Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Eyes of the Stranger: Parashat Baalotecha

The Rev. Karen Byrne, Rabbi Raymond Krinsky, and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs
 If you have ever been to a Saturday morning service at Beth Israel Congregation, especially in the winter months, you know that we do not usually draw a crowd.  However, there are some regulars that come to pray, learn, and support our community.  And some of them are not Jewish.  Truth be told, this trend in our synagogue is bittersweet.  I wish that there were more people in the sanctuary, but I am inspired and overjoyed by the contributions of non-Jews in preserving the spiritual life of the shul.

In this week's portion, parashat ba'alotecha, Moses pleads with his non-Jewish/proselyte father in law to stay with the community.  According to the simple meaning of the text, Jethro (aka Chovav), is a Midianite priest.  In our midrashim, he is portrayed as a convert.  Regardless of how you choose to think of Jethro, he is clearly a man on the periphery.  The rest of his family in Egypt is not Jewish.  However, the good that he has done for the Jewish people is so great that Moses cannot imagine the Israelites thriving without him.

Numbers 29:31 describes a moving exchange between Chovav and Moses:

כט  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-יְהוָה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come  with us, and we will do good for you; for the LORD has spoken good concerning Israel.'
ל  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ:  כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ. 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my family.'
לא  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנוּ:  כִּי עַל-כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ, חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ, לְעֵינָיִם. 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray you; forasmuch as you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you shall be our eyes.
לב  וְהָיָה, כִּי-תֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ:  וְהָיָה הַטּוֹב הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יֵיטִיב יְהוָה עִמָּנוּ--וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto you .'

The Kehot Chumash which integrates the Torah text with the interpretations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, presents the conversation between Jethro and Moses this way:

Moses said, "Please do not leave us, because then people will say that you converted not out of conviction, but because you thought you were going to receive a portion of the desirable Land of Israel, and left Judaism when it became clear that you will not. You really should stay with us no matter what, because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you have been an eyewitness to all the miracles that God has done for us. Furthermore, your wisdom can guide us in many ways; you can serve figuratively as our eyes. And beyond this, we value you and we will cherish you as much as we cherish our own eyes.

Every individual in our community provides us with a pair of fresh eyes, a new approach to seeing the world.  Every person has their unique gifts and distinct hearts that move them in different ways.  Hovav is not just someone who knows the physical terrain well (though the value of this cannot be overstated), he knows who Moses is a leader, the challenges he faces, and how to best manage the challenges of the Jewish people.  As a fellow clergy person, his eyes are invaluable, and Moses cannot imagine his life without them.

In my life as a rabbi in Waterville, I cannot imagine completing my job without the counsel of local ministers, nor without the aid and support of the many non-Jews (or Jews in training) who bring their eyes, ears, hearts, and voices to our community.  These individuals respect our faith and do not seek to change who we are -- they endeavor to understand, fortify, and learn.  Their prayer and support should always be acknowledged, celebrated, and cherished as much as we cherish our own talents and contributions. 

Shabbat Shalom!!