This past week I shared a story in Shul which highlights one of the many ways that Kesher Israel is not only a vibrant community in Washington, D.C., but how, as the central congregation in our nation's capital, makes deep impressions upon the world. Through the members it serves and the many groups and individuals who turn to it, Kesher brings Jewish values and our religious gifts to so many Jews and Gentiles who are not part of its immediate constituency.
I received a call last week from an amazing Pakistani Muslim woman who has been organizing anti-Hamas marches and gatherings to battle anti-semitism. She asked me if an interfaith delegation from Pakistan, here for the International Religious Freedom Summit, could come and see the synagogue and meet the Rabbi.
There were five people—two Muslims, two Christians pastors and one Hindu. They said the group they represent, which gets together in Pakistan to talk and pray about religious freedom and peace, numbers 500. One of them, a well-known journalist in Pakistan, had traveled to Israel twice to report, though it was dangerous for him upon his return to Pakistan.
When they walked into the Shul, they were visibly moved. After a moment of looking around the sanctuary in a state of awe, they became like kids in a candy store, taking photos of the ark, of me, of each other in front of the ark, of all of us together, of each of them with me, and exclaiming, “Thank you, Your Holiness, Rabbi, thank you!”
One of the Christian pastors, dressed in a long black caftan with a large diamond studded cross hanging from his neck, looked at me expectantly, gesturing with his hands from the sides of his neck down toward the bottom of his robe, while nodding his head slightly, “Rabbi, is there a scarf?”
“You mean a tallit?” I answered, as I showed them a tallit.
“Can we put it on?”
I acquiesced and they all tried it on.
“The cap? Are there caps we can wear?” they said gesturing at the top of their heads with their palms. I told them they were free to take kippot from the box in the lobby, and they all went to get one, returning quickly to the sanctuary. With smiles on their faces, they closed their eyes in prayer. Never, I thought, have I done so little for so few that meant so much.
One of the Muslims began gesturing with one hand circling his arm, and said, “What about the leather?”
“Oh, tefillin? You want to see tefillin?” I was surprised he was aware of it.
As his head nodded energetically, he said, “Seven times, yes, like circling the Kaaba?”
I brought out my tefillin and responded that I did not think it was connected to the Kabba. At which he looked at me quizzically and said, “Then why are both seven times?” I suggested that perhaps both are connected to God's creation of the world in seven days, a cycle which is not manifest from the world, only from the Torah, at which he nodded with awe and a look of far off contemplation.
I asked if they wanted to see the Torah.
“Oh yes, could we?”
I took it out of the ark and opened the Torah and (being parshat Yitro) I said, “Look, the ten commandments.” They all answered me in a resounding, “The ten commandments!” As if we all had just witnessed a miracle and were about to receive them from God’s presence itself!
Following my pointing out the 10 commandments to them in the text of the Torah, they said, "Can we kiss it?” I held the Torah out and they each did. I put the Torah away and we stood on the bima, facing each other and the empty sanctuary, feeling the aftermath of that religious experience, and they turned to me and said, “Rabbi, teach us a prayer.” I began to explain the Shema and its meaning and source to them, at which they looked at me with a sense of yearning, as if to say, “Just pray with us already.” And so I led them in the Shema with our hands over our eyes, after which the pastor led us in a prayer in Urdu and then the Muslim in a prayer.
Why does last week’s Torah portion of the giving of the Torah start with Yitro, the non-Israelite idolatrous priest of Midian, who comes to the Jewish people in the desert because he heard about all that God did for the Jewish people?
I think the answer is obvious. His character comes to teach us the importance of people who are not Jews for our Jewish life. He brings insight to us as an outsider, he teaches us how to organize our leadership and how to bless God. His presence, which looms large in the parsha as an introduction to the theophany at Sinai, reminds us of how valuable our message is for the world; that we have a mission to be a light unto the nations, and in order to do it, we must be open to the Yitros of the world.
Many commentators hold he did not become a Jew. He did not have to; his being inspired by the Jewish people is the point. And it should remind us of the import of being here as a dugma, an example for the nations. Sometimes we are wary of other religions wanting to come and learn from us, to be inspired by us, but we should value it; it is why we are here.
Last week those Pakistani representatives were our Yitros. Reminding us of our mission to the world, reminding us how powerful and inspiring our Torah is to others, and themselves gaining so much from our wide, rich tradition and original connection with the one God.