I was struck when reading commentaries on the Torah portion of the past week with its relevance to what happened in the synagogue in Texas the previous Shabbat. Although it contains the Ten Commandments, it is not named after Moses, who went up the mountain and brought the commandments to the people, but after his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). The opening verse tells us that Yitro heard something, though doesn’t indicate what it is that he heard.
Rabbinic sages suggest at least four distinct possibilities as to what he may have heard. The rabbis debate what he heard for two reasons: One is because the rabbis believe that as a result of what he heard, he stopped being a Midianite priest, converted and became Jewish. But another reason that this is important is because they wonder why it appears where it does in the text, as it is out of chronological order. Without going into too much detail, we read that he came to Moses prior to the giving of the Torah, yet a few verses later, it seems to contradict itself and says that he came to Moses after the Torah was given.
All of which gives rise to the question of why it is mentioned first and what does that have to do with what happened at the synagogue in a previously obscure, little-known town in Texas?
The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it is placed here at the beginning, even though it happened later, in order to follow on the heels of the previous chapter, where we read of the attack by the Amalekites on the Israelites upon their departure from Egypt. He writes: “The Torah places Yitro’s reaction to news of what he heard here because it provides a direct contrast to the previous section—the unprovoked hostility of the Amalekites to the people of Israel.”
Even several thousand years ago, there were two very different ways that the non-Jewish world responded to the Jews. There are those like Amalek who embody and characterize the enemies of the Jewish people, who attack and seek our demise or destruction, and there are those non-Jews like Yitro, who respect, honor and appreciate the Jewish people.
We saw the face of one such approach to the Jewish people when an armed Muslim terrorist entered a Jewish house of prayer on Shabbat, spewed out hateful things about Jews, took hostages and demanded the release of a fellow terrorist being held in a U.S. prison.
The prisoner whose release he sought is serving an 86-year-sentence for being an Al-Qaeda agent, and attempting to shoot and kill American soldiers in Afghanistan when she grabbed the rifle of an army officer and fired on the soldiers interrogating her. Married to a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed—the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks—and educated in the United States (at Brandeis University nonetheless), when she was arrested she was carrying explosive materials and notes she had written that mentioned a mass-casualty attack, dirty bombs and monuments in New York.
During her trial and when she was found guilty in a federal court in 2010, she ranted about Jews and Zionists controlling the trial, the media and the world; wanted Jews banned from the jury and courtroom; and blamed Israel and Jews for her conviction.
Yes, there are those like Amalek who buy into the malicious conspiracy theories about Jews. And she and the one who wanted to liberate her are not the only ones who are more aligned with Amalek than Yitro.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that tries to hide its anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist bend and to pass itself off as a respectable, mainstream civil-rights group, has organized rallies on behalf of the woman known as “Lady Al-Qaeda,” calling the proceedings “one of the greatest examples of injustice in U.S. history” and portraying her as an innocent victim of the war on terror. Anti-Jewish political activist Linda Sarsour is part of CAIR’s effort to free this vicious and dangerous Jew-hater by demonstrating for her release and helping to raise money for her defense.
But just as Ibn Ezra states, then as now—or now as then, depending on your perspective—there are those who attack Jews and those who are kind to us. Throughout history, there have been Righteous Gentiles who have protected and sheltered us. There are those today who malign Israel and the Jewish people and make all kinds of false, harmful unbalanced accusations about the nature and actions of the Jewish state.
And there are those, such as evangelical Christians, the country of Guatemala and others, who readily express their love, solidarity and support for the State of Israel. We need to recognize the difference, and appreciate and embrace those who embrace us.
When Israel comes to Mount Sinai and is about to receive the Torah, the verb that is used to tell us that they encamped there is not plural. Although there are thousands of people who are gathered together, nevertheless, the verb is in the singular. The Midrash says this is because they were united at that time, and this is why they were able to receive the Torah.
Nineteenth-century Rabbi Moshe of Kovrin takes it in a different direction and points out that they were one as they stood before the mountain, as the Torah says: Vayahon sham Yisrael neged hahar—“they encamped before the mountain.” He notes that the word har, meaning “mountain” refers not just to Mount Sinai but to the har—the mountain of enmity and hatred that encompassed them, and which we face today as well.
He writes, “Only through the power of unity, of being one, is the Jewish people able to confront the har, the mountain of hostility that we face.”
At a time when we debate what constitutes anti-Semitism and whether or not anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism, we should be united in confronting the Amalekites of our world and not fear them. For in the words of Moses’ father-in-law, “Baruch Hashem, thank God,” there also are Yitros, those who love us.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. He has served as the head of the Jewish National Fund’s Rabbis for Israel and is the founder of the Coalition of Zionist Rabbis for Israel.