From the Pulpit: Parshat Yitro – Our most central defining moment

By Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, Or Haneshamah

The book of Exodus contains many familiar stories, ones that come with enduring iconic imagery: the Hebrew baby, who would become the great leader, floating in a basket on the river Nile; Moses slaying a cruel taskmaster who is beating a fellow Hebrew; the shepherd Moshe, awed by the bush on fire, called by the Divine voice to free his people back in Mitzrayim; the river divided for the Israelites to escape on dry land; and the most magnificent gift of Torah, with the people assembled at the base of Mount Sinai.

Woven through these stories are also the stories of the women and men in Moshe’s life who come from other tribes. While his mother Yocheved and sister Miriam clearly had the foresight, and the plan, for saving the newborn boy’s life, figures from other tribes play critical roles in his life’s journey.

The first is Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucks the baby in the basket from the river and brings him up. The second is his wife Tzipporah, daughter of the Midianite priest Yitro, whose name identifies the parshah in which the Torah is given. There is rich meaning to be derived from this name heading the parshah, chapters and verses of the most central defining moment of Jewish peoplehood.

“Yitros” and “Tzipporahs” abide in our communities, our families, our synagogues and chavurot. Though their origins are in other tribes, they bring up Jewish children, marry Jewish partners, and live lives that are deeply impacted by Jewish life cycles and year cycles. Some chose to stay affiliated with their own tribes, some formally convert, yet all are living some form of the pledge offered by Ruth, who declares to her mother-in-law: “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people.”

At the core of these experiences and the layers in our peoples’ narrative is the notion that folks from varied tribes can walk a common path, one of integrity, sacred experiences and shared humanity.

Contemporary Jewish life is complex and nuanced. Terms like interfaith, concepts like conversion, or Jew-by-choice, or families-formed-by-adoption do not do justice to the layers of experiences in our families’ lives.

Think back to Moshe, who was adopted at a very young age into a different culture, and whose closest sibling during his childhood years was not Aaron but the son of the Pharaoh, who was enslaving his people of origin. Looking at our biblical narrative in this way helps us see more fully the impact many of our own community’s children and parents, in the fullness of their stories.

Jayne K. Guberman and Jennifer Sartori, founders of the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project put it this way:

“The biblical narrative in fact recounts a very complicated adoption story. With its traumatic passages back and forth, from one mother and one identity to another, this foundational story of the Jewish people may resonate in complex ways with all members of the adoption triad: adoptees, their adoptive families, and their birth families… In an age of increasing Jewish diversity and boundary-crossing, reading the story of Moses through an adoption lens may lend richness to our understanding of this foundational text and a more nuanced sense of the source of his greatness.”

Nuance and complexity. Diversity and boundary-crossing. This is part of our origin story as well as the contemporary Jewish story, and the Jewish future. Our people are enriched by the Yitros and Tzipporahs in our lives.