Friday, February 17, 2023

Crossing the Boundary of Otherness

 I never really got to know my father-in-law.  He was killed 60 years ago this January 25th just passed.  We had only been married for a little over a year and a half so I remember only a few things about him - - the way he fanned the charcoal in the grill to get it to just the right heat for grilling shish-kabob;  his soft way of speaking; the way he bounced our 6 month old son on his lap on the morning he died;  the homely wisdom he gave  my husband when we told him we intended to marry: “If you want to see what the calf is like, look at the cow.” 

After reading the story of Yitro/Jethro and Moses (Exodus 18:1-27) I found myself wishing I had had more time with him as a father-in-law.  Partly because I realized so long after the fact, that my father-in-law was a bit of a boundary crosser. My father in law welcomed me without hesitation into the Armenian embrace of the family.  I guess his ability to live with a permeable boundary rubbed off on my husband as well because I was the first non-Armenian in the family - - our marriage was witnessed by a long list of wedding guests with  unpronounceable names. We managed to cross the boundary of “otherness.”

Moses, a powerful figure in the hierarchy of Egypt, flees for his life when he realizes that his killing of an Egyptian slave driver in defense of an Israelite slave has been witnessed.  He runs to the land of Midian, and encounters the clan of Yitro.  Yitro is a priest of Midian, a non-Israelite.  He is the father of Zipporah, a Midianite woman who subsequently marries Moses. The story does not admit of any bias or prejudice against Moses, a foreigner in the Midianite camp. 

Following the narrative of the Israelite/Amalekite war,  Yitro fulfills a role as father-in-law, by bringing his daughter and son-in-law and their children safely back together as a family.  His role as father-in-law of Moses is mentioned 12 times in this part of the text!  That tells me that there was something very significant about his role in relationship with Moses.

In the earlier parts of the narrrative, there is also almost no acknowledgement of Moses’ father except in Exodus 2:1:  “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman…” At least in this part of the text Moses’ father is nameless and not referred to again.  While he is the father-in-law, Yitro fulfills the role of a wise father for Moses.

Central to this part of the narrative is Yitro’s observation of how Moses is handling his responsibilities as leader of the Israelites.  Moses sits as judge and prophet and teacher, arbitrating the issues the people bring to him.  He works alone.

Yitro asks:“What is this thing you are doing to the people?  Why do you alone sit while all the people stand about you from morning until evening.”  Subsequently, Yitro suggests another way of structuring Moses’ responsibilities so that the burden of judgement is shared: “Now listen to me,  “I will give you counsel: and God be with you! In a wonderfully wise father-in-law way he tells Moses that what he is doing is not sustainable.  Moses cannot indefinitely fulfill  this triad of roles without burning out - and maybe burning out the people as well.  

Yitro says to Moses “What you are doing is not right .  In his wisdom, he doesn’t tell Moses he is wrong - - - just that he is not right.  He could be much more effective.   Yitro proceeds to offer Moses a possible structure of leading that will spread out the burden, and suggests a kind of model for judicial organizational structure that Moses then implements.   

I wondered if Yitro was a bit prescient.  The Utterances on Sinai are not given until the next part of the narrative- but those words would eventuate in all kinds of questions and judgements about how to fulfill them.   Practically speaking, no one person could begin to be the interpreter and arbiter of all the questions and issues that would eventually ensue.  Yitro’s appearance on the scene is so timely.   

Yitro and Moses were  boundary crossers.  Each was willing to encounter the “other” in his own way.

Moses was “the other” when he ran to Midian as a fugitive.  He literally crossed a cultural boundary. Yitro, a Midianite priest, welcomed him - - to the point of  welcoming him into the clan as his son-in-law.  In the process, some kind of transformation happened to Yitro - - when he hears the history that Moses told him about all the HaShem had done - Yitro says “Baruch HaShem!”  and acknowledges Israel’s God as greater than all the gods.  Yitro makes a burnt sacrifice and shares in the ritual with Aaron and the elders.  Yitro is a non-Israelite, recognizing the religious customs of another culture, blessing the name of the Israelite God, honoring Israelite religious practice.

Yitro’s willingness to be open to “the other,”  the Israelites, perhaps opened the way for Moses to be open to the “otherness” of  Yitro - - so that a certain kind of wisdom could be shared and received.   In being open to the “otherness” of Yitro, Moses also experiences a transformation, becoming a more effective leader, as he receives the wisdom of Yitro and goes about setting up the organizational model that Yitro has advised.

Yitro tells Moses, “Make it easier for  yourself by letting some others share the burden with you.  If you do this, and so God commands you” you and the people won’t be so tired. And the text says “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said.”

As Rabbi Sarah Basin writes: “A pagan priest saved our community from implosion and gave us a blueprint for how to function.  In that moment, Moses could have rejected Yitro’s advice.  After all, what does an outsider know about our community that gives him the right to weigh in?  But Moses teaches us that an encounter with “the Other” can be an asset for our evolution, not an obstacle to our survival.  His encounter with the Other made Moses a better leader.”

Rabbi Adam Spilker adds a couple more insights: While Moses learned something from Yitro about management, Yitro on the other hand “rejoiced over all the kindness the eternal  had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians.”  Moses shared his story of HaShem’s goodness and Yitro’s heart opened to HaShem’s teachings.  The learning went both ways.

From Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher: “The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me. The face is what forbids us to kill.”

So the story seems to me to be a challenge to allow for crossing boundaries - whether religious, cultural, or political - - to meet the Other - - to Face the Other - - and see if some learning can go both ways.  I wonder what it would be like - - sitting for conversation over a cup of tea with an “other” like Marjorie Taylor Green...?

Vicky Hanjian

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