Heritage Shabbat 2023
It may come as a surprise, but one of the aspects of the work I do involves some number of people asking me about the previous rabbi of this congregation. Not Rabbi Grumbacher, mind you, who, blessedly, continues to be active and makes his presence known in our community and beyond. No, they want to talk to me about Rabbi Drooz, whose Yahrzeit we observe this Shabbat. An awful lot of folks will approach me on a regular basis to tell me about the work they did together on an interfaith project like Pacem In Terris, of which he was a co-founder, The National Council of Christians and Jews, as it was known at the time, the NAACP, or press into my hand a copy of this booklet, a collection of invocations from the Rotary Club of Wilmington, mostly done by him, mostly done in rhyme, or hearing him speak at an event or on the Rabbi Speaks radio program and how his words move them to this day. Any rabbi will tell you that when someone says, “I remember when you preached…” a certain anxiety comes over them as they wonder, “wait, did I actually say that?” But there is something profoundly touching, especially given that most of the people I’m describing, the people who approach me to ask about “The Gentleman Rabbi”, are non-Jews. That’s right. Sometimes it’s fellow MOTs—real MOTs, not Middletown-Odessa-Towns End folks, though they should live and be well—but non-Jewish friends and neighbors for whom Rabbi Drooz exemplified and defined Judaism, ethics, compassionate care, social justice, and civil rights.
That interfaith work is a large part of Rabbi Drooz’ legacy, and serves as a reminder of its importance in our lives as Jews, an importance that is reflecting in this week’s sidre. Here we have Jethro, Moses’ non-Israelite Father-in-Law, a Midianite priest, who comes with Moses’ wife and children—his daughter and grandsons—to meet Israel along the way to the Sinai. There, when they meet up, we read that Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that יהוה had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how יהוה had delivered them. Moses does not just recount the happy moments, the triumphant moments, but the challenging, difficult moments as well. To all this, Jethro replies, Blessed be Adonai. This non-Israelite priest rejoices with Israel and offers blessing, literally Baruch Adonai, the words we use to bless God.
As you might imagine, the rabbis of old jump on this with some enthusiasm. Some of them want to see this as a moment of conversion for Jethro, where he switches teams and joins in the Israelite cause. We can imagine how our ancient worthies, often living in oppressed conditions, where conversion to Judaism was tantamount to a death sentence, would find that idea uplifiting. But I’d like to suggest that there’s something more happening here as well. There is something powerful in that moment when we as a people describe our experience, our hardships and deliverances, and we are met with blessing. Not by our own people, but by non-Jews themselves. For one thing, it’s always nice to receive compliments, right? Beyond that, we take pride in showing off our traditions, seeing them represented well in media, hearing our non-Jewish friends say nice things about our sanctuary or our services, or even talking about our values as inherently American values—though hearing politicians try to say “Tikkun Olam” is always a little cringy. I remind our b’nai mitzvah students and their families that inviting their non-Jewish friends to the service—not just the party—is an important mitzvah, because it allows them to see who and what we really are, and usually they find the experience to be very moving. Likewise, Jethro’s blessing affirms Moses’ work, but also affirms the entire enterprise of the Jewish people, and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. He affirms our values, our God—he affirms us.
That work continues to be important work, to speak up and speak out about who we are and what we’re about. Which is not to say that sometimes it isn’t exhausting work. We might be forgiven thinking that bringing sufganiyot or dreidles or latkes to our childrens’ elementary school classrooms is a waste of time, or suggesting alternative songs to the music teacher for the ‘winter concert’ that get lost among the carols. Many of us have gotten frustrated when we try to explain our traditions to a well-meaning but tone-deaf friend, explaining that Jesus didn’t observe a Seder, that there’s no such thing as Judeo-Christian values, that we don’t call our book the Old Testament. I think I’ve shared the story of meeting with one Presbyterian minister who kept insisting that we pray to ‘Yahweh’ until I finally stopped him (on the third repetition) to gently correct him and maybe suggest he come to a service. Those are annoyances. There is worse than that—the denial of antisemitism by folks who should be our allies, even in the face of terrible threats and actions of violence. I had a student exploring Judaism approach me asking for resources on antisemitism for a colleague of theirs because that colleague, who is left-wing and proudly anti-racist, simply didn’t see antisemitism as a problem. After all, Jews are all white and well-to-do, right? That’s the argument they make, missing how they’re feeding into anti-Jewish stereotypes older than the hills, as well as the realities of American Jewish life, including the fact that a full quarter of Jews in this country are people of color, who then find themselves especially betwixt and between. And there is the profound frustration we feel when we try to talk about Israel in a thoughtful and nuanced fashion, and are either shouted down by our so-called friends on the left who want to declare the entirety of Zionism racism, or creepily embraced by friends on the right who seem to think their support gives them a pass on other behaviors we might find odious, such as banning certain books from school libraries, including Jewish books about the Holocaust experience. As I often remind our students, at some point, if it hasn’t happened already, each of us will be the first Jewish person an non-Jewish person has met, and that is both a reality and a burden. It can be exhausting. It can feel like an uphill battle.
And yet, and yet, Rabbi Drooz understood that we must do this work, even when it’s a slog. Yes, it disambiguates, it helps our non-Jewish neighbors learn something about us, and helps minimize antisemitism. When I go to do preschool shabbat at the JCC, I see mostly non-Jewish kids singing Shabbat songs, and I smile, knowing that those families are going to see us differently than they might have as a result. But even more than that, it is a chance for us to live in to the values of our prophets. When Moses describes God’s liberation to Jethro and Jethro praises God, he’s not converting to Judaism necessarily. Rather, what’s happening is that idea that our prophets affirm again and again—an idea that Reform Judaism, especially Classical Reform, upheld and asserted as well—that there is one God, that we are given laws that uplift humanity, that confirm justice and equality and dignity for every one of us; and that we, the Jewish people, have a special obligation and responsibility to share this truth, this light, this law with the world, not to make the whole world Jewish, but to make the whole world One, to make the whole world whole. It is, after all, a little too on the nose that, following this exchange between Moses and Jethro, the Ten Commandments are presented, a model for what it means to create a just, caring, and equitable society, committed to the holiness of each person and our world. That through this work every one of us, despite hardship and deliverance, will recognize our obligations and commitments to one another and the world we call home. When we sing “All The World” at the end of this service, it’s not just a gesture to the past, but an affirmation of those values that Classical Reform—Prophetic Judaism—Stood for, and that our movement continues to stand for. That when we speak our truth as Jews it does help educate our friends and neighbors about us, but it also teaches them about how the world should be as well.
So let us recommit ourselves to these actions, retelling of all our hardships and deliverances, knowing that the task—Rabbi Drooz’ task, Moses’ task, our task—will lead to blessing and an affirmation of that universal truth we aspire to achieve. Then may we hear the Jethros in our lives say the blessings our world so desperately needs. Amen.