Posted on February 5, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
In 2011, Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp published a collection of essays entitled Philosemitism in History. Notably, they chose to begin their introduction with this old Jewish joke: “Q: Which is preferable -the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The anti-Semite – at least he isn’t lying.” The cynicism expressed by this joke is biting but understandable, given the long and painful history of malignant Jew hatred and the toll of Jewish lives taken.
In the current environment of rising antisemitism in the U.S., with daily reports of QAnon followers and others spreading conspiracy theories that revive the old blood libel, it is easy to ignore the fact or forget that there are actual philosemites in the world. Yes, it is true. There are non-Jews, and lots of them, who love and respect Jews and Judaism. In his 2010 book American Grace, Harvard professor Robert Putnam reported that Judaism is the most highly respected religion in America.
I am moved to share this with you not just because I think we could use a little good news on this front, but because this week’s Torah portion presents us with the paragon and prototype of philosemitism: Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, who was a priest of Midian.
When the news spread of how the Children of Israel had escaped from Egypt, it was not received well. We know this from the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, which relates how the surrounding nations reacted to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the sea: “The people hear, they tremble / Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia / Now the clans of Edom are dismayed… / All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast / Terror and dread descend upon them.” (Exodus 15:14-16)
When Yitro hears of “all that God had done for Moses and Israel,” he immediately gathers Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and his children, Gershom and Eliezer, and rushes to join the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Moses and Yitro exchange warm embraces, then Yitro joins Moses in his tent to hear the story of the liberation in all its details. He listens attentively and empathetically – a sign of true affection – to the good and the bad, the harrowing hardships and the wondrous deliverances. And his reaction is telling: “Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that God had shown Israel…” Yitro delighted in the good fortune of the Israelites and offered a blessing that Jews have been reciting ever since, usually without knowing that it was coined by the non-Jew Yitro. “Baruch Adonai, blessed be God who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 18:9-10)
Noting that the Hebrew of the word for “rejoice,” vayichad is from the root chadad, meaning “sharp,” the great commentator Rashi explains that Yitro got goosebumps from hearing the account, expressing shock and dismay at their trials and delighting in their good fortune. Yitro acknowledges the greatness of the God of Israel and joins in the offerings and ritual celebrations of the Israelites with fullness of heart and generosity of spirit.
It is no small thing to rejoice in the successes of others and to be so deeply empathetic as to feel their pain and joy. Surely, these are genuine expressions of love. But Yitro didn’t stop there. We are told that the next day, Moses is back at work, sitting as a magistrate for his people, who are coming to him in great numbers to seek justice. Yitro notices how the people are standing and waiting their turn for hours on end, and he is distressed. Moved by genuine concern, he doesn’t hold back. He does not hesitate to offer constructive criticism. “What you are doing is not right,” he says. “You will wear yourself out, and these people as well.” (Exodus 18:17-18) He offers Moses wise counsel, urging him to recruit others to share his burden and ease that of his people, and Moses heeds his advice.
Yes, there are people out there who hate us, and in no small number. We must not be naïve or sanguine about that. But there are also many people like Yitro in the world – people who are big-hearted, who can see across differences of religion, nationality, color, and creed to embrace another’s humanity. And, yes, there are people who love us not despite the fact that we are Jews, but precisely because of who and what we are and what we represent. To this I say, as Yitro did, “Baruch ha-Shem, blessed be God!” Baruch ha-Shem, blessed be God for the Yitros in this world, who remind us what love truly is.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck