Amalek and Yitro: Two different experiences with non-Jewish People
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah, parashat Yitro, begins by telling us that Yitro “heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1). Yitro heard about the miracles God had performed for the people of Israel, and took off for the desert, going to meet Moses and to greet him upon his remarkable accomplishments.
Indeed, Yitro was not the only one in the outside world who heard all that God had done for Moses and his people. It is written in the Torah, some chapters before: “The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.” (15:4) This means that the news of the wonderful events had certainly spread far and wide, even further than the land of Midian.
However, not everybody reacted to the news in the same way. Yitro was happy and congratulated Moses. The Mechilta points out that Jethro was the first person to exclaim, “Baruch Hashem!” based on the verse: “Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 18:10)
In contrast of Yitro, Amalek, at the outskirts of the desert, also heard the news but reacted in a different way. What was their reaction? “Amalek came and attacked Israel at Rephidim. “(Exodus17:8)
As the Midrash (Tanchuma Yitro 2) puts it, “There are those who hear and lose, and those who hear and profit.” Yitro and Amalek heard the same news but reacted in opposite ways. Amalek sought to ravage Israel, but Jethro shared in Israel’sjoy at God’s liberation from Egypt.
Many sages have wondered why the story of Yitro and the story about the Amalekites appear so close in the Torah. Some sages show us that we can learn a lesson from the connection between these two stories.
Ibn Ezra writes: “since the Torah has mentioned the evil that Amalek did to Israel, it also mentions the good that Jethro did as a contrast”.
According to Ibn Ezra, by having these two stories appear consecutively, the Torah shows us the contrast between the main characters of these two stories.
Why does the Torah want to highlight these different reactions between Yitro and Amalek?
To answer this question, we need to remember that the people of Israel had been brutally oppressed by one nation, the Egyptians, and after they were liberated, they were attacked by another nation, the Amalekites.
Based on these experiences, the people of Israel might well have concluded that all the nations in the world were their enemies and that there was no way to make peace with other people.
The Torah, however, shows us that not all non-Jews were like Amalek. In contrast with the ideas that all non-Jews hated Jews and sought to destroy Israel, Yitro exemplified the paradigm of the non-Jew who would promote the well-being of the people of Israel. He was an example of the non-Jews who worked to create good relationships with the people of Israel.
Unfortunately, Jewish history is filled with events of hatred, antisemitism, and violence, even in our times and in our country. So that it has been difficult for Jews to learn to trust non-Jews.
For this reason, the Torah reminds us that, despite the fact that in every generation there are those like the people of Amalek, there also are many good people who are willing to support, help, and be kind to others, as Yitro was with the Jewish people.
Another example is the non-Jews who risked their own lives to help their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. In honor of their courage, the state of Israel has designated them “the righteous among the nations”.
The Torah encourages us to identify, recognize, and appreciate the “Yitros” who live in each generation, and to forge strong relationships with them.
As we work to do so, may we be inspired by the beautiful, peaceful, and meaningful relationship Yitro and Moses established a long time ago.