The attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas last Shabbat has left us to yet again process the rise of antisemitism in the US and the world. Parshat Yitro sheds some light on how we can think about this.
Various commentaries question the chronology of events in parshat Yitro. The parsha begins after Amalek waged war on a vulnerable Israel, as they journey through the desert. Next, it is recounted that Yitro (Moshe’s father-in-law) travels from Midian to meet Moshe after hearing about “what God had done for Israel.” Following this, Israel encamped at Har Sinai for Matan Torah.
The midrash Mekhilta contains a debate regarding the chronology of these events related to the ambiguity of what Yitro heard about. R’ Yehoshua says that he heard about the victory over Amalek. R’ Elazar Hamodai teaches that Yitro heard about the wonders of Matan Torah, which would mean the Torah tells these events out of chronological order. If Yitro arrived later on, why is his arrival placed between Amalek and Matan Torah? Ibn Ezra comments that this is to teach that when we mention the hate-attack by Amalek we should also remember that we have genuine friends and admirers, like Yitro. We must not let experiences of antisemitism jaundice our view of the whole world.
If the true sequence of events was that Matan Torah happened immediately after the war with Amalek, what lessons can be drawn from this? Antisemitism should not define Jewish identity. Rather, it should be built on positive Jewish values, the basis of which is Matan Torah. These interpretations highlight that antisemitism needs to be fought on two fronts: Call out antisemitism but don’t let it distort our view of the world and foster Jewish identity not as a reaction to antisemitism but based on positive Jewish values. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson