I recently heard some difficult news. A good friend of mine from university has been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. Over time, we’d moved, had children and fallen out of touch, but I was able to reach her quickly. She is well enough for emailing, and we’ve fallen right back into the dear friendship we had 20-some years ago. Some of her more recent pathology reports are slightly more hopeful. Even so, it’s a very serious diagnosis and she’s in her mid-forties with kids in elementary school.
During university, this friend and I were part of a trio of busy young women. Often the only time we could spend together was breakfast. We’d have bagels and coffee at a sunny warm spot, the Ithaca Bakery. The snow was piled high outside and the windows were steamed with humidity as we laughed and complained together. It was the third friend who told me about the brain cancer. She and I each, within moments, had come up with medical resources for our dear friend. We felt lucky to be able to say, “I know something about this,” or “I know someone if you need medical information or another opinion.” We wanted to support her from far away.
I was reminded of this when looking at the Torah portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), which starts out with a story about Jethro, Zipporah’s father, and Moses. Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law. When Moses tells him how the Israelites have escaped Egypt and what has happened, Jethro responds in Exodus 18:9: “And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians.”
Rashi responds to this by saying that Jethro rejoicing is the literal meaning, but that Sanhedrin 94A (a talmudic midrash) suggests that Jethro’s skin prickled, or crept with horror. He felt upset about Egypt’s destruction. Rashi explains further that “people say” that one should not speak negatively about non-Jews in front of someone who has converted to Judaism, even if the family converted 10 generations ago.
Jethro is called a Midianite priest, and is considered a “non-Hebrew.” The Druze consider Jethro an important prophet and ancestor. No matter – Moses was close with him, and married his daughter. This text and the commentary is laden with meaning. Just on its surface: Jethro celebrates and is grateful that his daughter and son-in-law and the Israelites have come through a terrible experience. Yet further still, the midrash explains that Jethro knew the ramifications of the experience. Egyptians suffered and were destroyed to bring about this event. Finally, there are valued connections between people. It doesn’t matter where you come from – we shouldn’t cause distress to those we love, if at all possible, even if they aren’t part of our “in-group.” Things in life are complex. We should celebrate and be grateful, but not cause further harm, either. Jethro intertwines these concepts.
Jethro goes on to help Moses learn to delegate and do “leadership development.” He encourages Moses to rely on the Israelites to lead and take care of one another, as well.
What does this have to do with hearing of my friend’s terrible illness?
It was a wake-up call and a reminder to be thankful, as Jethro was, and celebrate what we have – we can’t take our health for granted.
The good news is I am back in touch with someone I care about. It’s also an opportunity to look at how a third friend told me this news, and that my friend with cancer has a rich community to lean on. She can delegate, too, regarding communication, help with her family, and maybe even finding medical advice and explanations.
It’s also a reminder that we’re all connected, regardless of religion. As Rashi shows us, treating people with care extends beyond the team with which you daven (pray).
Finally, smart people realize that real-life situations are complicated. It’s simplistic to have a one-size-fits-all approach to nationalism, for example. Moses supported and shepherded the Israelites, but he also cared deeply about people who were not, strictly speaking, part of his crowd. Yes, we’re Jewish, but we often love people who aren’t, and that is part of our tradition, too.
We’re lucky to have a tradition that values complication. As Jews, we face a lot of complex concepts in the world, whether it’s our own personal observances or how we apply those values to the world at large. We could choose a simplistic response, such as a tirade or blanket objection to a view different than our own. Many people do this – face it, it’s easier. Or, we could acknowledge the complexity of our choices instead.
Jethro wasn’t Jewish, and he wasn’t a one-issue guy. He could celebrate and express gratitude while wrestling with other feelings: concern, loss, sadness and worry. I hope to be like Jethro and do the same.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.