This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23.
Back in 2004, I eagerly awaited the publication of my first Jewish children’s book, a retelling of the creation story. I hoped to write more midrashim for children and that my luck in getting this manuscript published was not just a fluke. That summer, I happened to attend the same Jewish education conference as my editor. She had a booth in the exhibition hall, a cavernous space with artificial lighting and an overabundance of air conditioning.
There, my editor and I got to talking about her wish list for titles.
“I really would like more for interfaith families,” she said. “It’s important and I have very little of it.”
I thought to myself, “I write biblically-based stories, nothing contemporary like interfaith marriage.”
But, I said to my editor, “Let me give it some thought. I know that I can come up with a good approach.”
I walked out of the exhibition hall and I squinted in the bright midday sun. I had not taken ten steps when a title came to me: Papa Jethro. Jethro, or Yitro in Hebrew, is the namesake of this week’s parsha. Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law, a wise Midianite priest who advises Moses.
Moses and his wife Zipporah have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. The biblical text hints that Jethro had a caring relationship with the boys. Originally, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer plan on coming to Egypt with Moses. But, according to the midrash, Aaron advises Moses not to bring his family. So, instead, Zipporah returns to her father’s house while Moses is in Egypt pleading for the release of the Israelites.
Once the Israelites do leave, Jethro brings the three back to Moses in the desert. According to the midrash, Jethro sends a message ahead to Moses about the importance of greeting the two boys.
Jethro’s positive relationship with Gershom and Eliezer extends quite clearly to Moses. When the desert union takes place, Jethro and Moses warmly hug and talk about all that transpired. Despite their religious difference, Moses and Jethro maintain a positive and nurturing relationship. According to Rashi, both men take pride in being related to the other. Moses respects his father-in-law to such a degree that he creates a whole court system based on Jethro’s suggestions.
Some commentators suggest that Jethro converts to the Israelites’ faith, but I find this argument not convincing. Jethro stays with the Israelites for a time, but then returns to his own land. Later, in Numbers, Jethro visits again and Moses asks him to stay with the Israelites. Jethro declines the invitation and returns to his own land. To me, Jethro and Moses represent the first true example of a positive, healthy interfaith family. They may not have a stress-free family, but their family dynamics are built on respect and warmth.
It is common to look upon interfaith marriage as a modern phenomenon. And, in terms of the numbers of interfaith marriages, it may be something new. But, Jews and non-Jews meeting and marrying dates back thousands of years, as in this week’s parsha.
The Torah portion also contains the Ten Commandments. That this key parsha bears Jethro’s name speaks to the our tradition’s acceptance of him.
In my book Papa Jethro, a young Jewish girl asks her non-Jewish grandfather why they don’t share a religion. In answering, her grandfather tells the story of Jethro and his grandsons. The little girl gains a role model, based within Jewish tradition and is reassured of her grandfather’s love.
As Rabbi Sharon Sobel writes, “Yitro also provides us with excellent models for creating relationships, which will enable each of us to be leaders in our everyday lives vis-à-vis our families, our colleagues and our community. With Jethro and Moses as our guides, we will be able to lead one another to the Promised Land.”
Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen is director of congregational learning at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac and the author of eight books for children and teens.