Diversity enriches Judaism


There are 54 portions in the Torah. Only six of the portion titles include the names of people, three of whom were Israelites (Sarah, Korach and Pinchas) and three of whom were not (Noach, Yitro and Balak). This week’s Torah portion bears the name of Yitro, a Midianite priest who was the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro’s guidance and wisdom had a profound impact on the future of the Jewish people.

Here’s a little background. A few weeks ago, in the Torah portion Shemot, we learned that Moses murdered an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew slave, and then fled from Egypt and the pharaoh to save his life.

Moses arrived in Midian, where he met Yitro and married one of his daughters, Zipporah. With their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, Moses and Zipporah enjoyed a peaceful life in Midian until God called Moses at the Burning Bush and told him to return to Egypt and help free the Israelite people.

When Moses explained to his father-in-law where he was going and why, Yitro fully supported Moses and told him “lech l’shalom,” “go in peace.” Yitro was wise and compassionate, able to see beyond his own belief system to support Moses on his important mission with God.

When this week’s portion begins, Yitro had learned that indeed God had redeemed the Israelites from slavery and that they were now encamped in the wilderness with Moses. Yitro brought Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer to Moses to reunite the family.

Yitro watched and observed that the Israelites were learning how to handle their newfound freedom just as Moses was learning how to be their leader. Moses was serving as judge, prophet and teacher for the Israelites. With all these responsibilities, Yitro could tell that Moses was overworked and weary.

Yitro offered Moses wise counsel on how to be a more effective and equitable leader while at the same time empowering the people to take on more responsibility. His guidance helped establish a judicial system that relied on the elders of the community rather than on Moses alone. In fact, this court structure created a foundation for legislative bodies in the Jewish world for centuries to come.

As I reflect on the essence of this narrative, I think about the multitude of gifts that people of diverse faiths and spiritual practices have always brought and continue to bring to the Jewish community. Many play an active role in the lives of their Jewish families and the Jewish people.

I believe that the Torah’s timeless wisdom and values continue to apply to our lives today. I am proud that our Torah speaks to the gifts and riches that people of other faiths contribute to our Jewish world.

Just as Yitro did in ancient times, many of our congregational members of different belief systems and varied religious backgrounds continue to offer support to our Jewish communities in countless ways, having a meaningful influence on us and our religious institutions. They offer diverse viewpoints that help us clarify and strengthen our own values and intentions; they reflect back to us the beauty and wisdom they see in Judaism.

The Torah teaches us to respect and appreciate all human beings and the gifts they have to offer. May we have the wisdom and the courage to learn from one another with gratitude, respect and love.

ANDREW F. KLEIN is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. You can reach him at rabbiklein@templehabonim.org.

d'var torah, Rabbi Andrew Klein, Yitro