April 9, 2024
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How a Gas Station Chat Taught Me to Combat Antisemitism

Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. pays tribute to the victims of the Nova Music Festival at the Grammys.

Since the horrible events of 10/7, I have had some of my most fascinating discussions with gas station attendants. I find many of them are immigrants who appreciate freedom, and the beacon Israel represents in an oppressive part of the world. I remember a month ago I was wearing my Yeshivat Frisch Carolina blue rally sweatshirt with the Israel flag and the message “We have your back” when I pulled up at a station. The attendant complimented me, told me how he used to live in the Philippines and was proud of his son who worked in the U.S. embassy in his home country. We commiserated about the state of the world, and I taught him a thing or two about the current Israeli conflict with Hamas.

Sunday night I had a similar experience while watching the Grammys when Harvey Mason Jr. paid tribute to the victims of the Nova Music Festival on October 7. As a string quartet of musicians of Israeli and Palestinian descent played, he said, “Every one of us, no matter where we’re from, is united by the shared experience of music. It brings us together like nothing else can, and that’s why music must always be our safe space. When that’s violated, it strikes at the very core of where we are. We felt that at the Bataclan Concert Hall in Paris. We felt that at the Manchester Arena in England. We felt that at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas. And, on Oct. 7, we felt that again, when we heard the tragic news from the Supernova Music Festival for Love, that over 360 music fans lost their lives and another 40 were kidnapped…” You can watch his entire speech at http://tinyurl.com/grammynovatribute.

This support from our non-Jewish friends and neighbors has been so important for me in this time when Jew hatred has reared its ugly head and rocked our world. This is an important lesson that we can learn from Yitro of all people and his arrival to the camp of the Children of Israel at the beginning of last week’s parsha. It seems ironic that the parsha containing the greatest Divine revelation in the history of the world, God’s revelation to the Children of Israel at Har Sinai, is named after Yitro, a gentile chieftain of Midian. The portion begins with the journey of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, to greet Moshe and the Children of Israel. What motivated Yitro to return? The Torah gives us some indication.

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקים לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי־הוֹצִיא ה׳ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם:

“When Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Yisrael his people, and that the Lord had brought Yisrael out of Mizrayim.” (Source: Sefaria, Koren Translation)

The Torah itself tells in a general sense what brought Yitro to Moshe, the events of the Exodus. Rashi asks what specifically inspired Yitro to come at this time. He explains based on the Talmud in Zevachim that it was the twin miracles of the splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek.

וישמע יתרו. מַה שְּׁמוּעָה שָׁמַע וּבָא? קְרִיעַת יַם סוּף וּמִלְחֶמֶת עֲמָלֵק:

“And Yitro heard. What was the particular report which he heard so that he came? The splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.” (Source: Sefaria Rashi on Exodus)

It seems that according to Rashi, just the miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf, the climax of the Exodus, in which Hashem drowned the Egyptian army while taking us through on dry land, was not enough to inspire Yitro to come. He also needed the war with Amalek which is recounted immediately before the episode of Yitro’s return to Moshe, a war in which Amalek attacked the weak and stragglers in the rear of the camp of Israel. And only through the combined powers of the upraised arms of Moshe in prayer and the military campaign led by Yehoshua was Amalek weakened.

This military victory against Amalek appears to be much less miraculous and significant than the fantastic miracles at the splitting of the sea. So why was this the event that led Yitro to get up from his home and travel to the camp of Israel?

The Ibn Ezra explains that the events of Amalek and Yitro’s arrival are recorded side by side in order to stand in contrast with each other. Immediately following the story of the evil of Amalek who sought to destroy us, attacking those who were most weak, the Torah recounts the story of the kindness of the righteous Yitro, who joined our camp, giving us chizuk, strength, in our time of need. The nation of Amalek will always stand in conflict with the Jewish people until the end of time and for this reason we are obligated to always remember them and ultimately blot them out. Likewise, Yitro and his descendants, who lived in close proximity with the nation of Amalek in Midian, did kindness towards us throughout the biblical period. We find hundreds of years later Yirmiyahu prophesying that Yitro’s descendants the Rechabites will forever be numbered with the Jewish people serving as teachers and leaders in the Sanhedrin.

The Torah in its recounting of the story of Amalek in Sefer Devarim which we read every year for Parshat Zachor adds an important detail, אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, they chanced upon you on the route. This describes how Amalek traveled from afar to attack the Jewish people. Rashi, picking up the use of the word קָרְךָ which can also come from the word קר which means cold, quotes the Midrash that Amalek by attacking the Children of Israel when the rest of the world was terrified of them after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, “cooled them down” so to speak. This is compared to a person who jumps into a hot bath. This person will get singed by the steaming hot water while the water will become lukewarm so others can now easily jump in. By attacking Israel at this time, Amalek wished to prove that Israel was not invincible so others could attack as well.

I never fully understood the significance of this until the events of these past four months. Since the unthinkable attack by Hamas on 10/7 a stream of antisemitism has rocked our world. We Jews no longer feel safe anywhere, whether in the halls of academia or the streets of New York City. The vitriol hurled on us is unprecedented in my lifetime and in most of the lifetimes of the readers of this blog. Hamas “cooled us down,” just like Amalek “cooled down” the Children of Israel in the desert, making antisemitism, which we thought had been defeated in our modern liberal society, fashionable again. So how can we respond?

One response is to find and cultivate relationships with those non-Jews who get it and have come to our defense in our time of need. Yes. The Jewish people are a nation that dwells alone.  At the same time throughout the Bible there are gentiles who recognize  our role as the chosen people and support us. In the Torah, Moshe could not have become the great leader of the Children of Israel without the bravery of Batya, his adopted mother, who raised him in the palace of Pharaoh and Yitro, his father-in-law, who gave him solace and sustenance when he had to flee Egypt.

When I recently started the new Nach Yomi cycle, I connected with another individual who selflessly helps the mission of the Children of Israel, Rachav, who appears in the second chapter of Sefer Yehoshua. (You can join the new Nach Yomi cycle, which just started this past week, by going to https://outorah.org/series/91.)

When Yehoshua sends two spies to Yericho, the first city they wish to conquer upon entering the land of Israel, the spies chance upon Rachav who runs an inn within the vast walls of the city. When the king of Yericho sends his army to find the Israelite spies, Rachav hides the spies and tells the soldiers that the spies have already left the city so the soldiers will go chase them. Why did Rachav risk her life for the Israelites? She tells them:

וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־נָתַ֧ן ה׳  לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכִֽי־נָפְלָ֤ה אֵֽימַתְכֶם֙ עָלֵ֔ינוּ וְכִ֥י נָמֹ֛גוּ כׇּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֥י הָאָ֖רֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶֽם… כִּ֚י ה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶ֔ם ה֤וּא אֱלֹקים֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּֽחַת׃

“She said to the men, “I know that God has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you… for the Eternal your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Source: Sefaria Koren Translation)

Rachav is another non-Jew who “gets it.” Her description of Hashem is so beautiful that it has been incorporated into the classic Jewish prayer, Aleinu. And she is willing to risk her life to help the mission of God’s chosen people. So too today, we cannot succeed without the help of those gentiles who “get it” and refuse to follow the now fashionable antisemitic attacks.

And it is important that whatever our personal politics is, we seek to cultivate these relationships across the political spectrum. This is why we march on Washington. This is why we write letters to our president who despite the cries from colleagues in the fringe of his party has been a strong friend of Israel. This is why we share on social media the words of those who get it from the worlds of broadcasting and politics. But this goes beyond media influencers. We have so many opportunities to interact with our non-Jewish neighbors, coworkers, classmates on the college campus and the people we meet on a daily basis. Most are generally supportive and concerned but have little knowledge of current events. We should not be afraid to talk to them and share our experience. These types of conversations are not hard. We just have to be ready to speak knowledgeably and not be embarrassed when the opportunity presents itself. We can fulfill our mission to be a light to the world through these everyday interactions and help enlist our non-Jewish neighbors to spread this message to their friends and family as well.

This is the reason I believe that the parsha in which the Torah is given is named for Yitro. When we are given our mission by God to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, we must never forget the priest of Midian and those like him throughout our history from Rachav the innkeeper, to the CEO of the Grammys, to supportive gas station attendants who join with us, appreciate our message and continue to support our mission to the world.


Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the Director of Educational Technology at Yeshivat Frisch. He can be reached at [email protected].

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