September 25, 2023 -
Thank you to Temple B’nai Israel of Monroe, Louisiana, for welcoming me into their community. Thanks to Phyllis Marcus (grandmother of our own Ricky Marcus), for her spirit of generosity in welcoming me, and for working out the logistics so the Caruso family could make this visit. I also want to acknowledge the Institute for Southern Jewish Living, and particularly Macy Hart and Rabbi Marshal Klaven, for their guidance and direction during this part of my sabbatical.
Last week’s Torah portion was chock-filled with stories and laws familiar to many of us. Most notably was the giving of the Ten Commandments from God to the Jewish people through the agecy of Moses. However, a smaller, less well-known Torah story immediately precedes the giving of the Law. At the start of our reading Moses meets up with Jethro, his father-in-law (and the person after whom this portion is named). What transpires is a simple, yet moving interchange between an elder and his son-in-law. Moses, following the social rules of deference and respect to Jethro, bows to him (the Hebrew text uses the same word as the one we use when we bow during Aleynu), and kisses him. Then, each asks the other about his individual welfare (about his “shalom”). This shows the great respect the two men felt for each other.
After engaging in pleasantries, the two enter into Jethro’s tent – an indication they are more than civil relatives; they have a deep and abiding love for one another. Moses shares with Jethro everything that had happened in Egypt; the slavery, the hardship, the plagues, and how God had ultimately saved the Israelites with an outstretched arm to bring them to the moment where they would receive God’s greatest gift – the giving of the Ten Commandments. Jethro (who is not a Hebrew; he is a Midianite priest) expresses great enthusiasm (“And Jethro rejoiced because of all the goodness whichthe Lord had done to Israel…”) and interest in the destiny of the Jewish people, so much so that he recognizes the God of Moses as the indisputable God of all (“Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods…”). This proves that Jethro regarded himself as not only the wise priest and sage, but someone who was curious and interested in gaining wisdom to learn from others.
Finally, we learn about Jethro’s special ability to give advice. When he notices how overwhelmed Moses is with dispensing law to all of the people (and the great lines that form of people waiting to ask Moses a question), Jethro intervenes and tells him that he must change his ways (“the thing that you do is not good. You will certainly wear away…”). As a result, Moses learns to delegate, and appoints judges and magistrates who will serve in his stead to answer some of the queries. Moses, appointed by God, is able to understand that he can always learn from the other, and Jethro sees his role in helping move the Jewish people along.
After recognizing Jethro’s ability to show respect, to learn from others, and to even give advice when needed, we learn about a man who has much to teach us. No wonder this Torah portion was named after him! And no wonder these stories appear before the giving of the Torah – Moses had much to learn himself before serving as an agent for God’s law.
I feel like these Torah lessons mirror my family’s journey through America. Like Moses we are seeking to get better at being Jews, to learn about Judaism in America, how it is expressed, and in the words of my wife Leah, how “we can best tell the story, because it needs to be told”. After almost 15 years in the rabbinate, I have embarked on this sabbatical to learn about my people, and seek to have these experiences shape my work for the better. I have already learned about the deeply knit communities that exist in the south. I have learned about the great pride people feel in being Jewish and Southern, and the prominent place Jews held, and continue to hold, in the business and culture worlds down here. I have learned how important it is to preserve our community’s history, as the Institute of Southern Jewish Living is helping to do. I have learned that small Jewish communities have to work that much harder staying together, but building community is easier because everyone knows each other’s name. As Rabbi Lynn Goldsmith of Dothan, Alabama told me, “We don’t need a welcoming committee – our CONGREGATION is a welcoming committee!”
I have also learned about the complex challenges of living in the south during the birth of the civil rights era, and how no Northerner could ever really understand what was going on in the community during a short visit to rally for justice and integration. Most of all, southern Jews have a deep and abiding love for who they are and where they come from, seeking to preserve their past, and perpetuate their future. Even though demographics have shifted, southern Jews know that it is because of the roots in communities like Monroe that the Jewish legacy will grow and be as great as the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea. Judaism is alive and well in the south, and has much to teach. I am grateful for ts opportunity to learn.
My experiences in the south remind me of the conversation between Moses and Jethro. Mutual respect is followed by warm gestures, hugs, and even kisses. And Leah and I and my children have been welcomed into the tent, soon to be lifelong friends no matter the distance.