The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Shvat 13, 5771/January 18, 2011

"Yitro was happy about all the good that HaShem had done for Israel"
(Exodus 18:9)

Everybody loves Yitro. He seems like a nice guy. He's friendly, positive, full of optimism. He welcomed Moshe into his home, married him to his daughter, and blessed him upon his return to Egypt. What's not to like? But what do we really know about Yitro? Who was he really? In addition to the written verses of Torah, our Midrashic tradition offers us more insight into the person who was Yitro, shedding even greater light upon what really attracts us to Yitro, what makes him such a compelling figure.

Midrash informs us that Pharaoh had three chief advisors. They were Bilaam, who we will confront later in Israel's journey, Iyov - Job - who is featured in his own book of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Yitro. Pharaoh convened this forum of three and declared to them his megalomaniacal desire to physically eradicate the children of Israel. This is the background to the opening of the book of Exodus. Bilaam, the heathen prophet, a brilliant man whose prophetic abilities are considered to be equal to and even greater than Moshe's, quickly provided for Pharaoh the answer he was seeking: eliminate the new born Israelite males by instructing the Hebrew midwives to murder them. When this solution failed, Bilaam suggested throwing the new born males into the Nile.

Pharaoh's second confidant, Iyov - Job - is known, of course, as the righteous man who suffered inexplicable plagues, yet remained faithful to G-d. Iyov, according to our Midrash, upon hearing Pharaoh's desire and Bilaam's proposal, remained silent. It was his silence in the face of this great evil, that, our Midrash suggests, eventually precipitated the great calamities that he suffered.

Yitro, the third member of Pharaoh's team, our Midrash tells us, was the civilized world's most knowledgable, most expert and most sincere practitioner of idolatry. Hundreds of forms of idolatry were in existence at this time, and Yitro was an initiate of all of them. Yitro, upon hearing Pharaoh's intentions and Bilaam's schemes, stood up and walked away.

Yitro intuitively sensed the inherent evil of Pharaoh's plan, and while he was helpless to stop it, he decided at once to not be a part of it. Now the idolatry in which Yitro was schooled didn't entertain such notions of good and evil, of right and wrong, of morality and justice. All these concepts, so familiar to us, were not part of his idolatrous world. All these concepts can only exist in the hearts of men who understand that one G-d and one G-d alone created our world, and that all creation bends toward His will. When a sense of impending injustice, a fear of an evil plot about to be hatched entered Yitro's heart, it signified a complete and total break from his idolatrous past. From this moment, Yitro was a believer in the one G-d. A lifetime spiritual journey which had led Yitro from one idolatrous practice to another until he was master of them all, now set him on a new path, a path of truth.

Yitro was a member of Pharaoh's inner cabinet. He was a priest of Midian. He had status, he had clout, he had a name. When he traveled, people stepped out of his way. When he spoke, people listened. He was respected, perhaps even feared. His future was ensured, power and prestige and all that they brought were his. Yet, in spite of all this, in spite of all he had to lose, Yitro stood up and walked away. Having discovered the truth, he could no longer live the lie. He went into a self imposed exile, leaving Egypt forever and returning to Midian, where his change of heart was not well received. He was despised by the local Midianites and his family was scorned. This explains the callous treatment his daughters were receiving at the hands of the other shepherds, when Moshe, himself escaping from Egypt, arrived at the well and helped Yitro's daughters to water their flock.

So it seems that Yitro didn't have the intellectual grasp that Bilaam had, nor his prophetic insight, his worldly sophistication, or even his cool sense of self, all qualities which describe Bilaam when we meet him again in the employ of Balak, the king of Moab. Nor did Yitro possess the incredible gift of humility and surrender to G-d's will, however inexplicable, that were the hallmark of the long-suffering Iyov. In many ways these two giants towered over and overshadowed Yitro. The gifts that Yitro possessed were much more modest, to be sure, the gifts of the common man: courage and conviction, faith in G-d and loyalty to his fellow man. Like so many of us, Yitro had to make many courageous and difficult decisions along his spiritual odyssey. His position, his career, he had to abandon. His livelihood, his social standing, his prestige all were sacrificed. No doubt family ties became strained, perhaps even broken. By staying true to his search for G-d, Yitro risked everything. Everything, that is, but his own integrity, his moral fortitude, and his love for G-d.

Our sages are divided as to whether Yitro remained a ben Noach, (Noahide), or whether he converted to Judaism, but one thing is for certain: When Yitro witnessed "all the good that HaShem had done for Israel," he realized that HaShem wasn't simply an impersonal G-d of creation, nor was He a G-d simply bent on wreaking vengeance on Pharaoh. Yitro understood that G-d loved His people Israel and that through Israel, G-d has a plan and a purpose for mankind. Redemption will come to the world. Being alive to G-d's presence in our world brought great joy to Yitro. It also provided for the rest of us a great role model to admire and to emulate. Everybody loves Yitro. He was one of us!

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Yitzchak Reuven and special guest host, Tzvi Richman discuss Yitro, the High Priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moshe - a living guide to the spiritual searcher in all of us. Leaving behind a lifetime of misconceptions, sacrificing status and comfort, risking social and family ties, and tossing personal pride to the four winds, Yitro attaches his fate to the G-d of Israel and to the nation that G-d loves. Also, in the dead of winter, just when we need it most, here comes Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees. Wednesday night-Thursday is the 15th day of Shevat. Take a moment, contemplate the beauty of trees, and feel your own spiritual sap rising in your souls. On Tu B'Shvat all G-d's world receives a dose of redemption!

Complete Show