There are so many lessons to take from this week’s parsha (Torah portion), it’s overwhelming. Some say this is possibly the most important parsha in the Torah; I find this claim interesting, since this week’s parsha is named after a very important yet not a very well-known character in the Torah. Yitro was Moshe’s father-in-law, and a Midianite priest. He had seven daughters, one of whom became Moshe’s wife Tzipporah. He gave Moshe some great leadership advice. According to a midrash on Tractate Sotah 11a, Yitro was also one of Pharaoh’s advisors during the time they were trying to figure out what to do with the Jews. One of the advisors suggested the “final solution,” the second said nothing, and Yitro advised them to live in peace with them. We all know which advisor Pharaoh listened to, and that is when Yitro fled to Midian.
Finally, despite the fact that Yitro was originally an idol worshipper, he eventually became the first Jewish convert.
I have a special place in my heart for Yitro, being a convert myself–– that, and the fact that Yitro knew how to celebrate. When Moshe told Yitro what Hashem did, saving the Jews from Egypt, he made a feast and invited people to eat with him.
Coming from a Christian background, I can relate to have taken part of idol worship; and, more flatteringly, being a truth searcher and rejecting falsehood upon discovering the truth of Judaism. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe sums it up nicely, “This Parsha [sic] is named Yitro to teach us that the way to acquire Torah is to follow the ways of Yitro. Search for truth and be critical. Reject falsehood. And when you discover truth, be ready to sacrifice everything for it!”
People might not be so thrilled at this kind of adventure. One reason might be that our priorities are out of order, or just wrong. Yitro taught the value of making choices based on truth, and also the value of taking care of ourselves by getting help when we need it. Knowing our limitations and taking care of ourselves is a priority that is easily forgotten. So often, we forget to put ourselves on our list, despite the fact that it is so important to do so.
After Yitro heard of all the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jews, he went to look for Moshe. He found Moshe speaking with a long line of Jews, answering their questions. When he saw this, he said, “Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening. You will surely become worn out… as well as this people that is with you” (Exodus 18:14-17). He essentially advised Moshe to delegate. He had other knowledgeable people answer smaller issues, while Moshe would discuss only the more complicated, big issues.
This method of delegation is used in most big organizations such as the military in order to run efficiently. I remember how when I was in the military, we were taught this system. We were always supposed to try and solve cases at the lowest level possible first before any cases went to the higher-ups. Moshe listened to Yitro, which I think shows Yitro’s importance–– the greatest prophet who ever lived listened to his father in-law’s advice– and remember that he also asked Yitro’s permission to go back to Egypt to free the Jewish people.
I think we live in a rat-race culture of always running, running, running. A car, if it’s not maintained and taken care of, will eventually break down and run out of gas. The same thing goes for people. You can’t give what you don’t have. That was Yitro’s point here.
The next priority lesson Yitro taught was living up to the truth, which is the foundational priority upon which one should base all of their life decisions. The big question I most frequently get as a convert is, “Why did you want to convert?” One reason the question is the most interesting to people, aside from the obvious difficulties that converting to Judaism brings, is that being Jewish is not a requirement in order to be a righteous person. Judaism teaches that there are seven Noahide laws that Hashem gave to non-Jews to follow. If non-Jews follow those, they are considered righteous people who have a share in the world to come.
Also, why sign up to a group where there is so much hatred toward them that it has its own word, anti-Semitism? I think “why” is a fair question to get from people. I have had people tell me that they don’t think they would convert, given the option. I think an important question for people to ask themselves is, if they had the choice, would they still choose to be a Jew?
This goes back to Yitro and priorities. What do we really care about in life? Rabbi Akiva Tatz says that if you want to know who someone is, ask them what they want in life. When we stop and think, what do we really want–– ease and comfort, or meaning and purpose? If we think of what we want to see in our lives when we look back on our lives after 120 years, what do we want to have accomplished? What do we want people to say about us? Whom do we want to have been? Selfish, gluttonous, honor-seeking, party animals, or the kind of hero with character that people want to teach their kids about? The people in the Torah are probably the most famous people in the world, and have had the most impact on the world, and yet none of their lives I would say would be labeled easy and comfortable.
The Jewish people have spent the last 3,300 years teaching ourselves and the world that no matter who you are, man is subject to a Higher Power who demands morality and character from every individual. Could there be a bigger purpose? The all-powerful, all-knowing, loving Creator of existence cares about every second of your life and created eternity to spend it with you. Could there be a bigger meaning?
If I was to choose to become a Noahide rather than a Jew, I felt like I would be missing something unique: the opportunity to be as close to the Almighty as possible, and the amazing community that Orthodox Judaism creates. Jews are required to consciously choose good in every action we take, from feeding our animals before we feed ourselves to not wasting time at work, improving ourselves continuously and sacrificing parts of ourselves and our desires that we once held dear in order to be truly good people. Could there be a greater heroism? Hashem made the Jews his chosen people to be a light unto the nations. How could we miss out on that?
Meera Miller was adopted from South Korea when she was two years old and grew up as a Catholic in Ostego, Minnesota. She joined the United States Air Force right after graduating from high school, and served four years while working on a degree in clinical social work. She eventually converted to Orthodox Judaism with her husband Stephan while taking care of her two young kids in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Stephan Miller grew up in California and Washington State as a Christian. He joined the United States Air Force after graduating high school in 2002, and served for six years while earning a master’s degree in IT. He eventually converted to Orthodox Judaism along with his wife Meera, and is now a computer programmer living in Silver Spring with his wife and kids.
The Millers are making aliyah in July 2017, iy”H.