This Week's Torah Portion: Jethro's Colossal Achievement (Part 17)

These essays follow the annual cycle of Torah readings in synagogues the world over, and provide a taste of rabbinical exposition of each such reading in the week it occurs. For a fuller appreciation of the background and underlying premises, please click here.

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Yithro (Exodus XVIII,1-XX,23)

Our parasha is named for Moshe’s father-in-law, who, we are told, escorted his daughter Tzippora (“Zephorah”) and his two grandsons Gershom and Eli‘ezer to join their illustrious husband and father. Yithro was traveling on his own behalf as well. He had long ago embarked on a spiritual journey (the midrashic work Mëchilta informs us), in the course of which he sampled every form of idolatry then available in the world. As a result, Yithro understood the fundamental emptiness of them all. Accordingly, he now stood ready to join Israel to be naturalized, as it were, in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first verse in our parasha identifies Yithro as a kohén Midyan, the priest of Midyan’s god Ba‘al Pë‘or, an idol whose worship incorporated singularly disgusting rites (you can find the details in Rashi’s comment on Numbers XXV,3). This seems puzzling; at the time he met Moshe, Yithro had already abandoned this debased cult and refused to officiate at its services. For this, he had been excommunicated by his people, which is why the shepherds of Midyan had persecuted his daughters when they tried to water his sheep (cf. Exodus II,16-17, Rashi ad loc.).

The Torah usually goes to great lengths to avoid unnecessarily embarrassing someone, specifically in the case of someone who has a past of which he may not be proud. In the examples of a gér tzedeq (“convert to Judaism”) or a ba‘al tëshuva (“penitent”), there is a halachic prohibition against rubbing his nose in that past, the prohibition of ona’ath dëvarim (“oppression with words;” cf. Rambam, Hilchoth mëchira XIV,13,15). To point out how careful we must be of the feelings of a gér, the Talmud cites a proverb which was current some 1,500 years ago: “You should not speak disparagingly of a non-Jew before a descendant of converts until the tenth generation” (Sanhedrin 94a).

Why, then, precisely at the moment when Yithro is, in the Torah’s beautiful phrase, about to “shelter under the wings of the Divine Presence” does it bring up this most embarrassing part of his past?

Our question becomes a bit starker when we consider what happened next in the light of another Talmudic passage: “When Yithro arrived in Israel’s camp, Moshe greeted him with respect and affection and escorted him to his tent, where he filled him in on all of the details of what had happened at the splitting of the sea and the running battles with ‘Amaléq” (XVIII,7-8, Rashi ad loc.). Thereupon, the parasha tells us, “Yithro rejoiced over all the good which Ha-Shem had done for Israel, that He had rescued [them] from the hand of Egypt. And Yithro said, Blessed is Ha-Shem Who rescued from the hand of Egypt…” (ibid., 9-10).

The Talmud (Bërachoth 54a) tells us that this verse is the source of the halacha that one is required to make a birkath hoda’a, a “blessing of thanksgiving,” when a miracle has occurred. At first blush, this seems a little surprising; after all, this is hardly the first time that such a blessing is recorded. We find, for example, Eli‘ezer, Avraham’s loyal servant, exclaiming on his recognition of the sign he had prayed for that Rivqa was the bride for Yitzchaq — “Blessed is Ha-Shem, G-d of my lord Avraham, Whose kindness and truth have not left my lord…” (Genesis XXIV,27). Why, then, should we deduce this halacha from the example of Yithro?

What is more, states the great 17th century Polish commentator Rabbi Shëmu’él Eidels (known as Maharsha), the actual halacha specified in the passage is usually recited when one sees the site at which the miracle occurred. Yithro had not been present at Yam Suf, the “Sea of Reeds,” when it split, nor had he been at Rëfidim, where the battle with ‘Amaléq had been fought. We are told plainly that he joined Israel when they were already encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. How, then, is this halacha derived from his actions?

As if this were not enough, there is another startling Talmudic statement which bears on this verse: “It is a disgrace to Moshe and the 600,000 that they did not say ‘blessed’ until Yithro came and said, ‘Blessed is Ha-Shem’” (Sanhedrin 94a). The statement sounds outrageous. What was the Shraith haYam, the song recorded in last week’s parasha (XVI,1-21), if not one long paean of praise and thanks to Ha-shem for their deliverance from Egypt? What “disgrace”?!

The Maharsha’s answer to this question in Bërachoth, in my humble opinion, will also serve to answer the question in Sanhedrin. Yithro, we must remember, was a native of the desert. He was intimately aware of the challenge presented by that environment to those who had to live in it. Now, encountering this vast camp with its hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who were all fed and hydrated, he was flabbergasted. This is the miracle which was the subject of his birkath hoda’a, and here was the site of the miracle. (The Maharsha’s conclusion, by the way, finds some support in Rashi, who tells us that the “good” at which Yithro rejoiced included the manna which fed Israel and kept Miriam’s well filled with water.)

The Maharsha goes no further, but it seems to me that we can explain the oversight alluded to in Sanhedrin in precisely these terms: Israel, blinded by the brilliance of Egypt’s downfall and their redemption by the unprecedented Divine revelations at the Splitting of the Sea, overlooked the more “ordinary” miracles which had already become part of everyday life. You need water, you go to the well; you need food, so you collect the manna — routine. It took Yithro’s fresh viewpoint to remind them that these were miracles too.

With this in mind, we can return to our first question. Part of the freshness of Yithro’s viewpoint lies precisely in that he was an outsider, a convert. He was able to view things with an additional enthusiasm which the born Israelite, schooled from birth in the knowledge of his heritage and Ha-Shem’s promises to the Patriarchs, did not experience. Anyone who’s a part of Jewish outreach programs can attest to this phenomenon on the part of those recently re-acquainted with their heritage, as well as actual converts.

The Torah’s telling us that Yithro had been the kohén Midyan is not, G-d forbid, to rub his nose in his past, but to show the magnitude of his colossal achievement. The 13th century Ba‘al haTurim (Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher) hints at such an explanation when he informs us that the gimatriya (numerical value) of the name Yithro (616) is equivalent both to the phrase komer haya la‘avoda zara (“he was a priest to idolatrous worship”) and haTorah (“the Torah”). From the spiritual nadir of service to Ba‘al Pë‘or, Yithro became a halachic source, a part of the living Torah.

What an inspiration!