Monday, January 17, 2011

Confusion of Names / Parshat Yitro

In the medical world, drugs usually have several names: the generic name and the trade name. For example cephalexin is sold by the trade name Keflex; Levaquin is levofloxacin; and Ritalin is methylphenidate. This is confusing to many people. Equally confusing, and extremely dangerous, are similar names for different drugs. Keeping names straight can be a matter of life and death. An 8-year-old died when given methadone rather than methylphenidate (Ritalin). The FDA reported five deaths of patients given edetate disodium (which causes a severe decrease in blood calcium levels) instead of edetate calcium disodium (for treating lead poisoning).

Parshat Yitro also includes multiple names for people and places. Moses’ father-in-law is known by many names: Jethro (our parashah is named Yitro after him). When we first meet him (Exodus 2:16-18) he is known as Reuel, the priest of Midian, father of Tzipporah, generous host to Moses who is fleeing Egypt. Following Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Horeb, (elsewhere called Mt. Sinai) he returns to his father-in-law Jeter (Yeter, Exodus 4:18), who is called Jethro (Yitro) in the very next verse. In Numbers 10:29 Moses’ father-in-law is identified as Hobab (Chovav) son of Reuel (suggesting to some that Exodus 2:18 refers to Tzipporah’s grandfather, Reuel, not to her father Yitro/Yeter/Hobab), but that is a stretch.

Are you thoroughly confused yet? Then ignore everything above and focus on this:

Torah juxtaposes the horrors imposed by the Egyptians in pursuit of the Israelites after enslaving them for four centuries with the kindness of Jethro and his people toward the Israelites. The contrast is stark and unmistakable. While some strangers are cruel, others are kind. But consider just the Midianites: what are we to make of the contrast between the Midianites (Genesis 37:28) whose caravan carted Joseph off to slavery in Egypt (or was it the Ishmaelites? See Genesis 37:25 and also verse 38!) and the clan of Yitro in the generation of Moses? Here we see that Midianites can be ruthless strangers or close kin. (And just to add to the fun, Torah tells us that it is a Midianite woman who consorts with an Israelite man in the Tabernacle (Numbers 25:6) leading to Phinehas’ glorified vigilantism – yet she is actually a Moabite if we read Numbers 25:1.)

What is going on here? Is there a confusion of names? Are we seeing the result of centuries of oral transmission and the confusion and changes that naturally creep into oral accounts? No doubt that is part of the explanation.

Standing at a distance of more than 2500 years, what are we to make of these accounts? Perhaps these passages in Torah can serve to remind us that when it comes to people, names are identifiers, but should never be used as blanket labels. In the world of medicine, a name is a definer, and should be taken as such: it is what it is called. But not so people. We often want to brand people “good” or “evil” and reduce them to a single adjective, rather than view them in all their complexity. We often want to brand an entire nation in a similarly simplistic fashion, as has been done too often in history. We Jews, who are often branded in this way, should know how wrong this is.

This week our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We set aside time to memorialize a man who taught our nation to view people as individuals, not merely anonymous units in a broader ethnicity bearing bigoted labels. In 1963, Rev. King said,
Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true. (“Strength to Love” speech)
I believe that Rev. King’s uplifting words from the “I Have a Dream Speech” are the message behind the confusion of names in our parashah:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Torah wants us to not judge all Midianites as enemies because a caravan of Midianites took Joseph into Egypt, but to recall that it was Jethro, the priest of Midian, who gave Moses save harbor and his daughter’s hand in marriage, and who designed the Israelites system of judicial administration to assure justice for all in the wilderness. Each Midianite is as unique as each Israelite.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, which he noted was deeply rooted in the American dream, is also deeply rooted in the Jewish dream: that all people will be judged by their integrity and deeds, not by our narrow bigotries, and that the goodness of every individual will be recognized and valued. If we can do this, then, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said 47 years ago on the steps of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Now that’s good medicine by any name.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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