17 January 2014

Parshat Yitro 5774

16 Shevat 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Parashat Yitro: Two forms of Kiddush Hashem
by Daniel Pinner

(Dedicated to the memory of my great-uncle Alf Tropp (Avraham ben Shmuel ve-Sarah), born 9th Tammuz 5678 (19th June 1918), a true mensch, who passed away in his sleep on Tuesday 13th Sh’vat. Yehi zichro baruch.)

When God repeatedly sent Moshe to Pharaoh with the demand, “Send forth My nation” (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 7:21, 9:1, 9:13), this demand was invariably in the Name of Hashem, the God of Israel or the God of the Hebrews. The reason is simple and obvious: the purpose of the Exodus was not merely to redeem a nation from slavery. Its deeper purpose was Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the Name of Hashem.

For this reason, too, Pharaoh had to be forced to acknowledge Hashem. It would not have been sufficient for him to release the Jews from Egypt simply out of fear of yet another plague, which was why after each plague God “strengthened Pharaoh’s heart”, as He had told Moshe in advance that He would (Exodus 4:21, 7:13, 9:12, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10). The standard English translation – that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – is inaccurate and misleading: God did not “harden” Pharaoh’s heart deliberately making him crueller; rather He “strengthened” Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the inner strength to make his own decisions without being terrorised into freeing the Israelites by the plagues.

Ultimately, the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea forced Pharaoh and Egypt to acknowledge Hashem, God of the Hebrews, as the Supreme Power. God told Moshe: “I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt shall know that I am Hashem” (Exodus14:4), on which the Midrash comments: “This teaches that when Hashem exacts punishment from the nations, His Name becomes great in the world” (Tanhuma, Beshallach 7).

An almost-contemporary commentator points out that it was in the region of Pithom and Raamses that God had said “I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt shall know that I am Hashem”. The Egyptians had conquered these two cities on Egypt’s eastern border from the Hyksos (according to some opinions, Raamses was the Hyksos’ capital). When the Egyptians finally defeated their sworn enemies, the Hyksos,and captured their principal cities, they interpreted this as a victory of their gods, and therefore bestowed the new name “Pithom” – “Pi-hahiroth,” meaning the City of Heirut (“freedom”), or the House of Freedom. This was a special city, because next to it – on the border – they built an idol called Baal-zephon in memory of their victory, to protect that border from further hostile incursions, and to ensure that no slaves would be able to escape. And not far from there was the Hyksos’ capital, which the Egyptians now called “Raamses” in honour of the current pharaoh.

This was the reason that it was specifically next to Pithom, the site where the Children of Israel were humiliated and the site of the most terrible hillul Hashem, as well as the site of Egypt’s idols and Egypt’s pride in their triumph, that God wrought His vengeance on Egypt.This is an example of measure-for-measure punishment: in the same place where the Egyptians began to desecrate the Name of God – there His Name was aggrandized and sanctified (Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d, in Peirush ha-Maccabee, Exodus page 28).

This, then, was the awesome Kiddush Hashem in last week’s Parashah: God publicly defeated and destroyed the world’s mightiest nation as punishment for the evil they had perpetrated against Him and His nation.

And in this week’s Parashah, we encounter a very different form of Kiddush Hashem when Yitro (Jethro), the minister of Midian, publicly acknowledged Hashem, God of the Hebrews, as the Supreme Power.

Our Parashah begins, “Yitro the minister of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, had heard of all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel His nation – that Hashem had brought Israel out from Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). Sixteen chapters and several decades earlier, the Torah had first introduced Yitro, albeit without yet naming him, with the words “the minister of Midian had seven daughters…” (Exodus 2:16). The Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek 1 and Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 268) records a dispute over the precise meaning of the word kohen (which we have translated “minister”) in this context. Rabbi Yehoshua said that it means a minister of religion (i.e. a priest of idolatry), and Rabbi Elazar from Modi’im said that it means a national leader (akin to a senior government minister).

Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (Peirush ha-Maccabee, Exodus pages 175-178) cites various Midrashim which indicate that when the young Moshe had fled to Midian and encountered Yitro’s daughters by the well, Yitro had long since understood the futility and falseness of idolatry, had actually had the courage of his convictions to abandon it publicly, and had resigned from the idolatrous Midianite priesthood. He and his family were therefore ostracised by Midianite society, which was why his seven daughters had to draw water from the well unaided, and also why the other shepherds felt at liberty to habitually drive them away from the well and otherwise abuse them (Exodus 2:17-18).

This is another form of Kiddush Hashem. Whether Yitro was a priest of idolatry or a national leader, he clearly had heavy influence and commanded much respect among his fellow-Midianites. Midian was a son of Abraham, whom his wife Keturah had born him (Genesis 25:2), and by this time had grown into a large confederation of tribes inhabiting the region east of Israel (in present-day terms, southern Jordan and north-west Saudi Arabia).

Any priest or national leader of Midian would have enjoyed wealth and status, and would be famous among a fairly large population. For such a man to abandon his post despite the consequences would have been a well-publicised scandal. For him to do this because he recognised the falseness of Midianite paganism and had decided to follow Hashem, the God of the Hebrews, inevitably sanctified the Name of God.

True, Midian was not a global super-power on the level of Egypt, but it was fairly large and populous nonetheless. And Yitro knew all the gods which were worshipped throughout the world, which was why he could confidently state, near the beginning of Parashat Yitro, “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods” (Exodus 18:11; see Rashi’s comment there). For Yitro to publicly declare his abandonment of all the false gods in favour of Hashem, the one true God, was the approximate equivalent of a pope publicly acknowledging that actually the Jews were right all along, even though his public confession would cast him into exile from his palace and ostracism from the religion that he heads.

Pharaoh and Yitro, then, are the two paradigms for Kiddush Hashem. They were both forced to recognise the falseness of polytheism, both were forced to acknowledge that Hashem, God of the Hebrews, is the sole true God. They achieved this understanding in very different ways – the one through his evil, the other through honest enquiry; the one against his will, the other whole-heartedly and joyfully; the one by attempting to exterminate Israel, Hashem’s nation, the other by hearing about their salvation and rejoicing in it; the one by being destroyed by Hashem, the other by embracing Him.

But despite their polar differences, both these men, both leaders of their respective nations, became tools through which God’s Name became sanctified in this world.