WHO IS JETHRO? – Yitro, Ex.18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Of the five books of the Torah, the figure of Moses dominates four. His birth, his youth in the palace, his rediscovery of his people’s pain, and the hot temper that caused him to kill the brutal taskmaster and prompted a break with Pharoah and flight to the desert, all lead to his marriage to Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, the heathen priest of Midian. (What? Did Moses marry a shiksa? Well, yes, but remember, this “intermarriage” took place before Israel received the Torah.) Apparently drawn to Moses both for his physical strength – rolling the stone off the well single handed – and for the power of his faith in the One G-d, Zipporah is the one who circumcises her infant son when Moses misses the proper date. They have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Those Hebrew names remain popular among Jewish families ever since, but the original men do not figure in their people’s history. No books are named for them. They never lived in slavery, they did not experience the Exodus, and neither did their mother. Perhaps angry at Zipporah for usurping his right of milah for his son, Moses sent her and the boys to her father while he returned to Egypt. There’s that temper again.
Moses is called Moshe Rabbeynu – Moses our teacher, our lawgiver, the man who brought us to Mount Sinai for the ultimate revelation. Rightly has it been observed that this revelation did not appear to one individual who then preached it to his people. It was revealed to the entire people – some two million of them – and Judaism is the only one of all the world religions that proceeds from this kind of revelation. That is the scene described in this week’s Torah reading.
Now every week’s Torah reading has a Hebrew name. And what name does this week’s reading bear? This reading includes the national preparations, the thunder and lightning on the mountain, the Voice of G-d communicating the Ten Commandments. Is it named for Moses? No sir. It bears the name Yitro – Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, the heathen priest of Midian. How does he rate?
Well, here we learn that while he did not see the Exodus, he heard about it and took it to heart. He realized that not only was the Egyptian army submerged, but the idols of Egypt showed up powerless. Only the One G-d inspired triumph. So Jethro enters this week’s narrative bringing both his own newly acquired reverence for his son-in-law’s faith, and the daughter and grandsons whom he has been sheltering, to reunite Moses’ family. As the story progresses, Jethro offers Moses very practical advice on how to administer these twelve unruly tribes. After this productive visit, Moses sends Jethro home. Why? Rashi says Jethro was to go and convert the rest of his family to Judaism.
So when Israel receives the Torah at Mount Sinai, Jethro is not there. Yet he gives his name to this Sedrah, as a helper and motivator. And indeed that is how we remember him these thousands of years later, as a devoted family man, as a man with high intelligence and an open mind, as a man who did not hear the Ten Commandments spoken from On High but could detail the difference between right and wrong.
Today, the Big Ten may be “politically incorrect” in some places – gotta censor the Divine out of any public displays, we are told – but their message of right and wrong still rings true. Like Jethro, let those who recognize their value be remembered and respected.