Yitro: The best entry points to greater Jewish engagement
What is the best entry point through which more people can engage better with their Judaism?
Parshat Yitro commences with the words, “Vayishma Yitro,” – “Yitro heard.” (Shemot 18:1).
But the Torah doesn’t tell us what exactly it was that Yitro heard. What prompted this priest of Midyan to join the Israelite camp in the wilderness and to embrace a life of commitment to Torah? Three answers are given in the Talmud, Masechet Pesachim.
Rabbi Yehoshua tells us that Yitro heard all about ‘milchemet Amalek,’ the war that the Amalekites launched against our people in their attempt to annihilate us.
According to the second view, Rabbi Elazar Moda’i tells us that Yitro heard all about Matan Torah – how Hashem gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.
According to the third view, that of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, Yitro heard all about Kriat Yam Suf, the miraculous parting of the waters of the sea.
These three reasons are fascinating. According to the first, what changed Yitro’s life was when he heard about an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. Today we are all too aware of the tragic phenomemnon of antisemitism and while it’s true that antisemitism can sometimes strengthen Jewish identity, that’s not our raison d’etre. We’re not here just to survive as a people. We have something to live for.
That is why the second reason is suggested – that what Yitro heard about was Matan Torah, the fact that we are privileged to have a Divinely given guide to life, to enable us to walk in Hashem’s ways and to have a fulfilling, happy and meaningful existence through Torah.
That’s also why, according to the third view, Yitro heard about the miraculous intervention of God at the sea. If only we would open our eyes we would also appreciate that Hashem is with us, sustaining us miraculously on every single day of our lives.
The Talmud here is speaking about effective entry points, and today we are aware that we need to create such entry points for more people to engage more effectively with their Jewish roots. There are many types of entry point. For example, one could be a beautiful shabbat meal. Another could be a spiritually uplifting shul service. For another person, an entry point could be playing football for a Jewish team, joining a Jewish security group, visiting a place of Jewish historical interest or just reading a Jewish history book. There are so many different ways for people’s eyes to be opened and for them to be connected to their people and to their faith.
So which one was the entry point which worked for Yitro? We’re not exactly sure. But one thing is for certain: Yitro had an extraordinary experience as a result of which his life was shaped for the better and if it could happen to Yitro, it can happen to anyone.
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