Rabbi Sessler D’Var Torah


The Universality of Judaism


Parashat Yitro includes the most spiritually sublime event in Jewish history — the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And — imagine this — it’s named after a non-Jew, Jethro the Midianite. Jethro experimented with all forms of idolatrous practices, until he finally embraced monotheism.

It is striking that our sages chose to name the parashah of the giving of the Ten Commandments after a person with such a questionable religious pedigree.

One might venture to claim that this honor given to a non-Jew is mere coincidence, but Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, demonstrates that this is no mere happenstance.

During the holiday of Shavuot, we read one biblical work – the Book of Ruth. Like Jethro, Ruth also was a convert. By embracing the national and religious identity of her mother-in-law, Ruth inadvertently set in motion a genealogical process which ultimately culminated in the birth of her celebrated great-grandson, King David, author of the book of Psalms, conqueror of Jerusalem, father of King Solomon who built the First Temple, and founder of the lineage from which the messiah and our ultimate redemption will eventually arise, according to our tradition.

So we have several strong indications that Judaism is a spiritual, rather than an ethnic identity. The parashah of the giving of the Torah is named after non-Jew / convert (Jethro), on Shavuot we read the story of a convert (Ruth), and that same story ends by stressing the fact that that this very convert is the ancestress of King David, and therefore of the future messiah as well.

A religion is universal when it is open to all, and Judaism is certainly open to all those who truly, purely and wholeheartedly, choose to earnestly take upon themselves the yoke of heaven, and lead an authentic Torah existence, by keeping the mitzvoth.

As we receive the Torah, and make our perpetual covenant with G-d, the Torah reminds us of its ultimate universalist streak both by stressing the fact that it was not given in Israel, but rather in the desert, in a no man’s land, in a place where no particular nation holds political sovereignty, and also –  by naming this portion after a non-Jew, and one who led an idolatrous existence throughout the bulk of his existence at that.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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