Tamar Rabinowitz, Dean of Jewish Studies and Hebrew 

I think it apt that this week’s parsha (weekly portion) is entitled Yitro, the name of the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses. Yes, this is the parsha with Revelation and the Ten Commandments and one might think that the parsha could be better titled. And yet, by naming it Yitro, the text is demanding that we recognize this individual. There is indeed a lot that we can learn from Yitro, as Moshe does when he takes his advice to set up a judiciary system. But I am going to focus on an aspect of Yitro that is imagined by our Rabbis which offers a lesson that might very well be the essence of Torah. 

The Talmud in Sotah 11 offers an imaginary scenario relating to when Pharaoh was deciding whether or not to enslave the Israelites and murder their male babies. The Rabbis notice the surface irregularity in the text where Pharaoh is speaking in the plural “Come let us deal wisely….:” (Shmot 1:10). “Said Rabbi Hiyya son of Abba in the name of Rabbi Simai: Three were involved in that decision: Bilam, Job, and Yitro.” The midrash goes on to imagine how these three non-Jewish prophets counseled Pharoah.  Bilam advised to kill the baby boys, Job said nothing so as to appear neutral, and Yitro opposed the killing of the boys and ultimately had to flee Pharoah’s wrath. 

The Talmud and the Torah clearly see Yitro in a heroic light, as someone who helps the Jewish people numerous times. In Jewish Social Justice, students have been reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings on the unique sensibilities of the Prophet. Yitro in many ways is the quintessential prophet. He challenges the mainstream status quo and authority, signified by Pharaoh in our story. He has a fierce and heightened sensitivity to injustice and cannot be silent to the needs and pain of others. In this way, it makes sense that Moshe, considered the most important and revered prophet of all time, would marry the daughter of someone who shared his vision of what it means to be in this world.

The Rabbi’s see Bilam, Job, and Yitro’s destinies intertwined with their counsel. Bilam is the perpetrator, and for that, later in our text, he will be killed for his wicked counsel. Yitro is the resistor, even at great personal risk. And for that, he is rewarded with descendants who are great Torah scholars. And what of Job? What is the nature of his sin that made him deserving of terrible suffering? After all, Job did not say that he agreed with Pharaoh; he did not validate Pharaoh’s decrees. He simply stayed silent. He may have thought: “Pharaoh is going to do this regardless of what I say. Why should I endanger myself? Why should I incur his anger? Why should I stand up for the Israelites, or for righteousness, or for compassion? The safest thing for me is to remain neutral.” For his neutrality, Job was punished as recounted in the book of Job. Job was the bystander.

Psychologists have written extensively on the “bystander problem.” Why do so many stand aside when they witness violence, cruelty, injustice? Why doesn’t everyone feel a moral commitment to stand up on the side of righteousness? Why are there so many Jobs and so few Yitros? One reason for the “bystander problem” seems to be that people do not assume personal responsibility. They rationalize: there are others who can intercede, and somebody else will take responsibility so it isn’t necessary for me to get involved or to make personal sacrifices. It isn’t that bystanders are necessarily immoral or heartless; rather, they may simply not take things personally. They think: It isn’t my issue, it isn’t my responsibility, it’s for others to solve.

Erich Fromm observed: “Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide.” By remaining silent, Job forfeited personal responsibility. The sufferings of others did not awaken moral indignation within him.

Yitro teaches us that we do have the power to act and therefore have a responsibility to do so. It brings us back to the third question posed in Torah when Cain kills Abel and is questioned by God, Cain responds by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper? God’s response is seen all over the rest of the Torah and in the behavior of Yitro – a resounding YES. We are all each other’s keepers.