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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Company We Keep, The Choices We Make — BT Sanhedrin 106a — #121

[Bilaam] saw the Kenites and he declaimed his parable (Numbers 24:21). Bilaam said to Yitro, “Kenite! Were you not with us [when we offered] that counsel [to kill the baby boys of the Hebrew]? Who assigned you to sit among the ‘mighty ones of the world’?” This is what R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Simai, “Three were involved in offering that counsel, and these are they: Bilaam, Job, and Yitro. Bilaam, who advised [Pharaoh to drown the baby boys] was slain. Job, who remained silent, was condemned to suffering. And Jethro, who fled, merited that his descendants should sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone [as members of the Sanhedrin], as it is said, The families of the scribes that dwelled at Jabez: the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, the Sucathites; these are the Kenites who came from Hammath, father of the house of Rechab (1 Chronicles 2:55), and it is written, The descendants of the Kenite, the father-in-law of Moses, went up from the city of palms, etc. (Judges 1:16).”

Yitro (Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law) plays a pivotal role in the life of Moses. Moses, realizing he is kin to the people enslaved by his grandfather (Pharaoh) in whose palace he grew up, and having killed a taskmaster who beat those true kin, flees to Midian, a fugitive with a price on his head. Yitro offers Moses shelter and calm from the storm that has engulfed his life and offers him what he most needs—love and family. Moses marries Jethro’s daughter Tzipporah. Perhaps thanks to Yitro’s protection, when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he has both the wherewithal to recognize God and the peace of mind to hear, and eventually accept, God’s commission.

Yitro plays a pivotal role in the life of the Israelites, as well. He joins Israel after they cross through the Sea of Reeds and brings Moses’ wife Tzipporah and children Gershom and Eliezer to him. When they meet, Yitro observes that Moses is worn to a frazzle serving as the sole judge for the entire nation. He sagely counsels Moses to share the burden with others by instituting a hierarchical system of leadership (Exodus 18:13–27).

Where this a cinematic or stage production based solely on the Book of Exodus, although Yitro plays an enormously important role in the life of Moses and the Jewish people, he would command few lines. The Rabbis, however, imagine yet another heroic role played by Yitro: he was one of three close advisors to Pharaoh at the time the plan to kill Hebrew baby boys was hatched. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 5:8, 20c-d) identifies Job and Bilaam as the other two.

One more thing: Tradition (derived from 1 Chronicles 2:55) holds that the Kenites, descendants of Yitro, converted to Judaism and became revered Torah scribes. In the ancient world, scribes were far more than human typewriters or copy machines. They taught and interpreted sacred texts. As great Torah scholars, this tradition holds, Yitro’s descendants would be admitted to membership in the Sanhedrin, which convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple.

The passage is part of a longer discussion of the pagan prophet, Bilaam, whom Israel encounters on the last leg of their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. Facing the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, Bilaam “saw the Kenites” (Numbers 24:21). This peculiar phrase affords a launching pad for a surprising conjecture that Yitro was present with Israel, not only at that moment, but was also among Pharaoh’s inner circle of advisors at the time the scheme to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys was hatched more than 40 years earlier. Bilaam, recognizing Yitro on the steppes of Moab, recalls the last time they were together when, along with Job, they advised Pharaoh concerning how to deal with the threat of the burgeoning population of Hebrews. Bilaam further asks: How did you, Yitro, rise to the position of “the mighty ones” who sit on the  Sanhedrin? In other words, why will your descendants merit such extraordinary distinction? (Yes, the story moves from present to past to future in swift succession.)

Gemara recounts a story told by R. Chiyya bar Abba attributed to R. Simai. Bilaam, Job, and Yitro were members of an elite group of advisors to Pharaoh. Bilaam devised the scheme to drown the baby boys; as punishment, he was slain (Joshua 13:22). We are to understand this as God’s justice. Job remained quiet. In consequence of his failure to speak out against the plan, he was afflicted with otherwise unjustifiable suffering (Job, chapter 1). Yitro flees—we are to understand that, having opposed the plan, he is no longer safe in Egypt. His reward is that his descendants merit membership in the Sanhedrin. Two proof texts are brought: 1 Chronicles 2:55 establishes that great scribes are among Yitro’s descendants, the Kenites. Judges 1:16 connects the Kenites to Moses’ father-in-law, whom we know to be Yitro. The three typological responses of the three pagan prophets provide food for thought. In a dangerous situation where lives are a stake, we find three routes: (1) Reinforce and affirm the murderous instincts of the barbarous leader, conjuring a plan to kill his perceived enemies, a sin of commission (Bilaam); (2) Silently acquiesce, the sin of omission of a by-stander (Job); and (3) Oppose evil although it presents immediate danger, but enjoy a shining reputation as a hero (Yitro). A parallel to this story is found in BT Sotah 11a.

  1. Do Yitro’s descendants enjoy membership in the Sanhedrin more as a reward for Yitro’s meritorious conduct, or do they earn it by converting and becoming Torah scholars?
  2. How does the passage speak to the moral obligations of advisors to powerful leaders to exert their influence in the face of their evil schemes and policies?
  3. In life, from the time we are children in a playground, we face the choice of cooperating in what is morally wrong, standing quietly on the sideline, or voicing opposition. On what occasions have you chosen each of these responses? What choice would you make today?

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