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Jews Struggle with Unity, Challenges of Membership

The Jewish world cannot be simply bifurcated into the world of Jews and the world of non-Jews.

In the mind of Jacob Culi, there is a sharp contrast between the relationship of the erev rav (mixed multitude) who came out of Egypt to the Israelite nation and the relationship of Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, to the Israelite nation. If parashat b'shalah shows the biblical amorphousness of "converting" to Judaism for the erev rav, this week's portion (Yitro) shows the rabbinic clarity and self-assuredness of the process for one individual.

Halachic Clarification

Here is how Rabbi Jacob Culi presents the conversion of Yitro as it progresses in stages.

Step 1: Upon hearing of the miracles that God had performed for the Israelites, Yitro (quite apart from the familial loyalty of his daughter being Moshe's wife and the mother of his grandchildren) becomes well inclined toward the Jewish people. He becomes a ger v'toshav, a friendly sojourner, within the Jewish people.

Step 2: Moses tries to slow the process down, knowing that conversion to Judaism is a weighty thing indeed.

Step 3: God intervenes in this instance saying that the usual spiritual and intellectual distancing shown to prospective converts is not appropriate in the case of Yitro. His motives are pure. To demonstrate this, Yitro is taken into God's tent.

Step 4: But Yitro still has to go through his own process of questioning and resolving theological doubts about God's greatness and the chosen-ness of the Jewish people. When this finally happens, Yitro's status changes from a ger v'toshav to a ger tzedek (a righteous convert).

Aggadic (Story) Enrichment

As if to underscore that the Jewish people will always be dealing with issues of boundaries and distinctions among itself and with other nations, Culi reminds us that the revelation of the Torah that follows the "conversion" of Yitro in our parasha occurs in the month of Sivan. The astrological sign for Sivan is the Gemini twins.

In heaven, perhaps the giving of the Torah is viewed as an unalloyed blessing. On earth, it engenders a conflict across time harkening back to the earliest days of the Jewish people. Culi relates the midrash that Jacob and Esau battled over the ownership of the months of the Jewish year. Seeing this conflict, God decided to leave the month of Sivan hefkerut (free of definitive status) until the Jewish people as a whole owned the month.

Commitment and Continuity

This struggle for a unified community is particularly difficult in times of "sectarianism" within the Jewish community such as that Jacob Culi lived through, and of our own time as well. Thus, Culi closes this section of his commentary noting:

"The main reason for fighting and jealousy between people is that everyone desires status. Each person wants to have more status than the next person. He considers himself important and when he is not shown what he considers proper respect, he becomes angry and this is the beginning of controversy and fights. Obviously, if people respected one another, they would never become involved in strife."

A good message as our own community prepares to launch its annual Campaign for Jewish Needs. An even more poignant message, perhaps, in the shadow of Martin Luther King Day. Indeed, every Jew and every person deserves to be judged by the content of his character.

Reprinted by permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.

This dvar Torah is one of a series influenced by the Me'am Loez Sephardic Torah commentary. Read the introduction to the series.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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