The Jew and the Stranger (Ideas #119)


The problem…is that we don’t believe we are as much alike as we are…If we saw each other as more alike, we might be very eager to join in one big human family… and to care about that family the way we care about our own.


                             (Mitch Albom quoting Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays with Morrie)



… Short of a messianic utopian scenario, mankind will always be divided by culture, geography, and the like. And it is these separations that allow us to exclude most of the world’s inhabitants from our perceived communal interests or, as we termed it in a previous chapter, from those on our “team.”  From this inevitably human perspective of insiders and outsiders to the fighting of wars often does not take much – two groups that both want the same thing have very little way to come to some agreement so long as they see each other as foreigners. Indeed, human experience shows that the need to know how to treat the stranger is of weighty practical import.


Towards this end, there are many strangers that ostensibly come together in the Torah. From the very dawn of Jewish history, the Jew has had to face more than a few foreigners. To take the earliest example, Avraham encounters Paroah, Avimelech, Efron,  Malki Zedek and the various kings involved in the Sodomite wars –  most of these encounters end up positively enough. Accordingly, these narratives give us early hope for the co-existence of nations. At the same time, we should notice that in all of Avraham’s agreements with strangers, there is always a palpable sense of quid pro quo.


When interests overlap, there is room for banquets and deals, but what is to happen when interests don’t overlap? After all, it is obvious that the interests of any two groups are rarely identical. Precisely for that reason, Avraham does not provide us a highly useful paradigm in this regard. It is only when we look further in the Torah and come to the story of Yitro that we find a model for peaceful coexistence among different groups, specifically when there is noobvious convergence of interests…


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It appears that the paradigmatic bond of Moshe and Yitro is purposely set among two extremely different individuals. In this case, it is not just the story of two people who are not part of the same community – it is the story of two men who lead radically dissimilar lives. To make this eminently clear, the Torah emphasizes some of the critical differences between Moshe and Yitro.


To begin with, the Torah tells us more than once that Yitro is a Midianite. In fact, it not only tells us this when Yitro first meets Moshe, but also when he and Moshe are reunited, thereby showing us that his national identity is not altered by his familial association with Moshe. In fact, the Torah may be indicating just the contrary – when the two still live together in Midian, Yitro is described as “his father-in-law, Cohen Midian.” Later when they reunite, the order is switched and he is now “Cohen Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law.” This seems to be telling us that Yitro doesn’t just keep the identity of Cohen Midian, he apparently becomes even more entrenched in it.


Even whatever connection Yitro does have with the Jewish people seems to have very little to do with the Jews, per se, and much more to do with his bond with his daughter and, through her (and through his grandchildren), to Moshe. Though less obvious than in the previous example, here too, word order, seems to teach us how Yitro viewed his world. When the Torah speaks about Yitro hearing about the deliverance of the Jewish people, it explains that he heard “what God did for Moshe and for Yisrael.” That this order is not coincidental is reinforced later by a similar passage later when Yitro advises Moshe to appoint other judges, explaining that otherwise, first Moshe will become worn out and then, secondly, the Jewish people would become worn out as well. Indeed, the author of the Sifri underscores the critical importance of Moshe in Yitro’s bond with the Jews, when he writes that the Jewish leader tried to give Yitro the  mistaken impression that he, Moshe, was also destined to cross over into Israel, because otherwise, Yitro would immediately refuse to go there himself.


But Yitro’s lack of connection with the Jews goes deeper still. In a time where religion and nationality were identical, Yitro’s retaining his Midianite identity bears a critical significance. More than just a common Midianite, as “Cohen Midian,” he is a man of standing in the national and religious community of his birth. The simple meaning of the word, Cohen, is priest and this is exactly how it is translated by some of the early rabbinic sources.(1) That would make him a minister in the idolatrous cult of his native culture, something no doubt anathema to his son-in-law. His statement, “now I know that God is greater than other gods (elohim),” only gives us more reason to believe that he never renounced his polytheistic beliefs. Furthermore, given the fact that Yitro lives among idolaters and returns to them after being invited to join the monotheistic Jewish people, it would be hard to believe that he himself was anything but an idolater.(2)


By stressing the gap that exists between Yitro and Moshe, the Torah drives home that their affable relationship has little to with anything they share intrinsically. The advantage to this is that it allows us to create a highly inclusive paradigm, one capable of including the widest swath of humanity…


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The Biblical paradigm of the stranger starts with a particular type of stranger. It starts with a stranger who loves someone that we love. Though different from ourselves, we meet in the realm of common human concern. In fact, we may have nothing else in common but that concern. Yet properly viewed, it is precisely this common concern that opens us up to what is most articulately described in German as “mitleid,” literally pain with. That is to say, when I share the pain of my child with a third party, we experience the same vicarious pain together. Being aware that a stranger can share so completely in my own emotions vividly opens me up to my commonality with them – a commonality even more basic than what I can appreciate via common culture or religion. Indeed, this core humanity is central to our Divine makeup.


Thus, Yitro has the advantage of being one step closer than the anonymity of the total stranger. At the same time, it is only through this prism, that the Torah can teach us how we could act towards the total stranger. Indeed, through this prism we understand that there is ultimately no such thing as a stranger


(1) See Mechilta on Shemot 18:1.

(2) Indeed, the rabbinic voices that would like to explain otherwise, are hard put to explain this behavior, speculating that he went back to convert his countrymen. Such statements notwithstanding, had Yitro actually converted, one would wonder why neither Biblical nor rabbinic texts discuss the conversion process with him in the same way as they do with Rut. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that we should discount him as a righteous gentile. According to many authorities, since he gives sacrifices to the God of Israel, at least as one of several deities that he worships, that may be enough for a non-Jew to not be considered an idolater.


* excerpted preview from Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus