Look below surface for the sacred and transcendent

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis.

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

“What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose,

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

— William Shakespeare, “Romeo & Juliet”

As is the case with all the books of our Holy Torah, the second book of Scripture, Sefer Shmot in Hebrew, derives its name “contextually”; that is, it draws its title from the first significant word of the tome. In striking contradistinction, the English titles for the books of our time-honored Bible are “thematic”; names which attempt to summarize and encapsulate a particular Biblical book’s contents. 

It seems to me, that the approach taken with the English names prioritizes a macro, big picture, approach to study, while the Hebraic approach fosters a micro, highly detailed, almost atomized orientation to Talmud Torah. In traditional settings, these two distinct approaches are often referred to as BeKiyut (broad, encyclopedic and far-reaching examination) and BeIyun (textual analysis conducted with incisive and meticulous attention to nuance and detail). Of course, when it comes to the study of our sacred literature, with an eye to deriving existential consequence, there is ample room for both. 

This week in our Jewish lectionary we turn to Parashat Yitro, and are introduced to the intriguing character of Jethro. In addition to being a wealthy Sheikh, a priest of Midian, and a wise man, Yitro is identified as Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, Tzipporah’s father. What makes Yitro so fascinating is that our Rabbinic Sages, in their various collections of Midrashim, are so hyper-focused of Yitro’s life and legacy that they ascribe no less than seven distinct names to this relatively “minor and obscure” Biblical personality. 

These names include: “Yitro” — because he performed so many extra and extraordinary acts of righteousness and goodness; “Yeter” — because he caused additional new sections to be added to the text of our Torah; “Chovav” — because he was beloved to the Almighty; “Reuel” — because he was a friend to the Master-Of-The-Universe;  “Chever” — because he was a close associate of God; “Putiel” — because he personally abandoned the idolatrous practices so common in his day; and “Keyni” — because he was zealous and jealous for the honor and glory of YHVH. 

Clearly, Yitro captured the imagination of our ancient teachers. The question is why? What drew our forebears to this particular, relatively unknown, man? One possible explanation is derived from a BeIyun, a close and careful reading, of the very first verse of our Parashah: 

“Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel, God’s people; how that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 18:1).

The Hebrew word utilized for “heard” is “VaYishma.” However, it is clear that the word connotes something far deeper. “LiShmoa” in this context means not only to hear, but more consequentially, to understand. Yitro didn’t just hear the reports of God’s awesome power and God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage, he understood that the Lord’s heretofore unparalleled act of emancipation placed the People of Israel at the epicenter of human history and elevated the status of the God of Israel (the one True God!) to new heights. Thus, Yitro becomes both a paradigmatic figure and a symbolic exemplar for all of us. When we experience liminal moments, sacred and life altering moments of holiness, we would be well served to pause — like Yitro — and acknowledge their profundity and their Source, the Numinous.  

As we today quest for deeper meaning in our lives, we would be wise to not only “see” events on their apparent, surface level. Rather, like Yitro, we should “understand” that what we are perceiving is actually pointing us in the direction of the sanctified and the transcendent.  If we are able to do so, we too might merit not only greater personal insight and awareness, but also — like the namesake of our Torah Portion, Yitro — help others “hear the news” of the majesty and grandeur of our Maker and be inspired to live lives that are blessed by virtue of being in consonance with the will of the Divine! Amen!