The other week, I was sitting with family members at the dinner of my niece’s wedding, when an unfamiliar man stood near our table looking for a place to sit, we invited him to sit with us and he introduced himself as the father of the bride’s good friend.
In the course of our conversation, he called himself a bujew. Being that this was the first time I heard this label I asked him what it meant. He told me he was Jewish, but he is a Buddhist. He quickly added that he is very proud that all of his children are religious – Torah observant Jews.
After he briefly explained what Buddhism is about, I asked if I could offer him a quick introduction to Judaism, and he graciously accepted. A few things I shared with him were new to him and he was surprised that he was unaware of them. We then went on to enjoy the lively dancing and the rest of the dinner without any further discussion about religion.
I’m not sure if our discussion had any impact on his beliefs, but one thing I am sure of is that he was open to listening. That is not a simple step, especially if one feels strongly about their position.
The name of this week’s portion is Yisro, who was famous because he was our leader Moshe’s father in law. Yisro was actually famous even before his daughter Tziporah married Moshe. Our Sages tell us that Yisro was an advisor to the Pharoh and when Pharoh asked his cabinet members what they thought of his plan to enslave the Jews, Yisro didn’t want to have anything to do with it and therefore fled Egypt settling in Midyan.
Yisro exhibited tremendous strength of character. Although he held a high position in the government, when he disagreed morally with their plans, he did not gloss it over, rather, he took action and fled from being part of the awful plan.
The Torah addresses Yisro as ‘Kohain’ Midyan. Yisro searched to find meaning to his life and tried and worshipped every idol imaginable. In fact, at one point he became the head of Midyan’s idolatrous religion.
Then, even before Moshe showed up in Midyan as a fugitive from Egypt, Yisro rejected idolatry and its faith, stepped down from his high position and embraced monotheism. This bold move came at a price, for he and his family were ostracized and excommunicated.
A little over a year after Moshe was summoned by G-d to return to Egypt to lead the Jews out of Egypt, the Torah relates that Yisro left his homeland Midyan and joined the Jewish nation in the midst of their travels in the desert.
What motivated Yisro to join the Jewish people? It wasn’t only to escort his daughter Tzipora and his grandchildren Gershom and Eliezer to be united with Moshe. The Torah uses the term Vayishma – and Yisro heard – he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea, about the war the Jews fought with their nemesis Amalek, and he heard about G-d Revealing Himself at Mount Sinai proclaiming the Ten Commandments! This sold him on Judaism and he came to be converted!
You see, people all around the world knew about the splitting of the Red Sea because all bodies of water around the world simultaneously split at that time. All people around the world heard about G-d’s Revelation to the Jews at Mount Sinai.
The only person to join the Jews was Yisro. How was Yisro different than everyone else? Yisro processed what he heard and it led to action – his body and actions were in sync with his mind. This same trait led him to flee from Egypt when he was opposed to their plan and to reject idols and leave the high position he held. Finally, when Yisro heard about all that happened to the Jews he picked himself up and proudly joined. Yisro was rewarded with having a special segment of the Torah attributed to him.
Interestingly, Yisro didn’t hang around the desert for too long to bask in the honor of being Moshe’s father in law. He eventually put himself to action and returned home to spread the word of G-d to his family back in Midyan.
Before G-d came to the Jews offering them to receive the Torah, G-d revealed Himself to the prophets of the various nations to ask them if they wished to receive the Torah. Each of the nations asked what is written in the Torah? To the descendants of Aisav G-d related, “It says do not kill.” They said, ‘no way,’ we inherited the trait of killing from our ancestor Aisav.
G-d went to the nations of Amon and Moav. When they asked what is written in the Torah? G-d said, “Do not commit adultery.” They said we come from Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters; how can we live up to these ideals?
G-d went to Yishmael. They asked what is written, G-d said, “Do not steal.” They said, we inherited this trait from our forefathers and cannot live up to it.”
Finally, G-d came to the Jews and they didn’t ask, they all proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma – we will do and we will listen. They accepted to do whatever G-d would present them without prior knowledge.
Recently, a middle aged Jew stopped me when I mentioned that we have 613 commands. He told me he thought that the Jews had only Ten Commandments. I told him think of Passover and all the Mitzvos associated with the Seder. They do not appear in the Ten Commandments.
It began to make more sense to him, by asking and listening.
I always wondered about this; aren’t the nations of the world already commanded not to steal, not to commit adultery and murder through the seven Noachide laws? How did G-d present to them the uniqueness of the laws of the Torah – when they were already commanded – and if so how could they reject them?
An answer offered is, what G-d was offering the nations of the world was a special relationship with Him – to live an elevated existence by willingly accepting these same restraints. They rejected that notion by saying we have a hard enough time dealing with curbing our inborn tendencies on a basic level. It would be too much pressure on us to accept to become G-d’s exalted nation.
The Jews all said, “Whatever it takes, we are ready to be Yours!”