"Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard of all that G-d had done..."
The Torah's description of Yitro, (Jethro), is laconic in the extreme. All we are told of him is that he is the "priest of Midian." (ibid 18:1) He invites Moshe, (Moses), into his home after the latter defends his seven shepherdess daughters from other hostile shepherds. He gives to Moshe his daughter Tzipora to marry, and Moshe becomes a shepherd, tending his father-in-law's sheep. Those are all the facts we are provided with concerning Yitro.
This is where Midrash, the Divinely inspired teaching of our sages, steps in, teases out the nuances lurking between the words of scriptural text, coaxes the half-hidden grammatical implications into the light of day, and provides incisive and insightful answers to the questions posed by the very brevity of the verses themselves. Here is what Midrash reveals:
Yitro was a top official, a high ranking member of Pharaoh's inner cabinet. And this should come as no surprise as Yitro was the greatest expert and practitioner of idolatrous beliefs in all the world. No doubt the walls of his sitting room were lined with framed diplomas from the most prestigious universities of Bavel and Ur, Nineveh and Damesek. And of course he readily accepted Pharaoh's appointment to office. After all, Egypt was the leading power in the world, rivaled only by Bavel to the east. Nor was it a benighted world, but on the contrary, Egyptian medicine and science had made advances and discovered secrets of the natural world, some of which are still not fully understood by scientists today. Evidence of Egypt's prodigal architectural prowess remains, uncovered in the desert sands. Hieroglyphic writing and dazzling jewelry provide lasting testimony to the glory that was Egypt. No doubt Yitro's appointment was for life, and it is reasonable to assume that he was well compensated for his efforts on behalf of Pharaoh's Egypt.
Yet, Midrash explains, when Pharaoh embarked upon his grand scheme to eliminate the Hebrew slaves, as described in the opening verses of Exodus, Yitro bolted, returning hastily to his former home in Midian. It would seem that, for the first time in his life, Yitro was confronted with a moral dilemma. Pressed into action by Pharaoh's genocidal plans, his conscience awakened from a life-long slumber. After all, idolatry, paganism, heathenism, and black magic never prepared him for questions of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. And now he was troubled, repulsed by Pharaoh's demonic proposition. The trembling in his heart may have alerted him to his common ancestry with the Hebrews. Perhaps that is why, as Midrash reports, on his way out from the kingly courts of Pharaoh, he took from Pharaoh's chambers a wooden staff, rumored to have belonged to the first man, Adam, whose creation was by the hand of G-d Himself.
We can but imagine the hero's welcome he received when he set foot back on the hills of Midian. The great man, decorated scholar of heretical practices, world renowned advisor to kings, had returned. Yet we are witness to outright hostility on the part of the local shepherds to Yitro's daughters, as described above. What happened?
The stirring questions of right and wrong never left Yitro's heart and mind. And as his search for truth deepened, his interest and trust in paganism waned. Now a lapsed idolater, he eagerly welcomed Moshe into his home. We can only dream of the conversations they held, the charged atmosphere of inquiry and search for truth that must have filled the modest house.
Now Yitro comes to meet Moshe in the desert, ecstatic, beside himself with unbridled joy. For years now he has wrestled with his discovery of good and bad in the world. Yes, surely it exists within the human heart, and, if so, it must have its source in G-d, but where in this world can we witness the triumph of good over evil? What is G-d's role in presiding over the perfidies of man? Where is the justice, and what is our role in attaining it? And now, having heard of the miraculous exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, Yitro has rushed to meet up again with Moshe:
"And Moshe told his father-in-law all that HaShem had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how HaShem delivered them. And Yitro rejoiced for all the goodness which HaShem had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians." (ibid 18:8-9)
Yitro's great search has come to an end. Now he knows. Later, the children of Israel will announce their unconditional adherence to Torah, with the words, "We will obey and we will listen." (ibid 24:7) Yitro was the pioneer of a different path toward the recognition of the G-dof Israel. Of Yitro it can be said, "He heard and he rejoiced." He heard that the G-d of Israel was the G-d of creation, and that the G-d of creation continues to reveal His will through the unceasing march of time and history. He rejoiced by attaching himself to G-d forever, and becoming a partner to His truth.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss Yitro the man, reflect again on the Song of the Sea, ponder Amalek and delve into the meaning of the ten commandments, with a nod to today's Israeli elections.