Last week ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ actor Kirk Douglas (born Isser Danielovitch) passed away at age 103. Douglas was not only an incredibly diverse and talented actor, but in his later years maintained an increasingly strong bond to both Judaism and Israel. Upon reading the many obituaries and tributes printed for him, I came across this amazing quote:
“Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y. Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.”
Not only is this a truly heartwarming and truthful statement, but I believe it can also answer a query raised in this week’s Parshat Yitro.
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are on the cusp of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, however suddenly Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe decides to make a reappearance and visit.
Upon his re-entrance into the Bible, Yitro is referred to as ‘The Priest of Midian’ which the commentators explain as a reference to his extensive passion for idol worship and serving of many foreign deities.
Yet despite his father-in-law’s pagan tendencies, Moshe treats him with respect and recounts for him the story of the recent Exodus, causing Yitro to proclaim “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the other gods!”
The Zohar explains that this statement by Yitro was the final preparation needed in order for the Giving of the Torah to occur.
Why did arguably the most monumental and pinnacle event in Jewish history depend on the whims and sayings of a heathen priest like Yitro?
To answer, we must first explain the general role and purpose of Torah in Jewish life.
Torah is not a history book, a legal code or poetic work of literature, but rather our direct way of connecting with G-d.
Through the laws and stories listed in the Torah we can entwine ourselves with G-d’s wisdom, rationale and understanding.
Torah study is not just for mere practical knowledge but in order to cleave our heart, soul and most importantly our mind to the One Above.
Such an explanation can explain why the statement of Yitro was needed before the events of Mount Sinai.
Torah was given in order to enable each and everyone to connect to Hashem. No individuals with long kaftans and frocks have a monopoly over it. In order for the Torah to be given, it needed to prelude the discovery that even a priest of idolatry like Yitro has an innate and spiritual connection to G-d and His Torah.
In other words, to quote one of Kirk Douglas’s films – you don’t need to be Spartacus in order to stand up and shout “I am Spartacus!”