Seeing the Other as Revelation


Two hands reach for each otherThe Rabbis knew what they were doing when they divided the Five Books of Moses into portions. It was no accident that they joined the giving of Torah with the story of Yitro. They could have started the parashah with chapter 19 calling it Bachodesh, which is the first word of that chapter. Instead, their choice to begin with chapter 18 means that when we speak of Sinai, we often do so quoting from Parashat Yitro. Our source of Revelation is forever linked to the name of a Midianite priest. As Rabbi Bassin teaches, our interconnected relationship with the Other is core to our essential way of being in the world.

How could it be otherwise?

It would be shortsighted to say we have nothing to learn from outside our community. Moses realized this. He likely didn’t even question it. In his environment, he was immersed in many worlds even as he championed the rights of one.

What did he learn? Yitro taught him how to manage his business of justice better. Yitro was masterful in making sure Moses could “hear” his advice. He offered greeting (Exodus 18:6-7), gratitude (Exodus 18:10), and graciousness (Exodus 18:12) before offering a clear critique, “The thing you are doing is not right” (Exodus 18:17).

While Moses learned from Yitro about management, Yitro “rejoiced over all the kindness that the Eternal had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 18: 9). Moses shared his own story of God’s goodness, opening Yitro’s heart to the teachings of the Eternal. In this way, the learning went both ways.

Could we say their encounter was even revelatory? Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explains: “[T]he Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.”1 “[T]he face is what forbids us to kill.” 2 Yitro and Moses model in the human dimension what will be revealed in the divine dimension two chapters later. The Rabbis reinforce this reading by naming it Parashat Yitro.

1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 207

2. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,, 1995, p. 86

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker is the rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, MN.