offspring did in fact become Jewish and actually became prominent leaders among the Israelites.

Some commentaries, however, say that Yitro intended to permanently leave the Israelites. These sources offer three different reasons for Yitro's motives:

The first says that just as love of family and friends will convince people nowadays to stay in situations of danger, so too Yitro's love of family drew him back to the spiritual danger of life in Midian. (We saw this illustrated earlier with Vitaly, the Russian Jew.)

A second view says it was Yitro's desire for wealth and honor that motivated him to return home. In the Israelite camp, his importance would always be overshadowed by Moses, his son-in-law. The tangible riches that he possessed at home were more attractive than the ill-defined prospects he might receive with the Israelites.

A third view takes an entirely different perspective. This view says that given the Israelites constant complaining in the desert - and the revolts against Moses - Yitro questioned the value of staying with the Israelites. Just how much patience could the Almighty have with such a people? Yitro desired to distance himself from this swarming beehive.

Perhaps this final lesson is most applicable today, when Jews are too-often arguing with each other - both in Israel and elsewhere. By doing so, aren't we showing young Jews the negative side of Judaism and pushing them away? If this is Judaism, they say, then I don't want any part of it!

Let us learn a lesson from Yitro, and undertake to realize that peace amongst Jews is a vital condition for the health and preservation of our people.

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