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Opening the Tent to the Invisible Among Us

01/15/2014 12:16:15 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

This week we read parashat Yitro, from Shemot, the book of Exodus. It’s renowned for the Eseret Dibrot, the “Ten Commandments”, but I have a different focus this time; the opening verses of the portion, Exodus 18:1-7:

1] Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how Adonai had brought Israel out from Egypt. 2] So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, 3] and her two sons of whom one was named Gershom, … 4] and the other was named Eliezer, … and Adonai delivered me from the sword of Pharoah.” 5] Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. 6] He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” 7] Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.


So, what is happening here? Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, hears the news of “all that God has done for Moses and B’nei Yisrael” (the Children of Israel).  What had God done?  You remember the plagues, the splitting of the sea, manna from heaven, etc.  Now Jethro heard all about the many miracles God wrought for the Israelites, and he was coming back to meet Moses and reunite him with his family. He gathers up his daughter, Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, and hits the road toward the Israelite camp. Now comes the part quoted above. What is striking, if you read these seven verses carefully, is the repetition, especially of the fact that Jethro is coming with Zipporah and her sons in tow. In fact three times in seven verses the text makes this explicit. If you know anything about numbers in the Torah, both three and seven are special, magical, mysterious numbers. When they come up when reading Torah, you should wake up, because it’s telling you that there is something there that you will miss if you don’t read carefully. So, three times in seven verses – which is practically shouting – it says, “Hey! I’m coming with Zipporah and your two sons.”

One would think that with all the build-up there would be quite a reunion. You know, Moses running to greet his family, scooping Zipporah up in his arms, the boys shouting, “Abbah, Abbah!” (“Daddy, Daddy!”) Right? We even have biblical precedent for emotional homecomings or reunions with Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. But not this time. Moses goes to greet Jethro. Verse seven: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, he bowed low to the ground and kissed him. Each asked the others’ welfare, and then went into the tent.” WHAT ABOUT ZIPPORAH!? Seriously, what about Zipporah and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer? Where are they? Don’t they count? Don’t they matter? It’s astonishing, really.

Often with a question like this one can go to the Midrash (Sacred Jewish Legends) and find the answer. So I looked there and I found… nothing! As far as I can discern, Jewish tradition is silent on this issue. It’s simply not concerned. In this instance, Zipporah and her sons are merely a means to an end, exchangeable property for cementing the bond between the men that possess them, Moses and Jethro. Ouch! That doesn’t feel good. You know, sometimes the Torah teaches by what it says, and sometimes the Torah teaches by what it doesn’t say, what is omitted.

It’s troubling, and it begs this question: how does it feel to be invisible? How does it feel to be brought from the wilderness to the very edge of the tent, to the very edge of the tent but not let in; to be left out, as it were, at the edge holding a heavy emotional bag?

Who is at risk in our community for this kind of treatment? There are lots of candidates, but the folks on my mind as I write this blog are the at-risk kids and young adults that the folks at SAY (Social Advocates for Youth) work with: kids without families who age out of foster care; homeless youth, victims of violence and/or abuse, kids without the skills they need to make it on their own, kids whose only crime is being dirt poor.

As many of you know, Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa has offered to donate the former Sutter Warrack Hospital building to SAY with the goal of expanding SAY’s capacity to serve more of Sonoma County’s youth and families. The proposed facility is being called the Dream Center with a focus on four core areas of services: affordable housing, job training and employment, educational support, and health and wellness. The Center would house SAY administration, low-cost counseling, youth employment services, affordable apartment-style housing, short term housing, family therapy, education programs and bilingual family advocacy. The building also provides office space which SAY could rent to partners offering complementary services to youth.

Not everybody is excited about the Dream Center. Neighbors have questioned the ability of SAY to manage such a large facility. Others are concerned that the kids that SAY serves will bring a criminal element to the neighborhood, making it less safe and bringing down property values.

As far as I can discern, reasonable people can be on either side of this issue. No doubt the Dream Center could pose some risks to the neighborhood if it is not managed well. And I don’t believe one can fault homeowners for being concerned about what happens in their back yard. Nevertheless, I believe that the benefits far outweigh the risks and that’s why I added my name to the growing list of SAY supporters. I also plan to attend the City Planning Commission meeting next Thursday at 4 PM and hope to say a few words on the Dream Center’s behalf.

If we don’t lend these kids a hand, who will? If there is not a place for them in our community where will they be welcome? Let’s not bring these kids to the very edge of our tent and not let them in. We say we care about our youth and we want them to have a chance to succeed. Now is the time to live our values, open our tent, and welcome them inside.

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780