This Week's Torah Portion: Moshe Meets His Father-in-Law

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 and his two grandsons, Gershom and Eli‘ezer, to rejoice in their illustrious husband and father. Yithro was traveling on his own behalf as well. He had long ago embarked on a spiritual journey in the course of which (as the Mëchilta informs us) he sampled every form of religion in the world. As a result, Yithro understood the fundamental emptiness of all of them.

Accordingly, he now stood ready to join Israel, to be naturalized, as it were, in the Malchuth Shamayim (“Kingdom of Heaven”).

The first verse in our parasha identifies Yithro as kohén Midyan, the priest of Midyan’s god Ba‘al Pë‘or, an idol whose worship incorporated singularly disgusting rites (cf. Rashi on Numbers XXV, 3 for details). This seems puzzling, as 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 is ordinarily at great pains to avoid embarrassing anyone. Specifically in the case of someone who has a past of which he may not be proud, such as a gér tzedeq (“convert’) or 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 current in those days: “Do not speak disapprovingly of a non-Jew before [a descendant of converts] until the tenth generation.” (Sanhedrin 94a).

Why, then, precisely at the moment when Yithro is about, in the Torah’s beautiful phrase, to shelter tachath kanfei haShëchina (“under the wings of the Divine Presence”) does the Torah bring up the most embarrassing episode of his past?

Our question seems to become yet a bit starker when we consider what happened next in the light of the Talmud. 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 details of what had transpired at the splitting of the sea and the running battle with ‘Amaléq (XVIII, 7-8, Rashi ad loc.). Thereupon, the parasha tells us:

Vayichadd Yithro ‘al kol hatova asher ‘asa Ha-Shem lëYisa’él asher hitzilo miyad Mitzrayim. Vayomer Yithro, Baruch Ha-Shem asher hitzil ethchem miyad Mitzrayim.

And Yithro rejoiced over all of 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 saved you 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 bëracha 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 Yitzchaq’s bride:

Baruch Ha-Shem Elo-hei adoni Avraham asher lo’ ‘azav chasdo va’amitto mé‘im adoni.

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 the halacha from Yithro? What is more, asks the Maharsha ad loc., the actual halacha specified in the mishna there is that one makes the bëracha when one sees the site at which the miracle occurred. Yithro had not been present at the splitting of the sea, 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 passage 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 Song of the Sea in last week’s parasha (XVI, 1-21) if not one long paean of praise and thanks to Ha-Shem for their deliverance from the Egyptians? What “disgrace”?

The Maharsha’s answer to his question in Bërachoth, in my humble opinion, will also serve to answer our question in Sanhedrin. Yithro, we must remember, was a native of the desert. He was innately 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, all fed and provided with water, he was flabbergasted. This was 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 tova at which Yithro rejoiced included the manna which fed Israel and Miriam’s well which supplied them with water).

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 these more “ordinary” miracles which had already become part of everyday life. You need water, so you go to the well; you need food, so you collect some 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 that the born Israelite, schooled from birth in the knowledge of his heritage and Ha-Shem’s promises to the Patriarchs, did not experience. Anyone active in Jewish outreach can readily attest to this phenomenon on the part of those recently reacquainted 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 us the magnitude of his colossal achievement. The Ba‘al haTurim hints at such an explanation when he informs us that the gimatriya (“numerical value”) of Yithro is equal both to komer haya la‘avoda zara (“he was an idolatrous priest”) and haTorah. From the spiritual nadir of service to Ba‘al Pë‘or, Yhtro became a halachic source, part of the living Torah.