Note: The following is the first of two short articles on Yitro’s visit to Moshe, an episode which was recounted at the beginning of the Parshah we read this past Shabbos. It was scheduled to be posted on Friday but was delayed due to time constraints. Part two will hopefully be posted near the end of this week, אי”ה.
Our Parshah begins with an account of Yitro’s visit to Moshe. Upon receiving news of Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt, Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, sets off to meet the nation in the desert. This episode will serve as the focus of our study both this week and next. Let’s begin by citing it in full (Exod. 18:1-27):
Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, his people—that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt. So Moses’ father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moses] said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” and one who was named Eliezer, because [Moses said,] “The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.” Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses’] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God. And he said to Moses, “I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her.” So Moses went out toward his father in law, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent. Moses told his father in law [about] all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and [that] the Lord had saved them. Jethro was happy about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. [Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued all of you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” Then Moses’ father in law, Jethro, sacrificed burnt offering[s] and [peace] offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moses’ father in law before God.
It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.” Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they shall bear [the burden] with you. If you do this thing, and the Lord commands you, you will be able to survive, and also, all this people will come upon their place in peace.” Moses obeyed his father in law, and he did all that he said. Moses chose men of substance out of all Israel and appointed them as heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. And they would judge the people at all times; the difficult case they would bring to Moses, but any minor case they themselves would judge. Moses sent off father in law, and he went away to his land.
Now for some short thoughts on this passage:
Chronology of Yitro’s Visit
One of the issues involved in the study of our episode is the question of its chronology. In the latter half of the passage, Moshe is found adjudicating Bnei Yisrael’s legal disputes. Yet the nation only receives its legal code, the Torah, two chapters later, leading many to conclude that the literary placement of Yitro’s visit has been advanced from the position it occupies in the historical sequence of events.
If that is the case, we must ask for what purpose our Torah chose to “move up” the Yitro story. One interesting suggestion I saw last week is that the Torah wished to juxtapose Yitro’s visit to Bnei Yisrael’s military defeat of Amalek, retold at the end of last week’s Parshah, in order to counterbalance an episode focusing on hostile foreign relations with an episode focusing on friendly ones. Yitro was a Kenite, and later in Tanach, when Bnei Yisrael avenged the Amalekite attack recounted in last week’s Parshah, King Shaul was careful to first grant refuge to the Kenites, his allies: “And Saul said to the Kenites, ‘Turn away and go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, and you did kindness with all the children of Israel, when they went up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites turned away from amidst Amalek” (I. Sam. 15:6). Thus, the argument runs, positioning Yitro’s visit immediately after Amalek’s attack serves to prefigure this later diplomatic dynamic.[i]
That is one explanation. At the simplest level, meanwhile, it seems that the purpose of placing Yitro’s visit before the revelation at Sinai is to emphasize that this revelation was in no way related, casually, to Yitro’s decision to join Bnei Yisrael. In other words, although the “priest of Midian” was clearly enamored by Bnei Yisrael—according to rabbinic tradition, he even wound up converting to Judaism—it was not the content of Jewish theology, per se, which initially attracted him to this faith community.
But if “Jewish ideas” were not what did it for Yitro, then what was?
Names of Yitro
It is interesting to note the way that the Torah chooses to refer to Yitro in our passage. He is mentioned fifteen times in total, and in thirteen of those instances, the Torah describes him as “[Moshe’s] father-in-law.” This is a man who, according to Midrashic tradition, went by seven different names; there were ample appellations that our Torah could have applied to him, had it wished to. Instead, it insists—over and over again—on defining him in terms of his relationship to Moshe.
The point here is that Yitro’s function in our passage is decidedly familial. True, in the course of his visit, he will be moved to identify with the religious ideals of the nation in whose midst he stands—and, in that instance, he will act simply as “Yitro,” not as Moshe’s “father-in-law” (“Yitro rejoiced over the good done to Israel… Yitro said, ‘Blessed is Hashem who has rescued you all from the hand of the Egyptians…”). But it was not an interest in the doctrines or destiny of Bnei Yisrael which originally motivated Yitro to travel in their direction. What primarily pulled Yitro to Bnei Yisrael was his connection to an individual Israelite: “Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel.”[ii]
Shavuot is the holiday on which we celebrate the revelation at Sinai. One of the Torah readings for that holiday is taken from our Parshah, Yitro. On that same holiday we also read from the Megillat Rut. And, besides for the similarity between her name (רות) and Yitro’s (יתרו),[iii] Rut resembles Yitro in a critical respect: like him, she is a gentile convert whose journey towards Judaism is precipitated not by a spiritual search, but by her personal bonds with an in-law. Indeed, the sole statement of religious conviction we have from her establishes clear priorities in this vein: “Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16). As we noted a couple of years ago:
The order in which Ruth professes her loyalties to Naomi is most telling. First comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi herself. Then comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s people. Only afterwards comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s God. At least initially, it seems, Ruth’s connection to Judaism is not a theological one—it is a human one. She doesn’t know Judaism, but she does know Naomi. She’s not inspired by a particular Jewish text or a specific Jewish ritual. It is Ruth’s relationship with a single Jewish person that moves her…
In the final analysis, then, Naomi is the unsung hero of the Book of Ruth. Ruth certainly deserves credit for the love that she showed to her mother-in-law and for taking a leap of faith to join the Jewish people and their God. Yet her mother-in-law also deserves credit for inspiring that sort of response. It takes tremendous self-sacrifice to turn down the long-term assistance offered to you by your daughters-in-law—the only two people left in your life—because you’re thinking about their future instead of yours. That’s what Naomi did. We can only assume that it was this sort of other-orientedness which over time led Ruth to admire her mother-in-law with such remarkable resolve. Naomi’s name, after all, means “pleasantness,” and like all of the names in this text, it is loaded with meaning. דרכיה דרכי נעם: Her ways, like those of the Torah which she represented, were ways of pleasantness.[iv]
Kingdom of Priests
The famed French Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim once identified “the idea of society” as the “soul of religion.” That is not the attitude being advocated here. For all the valuable social benefits that it confers, Judaism is more than a useful tool for the ordering of social life. The revelation at Sinai, in this week’s Parshah, ends with a series of commandments that govern relationships בין אדם לחברו, between humans and themselves; it begins with a series of commandments that govern relationships בין אדם למקום, between humans and God. The former are at least as important as the latter.
Yet sometimes, it is only through the latter that we can access the former.[v] Such was the case for Yitro; such was the case for Rut; and such is often the case those of us who, post-Sinai, cannot hear Hashem address them directly as our ancestors once did, but who find godliness, and thus God, in the acts of His ambassadors. Of these individuals—those who, through their conduct, claim their place in the ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש, the “priestly kingdom and holy nation”—the words of Boaz, repeated throughout Megillat Rut, ring especially true: ה’ עמכם—Hashem is with you.
[i] See Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus. Sarna further notes that the meal shared by Yitro and the leaders of Bnei Yisrael resembles those that accompanied the formation of treaties in the Ancient Near East; see, for instance, the treaty between Yaakov and Lavan in Gen. 31.
[ii] The full verse reads: “Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people—that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” Whether the “his” in the phrase “his people” refers to Hashem or Moshe is ambiguous, but based on the approach we are developing, it is tempting to adopt the latter reading.
[iii] Homiletically, we might say that רות=יתרו without the ‘י: Hashem does not even once function as an actor in Megillat Rut, and so in some sense, its action picks up where that of Parshat Yitro leaves off. That is, once the revelation ends—once Hashem no longer makes His presence manifest in our lives—how then do we cultivate a relationship with Him? For more on this theme as it emerges from Megillat Rut, see the Rut article from two years ago, “Nietzsche and Naomi.”
[iv] In a way, Yitro’s relationship to Torah likewise grew out of his admiration for the “ways of pleasantness” embodied by one of its practitioners: it was upon hearing of how Moshe rescued his daughters from harassment at the hands of local shepherds that Yitro extended his enthusiastic invitation for Moshe to join his family (see Exod. 2).
[v] This observation should not be taken as an attempt to turn human relationships into little more than an instrument for one’s personal religious growth. Just as religion should not be viewed as a means towards advancing social ends, social relations should not be viewed as a means towards advancing religious ends. Rather, both are independent, irreducible facets of the human experience, and neither enjoys axiological pride-of-place over the other. Thus R. Akiva Tatz notes, with reference to our Parshah:
Why were there two tablets [on which the “Ten Commandments” were given? Because] there are two sets of obligation. The first category of obligation is God: the laws that He extracts and demands from me. But then there’s another set of obligations: you oblige me, inasmuch as you are a human. The thing to realize here is that [with regard to] respecting human life—it’s not only because God says, “treat him correctly;” it’s because he himself [i.e. the human being] obliges, inasmuch as he’s human… The difference is striking. If you fulfill interpersonal commandments because God commands you, then the other person doesn’t matter. Why are you visiting the person who’s sick? Do you care about him? No – he’s irrelevant! I’m visiting the sick because God commands me; he [i.e. the human being] is an object of my mitzvah. This sick individual is like an etrog, like a lulav – and when I visit him, I’m going to shake him, that’s what I’m going to do! And the sicker he is the better, because the more he needs me, the more he’s suffering – ‘ooh, it’s a juicy mitzvah!’ You see what the problem is?
For more on this theme, see last year’s post-script to Parshat Terumah, “On the Possibility of Altruism.”