Thursday, 27 May, 2021 - 10:38 pm

The KGB comes to the Goldman house in Communist Russia.

“Does Yankel Goldman live here?” he asks.

“No,” replies Goldman.

“Well, then, what is your name?” “Yankel Goldman.”

“Wait a minute–didn’t you just tell me that Goldman doesn’t live here?”

“Aha,” says Goldman. “You call this living?”

The Jewish people have spent almost a full year at Sinai. It is time to move on and continue the journey into the Promised Land. The hopes are high. All is going according to the plan. At this point, the Torah in our portion Behaalotecha chooses to relate a fascinating exchange between Moshe and his father-in-law: Jethro has arrived at the Israelite camp sometime before. He brought Moses’ wife and their two sons with him from Midian to the desert. He remained for around a year. Now, it is time to go back home. Moses pleads with his father-in-law to stay. Jethro refuses.

But what is most astonishing is that Moses is virtually begging him to stay. “Please do not leave us… You will be our eyes.” Moses feels that Jethro will fill the role of “eyes” for the Jewish people.

What does this mean?  Why would Yitro be their “eyes?”

Indeed, Yitro’s refusal to stay and his departure are felt immediately. No sooner does he exit the text, do the Israelites begin to grow restless: “And the people took to complaining wickedly in the ears of G-d.” Curiously, the Torah records neither the cause nor the substance of this complaint. But perhaps the sequence of events offers a hint. As Yitro bid farewell to the people, some of the Israelites turn into kvetches.

Here is another fascinating truth. During their wanderings in the desert, the Jewish people are complaining, and rebelling quite often. They complain about the food. They scream about water. They protest against the leadership of Moshe. They cry about their perceived lack of safety and security. Not even one such instance is recorded during the time when Yitro accompanies them!

If we have any doubt as to the centrality of Moses’ expression that Jethro might constitute the eyes of the nation, we need only look ahead in the Torah portion. As Jethro departs back home, suddenly, the Jews and the Torah are talking about “eyes.” Not once, but six times!

“The multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then the Israelites once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna our eyes.

Mere days after the departure of Yitro—a man whom Moshe had dubbed the “eyes” of the nation, the Torah deliberately and obtrusively repeats this word seven times. In the absence of Yitro, the text intimates, the Israelites no longer see accurately. Their vision is blurred and jaundiced. Even Moses’ own vision suffers: “It was bad in the eyes of Moshe.” Moreover, Moshe feels that even G-d’s outlook has grown unfavorable: “Why have I not found favor in Your eyes?”

Apparently, these eyes which Yitro could have provided were crucial and indispensable. What was Yitro’s spell? Why was he the eyes of the nation?

Yitro provided what nobody else could: an outsider’s perspective.

He didn’t grow up within the “Jewish Establishment.” He was a gentile, a former Pagan Priest, who suffered not from Jewish guilt, or had any stake in the Jewish future.

The Torah identifies him here as a Midianite, and a “priest.” Our sages teach us, he was a world-renowned idolater. He was an extraordinarily brilliant person, a profound spiritual seeker, who had experimented with every possible philosophy, religion, and faith until he finally concluded that they were false and that the G-d of the Jews was the one true G-d. The Rabbis inferred this from his words to Moses, “Now I know that G-d id greater than all other deities.” Obviously, Yitro had to study all the other deities so that he could state, “G-d is greater than all other deities.” And yet, he cast away his extraordinary glory, for the sake of truth.

Such an individual has “eyes,” and he can give all of us “eyes”—perspective. When we grow up in our own stew, we often lack an appreciation of the bigger picture. We take our existence and tradition for granted and we can grow bored, parochial, and petty. A person like Yitro, a man who underwent a voluntary transformation, can serve as our “eyes” to help us see ourselves from a purer and more objective vantage point, and help us appreciate what we are and what we have. Watching his enthusiasm grants us a sense of freshness, vibrancy, and a focus on priorities.

The Israelites, who benefited daily from Hashem’s miracles on their behalf, had gradually learned to expect them. At a moment’s notice, with the lack of something they needed, some of them began to panic. But Yitro the Midianite was so moved by the report of these miracles that he left behind his fame, richness, and family back home in order to witness Israel’s station firsthand.

As long as he remained with them, they could not conscionably complain—his very presence served to remind them, constantly, of the uniqueness of their lot. It would put things into perspective. They would know what not to complain about.

Rabbi Gold relates a story. I'll never forget my first day on the job as a rabbi. Shacharit was called for 6:15 in the morning and I walked in one minute late—the digital atomic clock in the wall read 616.

When I walked into the shul, I was in for the shock of my life. I noticed that most of the elderly members of the congregation were already sitting wrapped up in their tallit and tefillin, waiting to start.

I remember thinking to myself what's going on? My name is Yoli; where I come from, one minute late is still a half-hour early. I quickly put on my talit and tefillin and begin to pray.

In the end, an elderly man, 90, walked over and introduced himself as Amram Deutch. He welcomed me to the shul. And then he said to me: Rabbi I noticed that you were late this morning. Rabbi, it really hurts me to watch people come late to shul; please try to be on time tomorrow.

I was so ashamed and so I resolved right then and there to come to a half-hour early the next day; I was determined not to be outdone by a ninety-year-old congregant.

Little did I know that Amram opened the shul every morning at 5 o'clock, so by the time I walked in at 5:45, he was already sitting and studying.

It was only after a year when he shared with me his story. And then I understood what coming to shul means for him.

He was in Auschwitz and was forced to share a wooden plank at night with three other inmates. To survive the freezing and frigid cold winter nights, they took turns sleeping in the middle, so they can warm each other with whatever body heat they had left in them.

Amram shared with me:

One early morning, at dawn, the guy on my right-hand side, a friend of mine, says Amram! I'm gonna share a secret with you. Under the barrack, there's a pair of tefillin. I will go out for two minutes, make-believe I'm going to the bathroom, and wrap the tefillin and say the Shma.

And then you go next if you want.

For six months, until we were transferred to Bergen Belsen and we couldn't take the tefilin along, my friend and I woke up every morning 15 minutes before roll call and sneaked out of the barrack, crawled underneath, we took turns to put on the tefillin; we each said the Shema and then we finished the morning prayers on the march on our way to work.

“It was the greatest gift I had in that hell,” he said.

Today, Amram is 96 years old and he's still opening the shul at 5 o'clock every morning and yes, he still reprimands me from time to time for coming too late.

But as I watch him wrap tefillin around the tattooed numbers on his arm, I can't help but wonder, who will teach our children what sacrifice means? Who will teach them how to stay proud of who they are where they come from, and stand for?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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