On my first trip to Israel in 1978, my traveling companion wanted to climb Mt. Sinai. It seemed like a fun Jewish adventure, so I went with her. I remember waking up way too early and it was way too hot and that the guide kept talking about Moses. What I remember now, so many years later, is that for the most part, everything he said went in one ear and out the other.
I often wonder, what message was playing so loudly that I couldn’t hear that G-d gave the entire Jewish nation the Torah on Mt. Sinai? (I have since learned that we actually don’t know where the real Mt. Sinai is, but I don’t think that was the problem.)
I’m fairly sure the guide related the the Sinai story pretty much like that–a story–but I am definitely sure that hearing it didn’t even raise a question in my mind about what it meant to be Jewish, other than being smart, funny and persecuted.
Clearly it would’ve taken much more than a day trip up any mountain to clear my head of all the information that had nothing to do with G-d and Torah.
I was a pop culture sponge, and my mind was packed with tidbits of trivia, much of it from my favorite childhood pastime: watching television. Cartoons, sitcoms, soap operas, nothing was too dumb; watching TV was what Americans did and I did it exceedingly well.
But, nine years later, when I was ready to listen and decided that I wanted to become observant, it was challenging not to be frustrated, even saddened, by the amount of pop culture “stuff” that had hoarded precious storage space in my brain, never to be emptied. Instead of learning which way to turn during the Shemone Esrei prayer, I had been watching “Gilligan’s Island.” I may know the names of all the cast members, but when I go to shul, I have to turn to my neighbor to find out what we’re up to and what I’m supposed to be doing so I can look like I’m doing it.
Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion and what I learned from one television show in particular, a show that actually wasn’t so dumb.
I don’t think I’ve ever visited our daughter Elkie in Los Angeles without discussing the brilliant premise of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” how Jed Clampett, a “poor mountaineer,” struck oil and moved his family (the kind of people who shoot possum for food) to the land of “swimming pools, movie stars.” The brawny but dim-witted cousin on the show was named Jethro; it’s also the English translation of this week’s parsha, Yisro.
I’m not sure the creators of “The Beverly Hillbillies” intended Jethro as anything more than a hillbilly name, but parshas Yisro actually contains the pivotal moment for the Jewish people and the entire world: the time when G-d gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
So who was the original Jethro that he merits such an auspicious Torah portion named for him? He was Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest who enjoyed tremendous status and high regard in the world, largely for his unparalleled expertise in the field of idol worship. When a real maven like Jethro recognized that this G-d was the One and Only, then chose to convert to follow Him, it sent a powerful spiritual message, a message that holds particular power for me.
Because every time I hear the name Jethro, I remember why this magnificent parsha is named after a convert who began as an idolatrous priest. Because, everything about my past, just like Jethro’s past, has the potential to be converted to holiness.
And that is a priceless gift, one that allows me to laugh a little more about some of the things that feel like they will stay in my head forever.