Sunday, February 1, 2015

Between Amalek and Jethro: Portion Yitro

In recent weeks, much has been written about the rise in anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.  Last week, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his Wall Street Journal essay, “The Return of Anti-Semitism”, the fear at that memorial was as much about the future as the past.  In the wake of the murders in Paris, and a wave of violence against Jews across Europe, Rabbi Sacks concludes: “An ancient hatred has been reborn.”

I believe that we should eye this trend with utmost seriousness.  We know, all too well, the peril of ignoring of anti-Semitism.  At the same time, we must also be wary of becoming overly cynical and seeing all of our neighbors as adversaries.  For all of the fears roused by recent events, 2015 is not 1939.  Seventy years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a French leader to declare, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls repeatedly has, “France without Jews is not France.” 

To be ignore anti-Semitism is to be naïve, and such naiveté can be fatal.  To allow anti-Semitism to blind us to the real benevolence that many demonstrate towards us, in their words and deeds, is to harden our hearts.  Our challenge, then, is to find a middle way.

Not surprisingly, the Torah offers us some important guidance here.  Last week’s portion ended with its account of Amalek, the paradigm of the anti-Semitic enemy who will always strive, ruthlessly, to destroy us.   But without missing a beat, we pick up this week with the story of Yitro, Moses’ non-Jewish father-in-law.  He delights in all that God has done for the Israelites and offers Moses some invaluable advice on how to govern them more efficiently by delegating authority.  Rabbi Shai Held notes that this juxtaposition is no coincidence; Amalek tries to ravage Israel but Yitro rejoices in our deliverance and offers guidance as to how we can best function as a nation in our newfound freedom.  As the eleventh century commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, teaches: “Since Scripture has just mentioned the evil that Amalek did to Israel, it mentions the good that Yitro did as a contrast.”

Life is rarely a matter of black and white.  There are dangerous anti-Semitic trends at work in our world—and, at the same time, strong countervailing tendencies.  As we wrestle with how to confront radical Islam, we must also remember Lassana Bathily, the Muslim clerk who risked his life to protect Jewish customers in the kosher market.  We live with both Amalek and Yitro, and everyone and everything in between.

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