The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: 19 Shvat, 5767 / February 7, 2007

HaShem: greater than all gods

"Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that G-d had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that HaShem had brought Israel out of Egypt."
(Exodus 17:1)

Who was Yitro - Jethro - the father in law of Moshe, and what inspired him to leave his home in Midian, and travel out to the desert to meet Moshe? What do we know about him? Torah tells us simply that he was the priest of Midian. Midrash, however, fills in the following details: Yitro was an idolator, perhaps the idolater par excellence in the world. Not only was he the idolatrous priest of Midian, he was also a student and expert in all the idolatrous practices of the world. His fame and expertise landed him a position among the chartumim - the magicians that formed Pharaoh's inner circle. Apparently he became disaffected with Pharaoh sometime before Moshe first set out from Pharaoh's palace and saw the Egyptian beating the Hebrew slave, and moved to Midian.

Why did Yitro leave Pharaoh's court? And why was he so despised that when Moshe arrived in Midian he saw Yitro's daughters being persecuted at the well, not being allowed to water their father's flock? Yitro experienced a crisis of faith. Unlike Pharaoh, who clung to his idolatrous beliefs, even in the face of crystal clear evidence that there was but one G-d in the world, Yitro, for all his expertise and mastery of idolatry, found that the worship of many gods failed him in his most basic spiritual need: the need to see justice in the world. This becomes evident as we return to the Torah narrative:

"And Moses 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 Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which HaShem had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said: 'Blessed be HaShem, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that HaShem is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them.'" (Exodus 17:8-11)

Yitro, the one time proud idolatrous priest, was now a questioner and searcher. He was one of us, and despised for it by those that still clung to idolatry for their answers. In Moshe he found a kindred soul, and when he, like everyone else in the civilized world heard the rumors of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, he had to find out for himself. When Moshe related to him all that had befallen the children of Israel, his intuition was confirmed: there is a G-d in the world, Who performs justice, not based on caprice as per the false gods, but based on the Divine principles of right and wrong. Even the mighty Pharaoh, the most powerful human on the face of the earth could not defeat the one true G-d of justice.

Yitro was a man of tremendous moral integrity. Now freed from the bondage of his own misguided idolatry, he directs his insight and energy towards serving G-d: Seeing Moshe sit before the people day in and day out, determining matters of justice, great and small, Yitro advises Moshe as to how to create a judiciary, by appointing and teaching men of integrity in the matters of the law. Thus will Moshe's strength be preserved, and thus will justice be served. Even before the receiving of the law at Sinai, Yitro has come to understand that justice is at the very heart of Torah, and that the One G-d in heaven and on earth is the One G-d of justice.

Join Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven on this week's TEMPLE TALK, as they discuss the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the Song of the Sea, the prophetess Miriam, Yitro, marriage, and the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Click to hear:

Part 1
Part 2