Image: Jan van Bronschorst, Jethro Advising Moses
Let’s face it, Jethro must have been one of history’s top five father-in-laws. In Ch. 18 of Exodus, he visits Moses and shows him how to set-up a bureaucracy. In our current context, this might seem like an odd thing to be admired for. But can bureaucracies be good, even holy? Karl and Daniel debate this contentious issue of our time. You can download the podcast through iTunes or any other fine podcast distributor, or listen to it below. The midrash we used this week is below the player.
18:1 Now…Jethro…heard: What news did he hear that [made such an impression that] he came? The splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. — [from Zev. 116a, and Mechilta, combining the views of Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer]
Nachmanides, 12th Century, Spain
The Torah speaks of our physical world, but alludes to the spiritual realms. The historical events recounted by the Torah echo spiritual “events” unfolding on a higher plane of reality: the story of the Exodus is also the story of a spiritual liberation from a spiritual “Egypt,” a spiritual splitting of a spiritual “sea,” a spiritual battle with a spiritual “Amalek.” It is in the spiritual dimensions of the latter two events that the key to understanding Jethro, the man and the Parshah, lies.’
18:1 Jethro: He was called by seven names: Reuel, Jether, Jethro [i.e., Yithro], Hobab, Heber, Keni, [and] Putiel (Mechilta). [He was called] Jether (יֶתֶר) because he [caused] a section to be added (יִתֵּר) to the Torah [namely]: “But you shall choose” (below verse 21). [He was called] Jethro (יִתְרוֹ) [to indicate that] when he converted and fulfilled the commandments, a letter was added to his name. [He was called] Hobab (חוֹבָב) [which means lover] because he loved (חִבָּב) the Torah. Hobab was indeed Jethro, as it is said: “of the children of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law” (Jud. 4:11). Others say that Reuel was Jethro’s father. [If so,] what [is the meaning of] what it [Scripture] says [referring to the daughters of Jethro]: “They came to their father Reuel” (Exod. 2:18)? Because [young] children call their grandfather “Father.” [This appears] in Sifrei (Beha’alothecha 10:29).
Moses’ father-in-law said to him . . . “Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel” (18:17–19)
Why was Jethro called (in Exodus 4:18) Yeter? Because he added (yiteir) a chapter to the Torah.
Mekhilta–Yitro 6 —
When Moshe asked for Tzipporah’s hand in marriage, Yitro made a condition. He said, “Your first son must be allowed to worship avodah zarah (idolatry), and the children that follow, you may raise in the name of Heaven.” Moshe accepted and Yitro made him swear that he would fulfill his promise… This is why the angel came to kill Moshe.
Rabbi Shimon Schwab—one of the early German proponents of Torah im Derekh Eretz, of Modern Orthodoxy as we know it today—offers an explanation. According to Rabbi Schwab, Yitro is not making a religious argument, but instead a pedagogical one. Yitro himself, according to tradition, had tried worshipping all of the idols in the world, and it was only once he realized the futility of such worship on his own that he was able to accept HKB”H into his heart and become a part of the Jewish people. It is this same lesson that he wants his Grandson to experience: to find the truth of the God of his ancestors, of Abraham and Sarah, on his own
Jethro took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back (18:2)
When G‑d said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt” (Exodus 4:19), “Moses took his wife and sons” (ibid., v. 20). When Aaron later met with him “at the mountain of G‑d” (v. 27), he said to him: “Who are these?” Said Moses: “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my children.” “Where are you taking them?” asked Aaron. “To Egypt,” said Moses. Said Aaron to Moses: “We are grieving over the ones already in Egypt, and you propose to add to their number!” So Moses said to Tzipporah, “Return to your father’s house,” and she took her two sons and went away.
18:9 Jethro was happy: Heb. וַיִחַדּ, and Jethro rejoiced. This is its simple meaning. The Aggadic midrash, however, [explains that] his flesh became prickly [i.e., gooseflesh (חִדּוּדִין חִדּוּדִּין)] [because] he was upset about the destruction of the Egyptians. This is [the source of] the popular saying: Do not disgrace a gentile in the presence of a convert, [even] up to the tenth generation [after the conversion]. — [from Sanh. 94a]
Now I know that G‑d is greater than all gods (18:11)
This tells us that he had full knowledge of every idol in the world, for he had worshipped them all.
The Torah could not be given to Israel until Jethro, the great and supreme priest of the all pagan world, and confessed his faith in the Holy One, saying, “Now I know that G‑d is greater than all the gods.”
Yalkut Shimoni, Vaetchanan, 845, up to the 12th Century, Aggadah
It is easy to ascend to the pulpit; to step down, is what is hard.