Principles from the Parsha: “Yitro Heard”

Written by Joshua Z. Rokach on . Posted in Torah

The first chapter in this portion tells of Yitro, the high priest of Midian and Moshe’s father-in-law, joining the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and converting to Judaism. The first verse states, “Now Yitro . . . heard all that G-d had done for Israel His people [and even that He] had brought Israel out of Egypt.” Rashi and Ezor Eliyahu ask what, besides the Exodus from Egypt, Yitro had heard about. Rashi questions the lack of detail in the phrase “all that G-d had done.” Ezor Eliyahu wonders what Yitro would need to hear about, besides for the fact that G-d took the Jews out of Egypt. Whatever else happened pales by comparison with the great miracle of redemption.

 

Rashi lists the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek as “all the good,” which helped bring Yitro to the wilderness. Ezor Eliyahu points out that Rashi does not explain the significance of these particular events, as opposed to others, such as the mannah or Miriam’s well, which nourished the Jews. Nor does Rashi explain why the Exodus alone did not suffice to convince Yitro.

Ezor Eliyahu fills the gap by pointing out a paradox. We read in last week’s portion, Beshalach, that G-d had disapproved of Moshe allowing the Egyptian rabble to join the Exodus. Yet, in Yitro’s case, the opposite occured. He earned the distinction of having a Torah portion named in his honor. In addition, the Torah gives him credit for an important judicial reform. (We see a parallel in Bamidbar 36, regarding the laws of inheritance. Verse 6 gives the daughters of Tzelaphchad credit. Rashi uses that as proof of the women’s righteousness.)  

Ezor Eliyahu explains that the Egyptians–– whom Moshe brought along– joined the Israelites for their own ends. The rabble absorbed few, if any, Jewish values. They incited the people to worship the Golden Calf. The rabble saw an opportunity to leave Egypt and gain a luxurious future. In contrast, the Torah tells us that Yitro enjoyed a good life. He served as the High Priest of Midian and he occupied an exalted position as the father-in-law of Moshe. From a materialistic perspective, Yitro had nothing to gain and all to lose by adhering to the Jewish people.

In addition, the Egyptian rabble had seen only the miracles that G-d had bestowed on the Jews in Egypt. Yes, the Israelites suffered oppression in their slavery, but that belonged to the past. To the rabble, the future promised only utopian delight. At the slightest hint of difficulty– real or imaginary– they incited the people against G-d. The Torah teaches us here that Yitro knew better. He had seen the Jews suffer as a nation and face danger collectively, even after they had left Egypt.

The splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek exemplify this. The Jews could have drowned in the Red Sea. The Talmud states the Angel of Egypt argued before G-d that the Israelites and the Egyptians both had worshipped idols. They stood on the same moral plane. Only because the Jews would later accept the Torah did G-d save them.

Amalek’s aggression presented an even starker case. Rashi in the previous chapter states that the name Refidim, the location of the battles, stands for laxity. Rashi in Devarim (25:18) states that at the time, the Jews “were tired and weary” of performing the mitzvot. The Jews had become careless in their religious observance, so G-d then sent Amalek against them. The Torah records in Devarim that Amalek had inflicted casualties. Even when Moshe took control, the tide of battle swung back and forth. (The Torah in Beshalach states that when Moshe raised his arm, the Jews prevailed, but when he lowered his arm, Amalek took the upper hand.)

Ezor Eliyahu concludes that unlike the rabble, Yitro had a sincere desire to join the Jewish people. Also, he harbored realistic expectations. The fortunes of the Jews would fluctuate. Therefore, G-d welcomed him

Applying Ezor Eliyahu’s approach to the text of Verse 9 gives us a greater appreciation for Yitro’s courage. The Torah states, “Yitro rejoiced.” However, instead of וישמח, the text uses ויחד, from the root חד, sharp. Rashi offers two reasons for the unusual language. Quoting from the midrash, he states that one rabbi holds that Yitro took a sword to circumcise himself. The other opines that Yitro felt a tingling sensation under his skin. A former pagan, he reacted to the downfall of idol worshippers, the Egyptians. Yitro will suffer even when the Jewish nation lives in peace. Yitro inevitably will suffer -- either physically or emotionally– from his decision to leave the cocoon of Midian.

Nevertheless, with his eyes open, Yitro saw the good that would come from his joining G-d’s people. He took the long view and willingly sacrificed in the short term and medium term. Not only did Yitro hear, “Yitro realized.” He provides a model for us to follow. He teaches us as well to honor the strangers in our midst.