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Toward Shabbat: Beha’alotekha

I don’t usually talk about being gay. 

The reason I avoid it is twofold. When I was first coming out (and even sometimes today), I was scared that I would be treated differently. But that was not all: Even if people treated me with kindness and generosity, I worried that they did so only out of a surface-level courtesy—they were kind because they thought they had to be. I was terrified that when someone discovered that I was gay, even if they were kind to me, they would see me as a sliver of the full person I am. Some did and some still do. 

While we know that there are worse things to fear, this is a piece of the marginalized experience. Whether we are able to hide these identities or not, we worry that we will be perceived as only tiny parts of ourselves instead of as our whole, complete selves. 

Throughout their time in the wilderness, the Israelites were accompanied by someone who, despite playing a key role in their leadership, was on the margin of their community. And so as the people are about to journey from Sinai to Paran, Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law and a Midianite, refuses to go with the Israelites. Moshe urges him one last time to continue on with them. “We will be generous with you, just as God has been generous with us!” Moshe promises. But Yitro remains firm in his answer: “I will not go.” Moshe is distraught—Yitro has been Moshe’s confidant, his mentor, his friend, and his father figure. So, he tries to express the depth of his emotions. “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם—and you are like eyes to us.”

Our commentators struggle with these final words, “וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם.” What does it mean to be “like eyes” to someone? Some say that Moshe meant that Yitro served as a guide to the Israelites throughout the desert, since, being from Midian, he had a better understanding of the terrain. Others write that Moshe was referring to the advice and counsel that Yitro had provided him throughout the years. How could he continue on without his mentor’s wisdom? 

While both these interpretations hold truth, I find that the one presented in Midrash Sifrei Bamidbar illuminates the emotions of the moment. According to the Midrash, “וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם” means “you are as valuable as our very eyes.” For Moshe, Yitro’s departure from the Israelite people is so painful and will affect him so deeply that it’s as if one of his five senses is being taken from him. In a way, it’s as if Moshe is losing a piece of himself. That is the depth of the bond they share. 

But the Midrash does not end there. It continues, “As it is said, “You shall love the stranger.” The connection between being like one’s eyes and this mandate redefines what it means to love the stranger. Loving the stranger, the midrash explains, is not just being kind for kindness’s sake, it is seeing the stranger as if they are connected to us, as if our lot is bound to theirs, as if they are a part of us—as if we are a part of you. Loving the stranger is not superficial love, it is a deep and expansive love. Perhaps this is why one of Yitro’s names, commonly explained as his Hebrew name, is חוֹבָב, a word stemming from the Phoenician, and later Aramaic, word for “love” or “beloved.”

The power of this reframing of loving the stranger is further strengthened as we look closer at this piece in our parashah. In Moshe’s first statement attempting to persuade his father-in-law to come, he says “We will be generous with you, just as God has been generous with us.” With this language, there is a separation between the essence of Yitro and the essence of the Israelites. There is an “us”—the Israelites—and a “you”—Yitro—and there is no overlap between the two. It is about what Moshe can do for Yitro or what Yitro can do for Moshe. 

But in Moshe’s second attempt, he demonstrates to Yitro something more powerful: that they are so much a part of one another, they are actually bodily connected. These statements mark the difference between the surface level of being kind and truly, deeply, expansively, loving the stranger. 

As we continue to see an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in our country today, our Torah asks us to love deeper. How can we make the jump from being generous to treating others as if they “are as valuable as our very eyes”? How can we incorporate Midrash Sifrei Bamidbar reframing of “love the stranger” into our lives? As we settle into Pride month, let us heed our Torah’s request so that those on the margins may be welcomed in, and may be seen, treated, and loved as full, valued, and unalienable parts of our community.