A Few Thoughts on Yitro

There are a number of distinctive aspects of this week’s parasha, Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:231. The first is that Yitro is one of only three parashot named for non-Jews. The other two are Noach (Noah) and Balak. Interestingly, as a numeric balance, there are three parashot named for Jews, Sarah (Chayei Sarah), Korach, and Pinchas. 

A second distinction is the voluminous amount of discussion/debate among the sages surrounding the timing of Yitro’s visit. What was it that he “heard about everything God had done for Moses and for His people Israel,” (Exodus 18:1)? Some say it was after the exodus from Egypt and the deliverance at Yam-Suf while others suggest it was after the miraculous defeat of Amalek and his armies (Exodus 17:8-16). Still, others insist that it was after Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) that he decided to make his journey to visit his son-in-law. Equally debated is whether or not Yitro’s visit not only reunited Moses with his family (wife and children) but it was actually the point in time that Yitro became a follower of the God of Bnei-Israel, technically making Yitro the first convert.

In my studies this week, I came across a third aspect, prompted by an observation made by Dennis Prager in his commentary, The Rational Bible: Exodus.

“The Torah mentions Jethro is a Midianite priest completely matter-of-factly. He is not only a non-Jew but a priest who serves what the Torah regards as false gods. But the Torah mentions him without even a hint of opprobrium. What matters is he is a good man, he is Moses’s father-in-law, and he does not deny the God of the Jews (he even believes, as we shall see, in the supremacy of God while still serving Midianite gods).”2

After further prospecting in the digital mines, I found that Rabbi Sacks z”l had made a similar observation as he wrote,

The Torah teaches us to see value in everybody, not only in members of the Jewish people. Judaism does not require or even encourage non-Jews to convert. Judaism is also open to learning from non-Jews, and Yitro is an example of this. Many Talmudic Sages argue that Yitro did convert to Judaism, thereby becoming our first convert at Sinai. Whether he did or not, he was first a Midianite Priest, and yet showed honour to God, and is thus honoured by the Torah, teaching us that we must not judge people as lesser because they have a different background, ethnicity or religion.3

So, the third aspect is the fact tripart as Rabbi Sacks pointed out.

  • Everyone, Jew, and non-Jew, has value, regardless of their background, ethnicity, or religion.
  • Judaism does not require or even encourage non-Jews to convert.
  • Judaism is open to learning from non-Jews.

The Torah is not clear as to whether or not Yitro converted or not. What is clear is his concern for Moses. First is his parental concern demonstrated by bringing his daughter and grandsons to Moses, restoring his (Moses’ family unit). Second, Yitro showed concern for Moses’ well-being as it related to his communal responsibilities. After watching Moses’ sit as an arbitrator before the entire community, Yitro remarked, probably in a somewhat strong tone of voice,

“What you’re doing is no good. You will surely wear yourself out, as well as these people who are with you because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone, by yourself. Now listen to my voice—I will give you advice, and may God be with you!”

Exodus 18:17-19

Moses listened to his father-in-law, took his words to heart, and implemented them. It has even been suggested that the roots of Great Sanhedrin are traced back to the advice of a non-Jewish, Midianite priest. Before one think such a thing odd, consider the impact of some other non-Jews in Israel’s history. For one, there is the great-grandmother of King David, Ruth a former Midianite. Then there is the song that begins a great many Shabbat services, traditional as well as those of Yeshua followers, taken from an oracle spoken by a non-Jewish diviner, Balaam, who eventually found a way to curse Bnei-Israel for his employer, Balak, king of Moab.

Whether Yitro converted to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a question that remains both debatable and a matter of interpretation. However, as both Prager and Rabbi Sacks noted, Yitro was (or had been) not only an idolator but he was, at least at one time, the priest of an idolatress religion. The prohibition of idolatry, the making of and worshiping other gods, was very soon to become one of the cornerstone tenets of the covenantal agreement forged between Bnei-Israel and her god, ADONAI-Tzva’ot. The first two of the so-called Ten Commandments deal with this…

You shall have no other gods before Me. Do not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on the earth below or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to them, do not let anyone make you serve them.

Exodus 20:3-5a

…and the last verse of the parasha states emphatically, 

Do not make gods of silver alongside Me, and do not make gods of gold for yourselves. 

Exodus 20:23

In concluding this week’s Thoughts, I want to emphasize two of the three points highlighted by Rabbi Sacks. First is that everyone, Jew, and non-Jew, has value, regardless of their background, ethnicity, or religion. We all come from the same stock, each of us created in the image of God, each with the God-breathed breath of life within us (Genesis 1:27; 2:7). Then second, each individual has gifts, talents, and abilities that others can learn from, regardless of whether one agrees, religiously, ideologically or any other point of contention that separates us. Remember Yeshua’s words concerning the faith of the centurion in Matthew, “I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith!” (8:10). Whether this centurion was a God-fearer or not is as debatable as to whether Yitro converted or not. The fact is that he was a Roman officer, part of the occupying forces, and Yeshua not only honored his faith by healing his servant, but Yeshua also used his faith as an object lesson that has remained throughout time. In Pirkei Avot it is written, 

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have, I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99).4

If we disregard those who are different or whom we disagree and refuse to learn from them simply because of ideological differences (or any other differences for that matter), then we remove ourselves from a well-spring of knowledge and experience that just may have an answer to a situation we are dealing with. Had Moses not listened to Yitro, instead of leading Bnei-Israel for 38 plus years Moses would have succumbed to the first recorded case of administrative burnout.

Endnotes:

  1. All Scripture readings are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
  2. Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Exodus, Washington DC: Regnery Faith., 2018. Apple Books.
  3. https://rabbisacks.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/CandC-Family-Yitro-5780-3.pdf
  4. https://www.sefaria.org.il/Pirkei_Avot.4.1?lang=bi
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