The First Time I Approached the Torah

The First Time I Approached the Torah

19 Aug 2016

Author: Sandra Jerusalmi

One year ago, I read the Torah for the first time, a passage from the parashah Be-Ha'alotekha.

Today, I rediscover the meaning behind those few lines.

This passage relates the conversation between Moses and Jethro, his father-in-law, before the entry into the Promised Land. Moses invites Jethro to join, and go with the people, and even promises him a heritage in the Holy Land, but Jethro answers:

“I will not go, but will return to my native land.” (Numbers, 10;30).

Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, is a former Midianite priest who witnessed all the miracles done by Hashem when the Hebrews left Egypt, and who stayed in the desert to listen to Hashem’s words of Torah. The reason behind Moses’ urging of Jethro to come with them, is his belief that Jethro could and will guide the people, and that he will be a 'witness' to the others nations.

After all those years in the desert, animated by a desire to learn the Torah in the middle of Hashem’s presence, Jethro now has the possibility to accompany the people, follow the Shekhinah, and to learn more of the Torah.

Why, then, does Jethro refuse, and against all expectations, chooses to go back to Midian?

According to Rashi [medieval Rabbi and prolific Talmudic commentator], Jethro wanted to keep his goods and his family. But Moses did offer him a heritage in the Holy Land, which implied a piece of land similar to that allocated to tribes of Israel. Is Jethro's personal wealth then truly his only concern?

It looks like Jethro had different reasons for going back to Midian.

Jethro was a convert who became an ‘example for all the Hebrews’, so it appears that behind his decision to return to the country in which he was born, lay the opportunity to test himself. He wanted to know if he would be able to respect the values of the Torah which since became his own, in his native country, and within the setting of his former life. So far, he studied the Torah continually surrounded by Israelites, therefore, in an ideal context. His challenge would be to preserve his state of mind within a more profane setting and together with his family. Now that he has accumulated enough knowledge of the Torah to test himself in Midian, he knows he’s able to return. If he refuses the material wealth promised by Moses, it is only in order to grow the wealth of his learning.

But one can wonder, why the need to go back to his home-country, Midian, to live amidst idol worshipers?

Life in the Holy Land wouldn’t have been restful either: the Hebrews will have to work, forge relationships with neighbors, establish a state, while still studying the Torah. Wasn’t it enough of a challenge for Jethro?

Yet this wouldn’t have been his own challenge.

Ibn Ezra [12th century poet, philosopher and commentator] insists on Midian as the place where Jethro was born. Therefore, Jethro needed to go back to the country where he was born, among people he touched throughout his life, and in order to experience his own change. But here seems to lie another motivator. Jethro was fortunate to see Hashem’s miracles, to learn and live the Torah, and all of these experiences enabled him to grow as an individual. He then wanted to share this learning with his own people, and the return to Midian was his opportunity to do so.

This is reminiscent of Hillel’s wisdom:

“If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” (Pirkei Avot, 1:14).

One year ago, I was reading these lines in the Torah. For the first time, I approached the Torah scroll and made its words resonate in the hall.

On this Shabbos, Tehila, a Bat Mitzvah, perfectly read the whole Parashah, in company of other Orthodox women. This service was organized by the Talmudist and specialist in Halakhah Prof. Dr. Liliane Vana and the group Lecture Sefer, in accordance to the Halakha. This was already the 7th reading organized this way within the past 3 years. I say “already”, but I could also say “only”. This Shabbat was very emotional for all girls and women who attended, and even while we experienced this moment as something normal, we were all aware that outside of this sheltered hall, such an experience would go very differently. The first reading in 2012 occurred in a Synagogue in the suburb of Paris, in agreement with the Board and the Rabbi, before being contested by the main French Orthodox institution, the Consistoire. The three readings of the Meguilat Esther in Purim took place in the Community Center of Paris.

When it comes to supporting our values, we all have our own challenges. Like Jethro, who refused to go on to the land of Israel, each and every day we question the reasons which make us live where we live, the way that we live, and how we share the values we support.

One year ago, I read from the Torah for the very first time; today, I write my first Dvar Torah, in order to share the values I believe in.

Sandra Jerusalmi is an alumna of Paideia's Paradigm Programme.

Lead photo credit: Emma Fierberg (CC BY-ND 2.0). Portrait photo credit: Sandra Jerusalmi.

This essay was previously published in French on the Times Of Israel's French blog.

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