Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Leaving Egypt: The Importance and the Danger of Foreign Influences and the Torah Portion of Yitro

This week's Torah portion begins by reintroducing the figure of Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law. Yitro gives keen advice to his son-in-law as to how to properly judge the people. He tells him that if he continues the way he's doing things, he will soon burn out. Instead, he should appoint other judges to handle minor cases. Yitro's words are readily accepted, and this entire Torah portion, which includes the Ten Commandments, is named after him. He is said to be the very first convert, having experimented with every type of idol worship before coming to the conclusion that only Hashem is the true G-d. 

An interesting question arises: How can it possibly be that Moshe, who spoke directly to G-d on a regular basis, could be open to, never mind accept, advice from someone who, until now, was a complete outsider? Furthermore, previously, Yitro's influence on Moshe's family had been less than ideal. The Midrash teaches that Moshe's own first-born son, Gershon, was brought up by his idolatrous grandfather. Even though Gershon himself did not serve idols, his son, Yehonatan, became a "high priest" for the idol worship known as Pesel Micha, the very first major deviation from serving G-d after the Jews entered the land of Israel. (See more about this here) Imagine, Moshe's own grandson succumbing to idol worship. If it happened to him it could happen to anyone, G-d forbid.

In general, the question of how much to interact with the outside world is one of the most complex ones for Jews to handle. Just as in the post for last week's portion, the secret lies not in one extreme or the other, but rather in a proper balance. Too much exposure to foreign wisdom and culture is very likely to lead one astray. On the other hand, no exposure to the outside leads to inefficiencies and corruption from within. 

The proper balance will be different for different people. Some may belong more in the "borders" of our culture, while others may require more insularity. As a people, the key is to have a leader that is humble and open-minded like Moshe. Someone that will know how to accept and utilize outside knowledge when necessary. Nevertheless, that person must also learn from the lesson of Moshe's own personal life, and value the importance of being free from too much outside intervention, especially regarding our children.

Again, just as in last week's portion, highlighting the importance of rules and order as well as the need for individuality and self-expression, the answers are not black and white. The challenges are ongoing. However, aren't these nuances exactly what make life interesting, colorful and beautiful? To overcome these challenges, there's only one true advice: prayer, and a lot of it. Hashem, out of his infinite mercy will show us the way of the Torah, the way of our ancestors, particularly that of our forefather Jacob: the way of Tiferet (beauty/balance). 

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