Sign In Forgot Password

Love 'em or hate 'em

16/02/17 15:05:03


We had a spirited discussion in our Parasha shiur yesterday about the Jewish relationship to the outside world. It all began with the opening event of the parasha: the visit of Moses’s famous non-Jewish father-in-law, Jethro, high priest of Midian.  In this scene Jethro is the outsider bringing with him the perspective of fresh eyes, the experience of old eyes. He is an integral part of Moses’s family, grandfather to his two children, former employer of Moses himself, yet despite his connection to Moses, he is still the outsider, for he wasn’t in Egypt, he experienced neither the labour nor the liberation, neither the slavery nor the salvation. In a word he missed the birthing of the nation, he wasn’t present at its Independence Day nor at the Red Sea. He is the quintessential outsider, the other, the non-Jew who has no shared past with the historical experiences of the Jewish people.

For all this, he arrives and gives wise counsel, he points out a fundamental flaw in the structure and organisation of the Jewish camp. He is a man who listens attentively (“And Jethro heard” are the opening words of the parasha) and watches with acuity. Moses responds immediately to his sound advice and Jethro’s reputation soars. He gets a Parasha in the Torah in his name – not bad for a stranger and idolater! The message is clear: here is a gentile with a gentle message of love and thoughtfulness for the Jewish people. For all those who contend – ‘you can’t trust them; scratch a non-Jew you’ll find an anti-Semite deep down; they all hate and at very least mistrust us’, to all of these the Torah contends: Take a long look at Jethro, a non-Jew you can trust and rely on, a friend not a foe…

Now many would argue that the lessons of Jewish history prove the opposite, the reality of the Jewish present testifies to the contrary. Just look around at BDS, the UN, the Europeans and the Arabs… not to mention many in the USA. And of course there is a compelling legitimacy to this contention. Israel’s enemies are many and virulent, toxic and dangerous. Read the end of last weeks parasha, read the Amalek manifesto; “Remember what Amalek did to you… erase them… don’t forget” (Deut 25: 17,18)

Surely in the end we’re on our own or as another non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam, put it, we are “a nation that lives alone”. (Num 2 3:9)There is much truth to this and while the Torah calls on us to remove hatred from our hearts and explicitly says, “Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land [and he took you in]” (Deut 23:8), it doesn’t expect us to love those who seek to kill us. Evil is always present and we need to name it, confront it and defeat it. You can’t negotiate with an Amalkite personality or a terrorist. Amalek is no longer around but the evil they embodied is always present in the human heart. So what’s the Jewish attitude to the non-Jewish world? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Or a more nuanced ‘Respect them but be wary of them?’

Medieval commentator the Ibn Ezra, suggests that the juxtaposition of Amelek and Jethro is deliberate: “Since the Torah has just mentioned the evil which Amalek did to the Israelites, it must immediately mention in contrast the good advice which Jethro gave the Israelites”. In effect, as Rabbi Riskin points out, this is teaching us that all gentiles should not be seen in the same light: there is the non-Jew who is jealous and aggressive (like Amalek) but there is also the non-Jew who is admiring and willing to help like Jethro. The State of Israel has no choice but to fight against autocratic governments and terrorist groups, but it also has a real choice to establish partnerships with its friends and admirers. We do our kids and grandchildren no favours when we teach them to hate and distrust anybody who’s not Jewish. Only with justice, compassion and peace (and a formidable army) can we fulfil our role and destiny as outlined in this week’s parasha: to be “a holy people, a nation of priests”. We can only be a light to the nations when we are ready to share our light and warmth with the other.


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780