Parshat Yithro 5772: Yithro’s True Motivation for Joining B’nai Yisrael?

by, Moshe Burt

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Moshe Burt


We learn that when Yithro had heard all that Hashem had done for B’nai Yisrael, he left Midian with Tzippora and Moshe’s two sons and went to join with the Jews. Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 9 states “Vayichad Yithro” which Rashi renders as Yithro “rejoiced” at seeing B’nai Yisrael free of Mitzri bondage, at seeing K’riyat Yom Suf and at B’nai Yisrael’s victory over Amalek.

Why was it that Yithro sought to join B’nai Yisrael? We are not absolutely certain as to whether any one specific event Yithro heard triggered him to circumcize himself and to go out to join the B’nai Yisrael, or if there was one specific event, which exact event it was, or whether it was the sum total of all he had heard which convinced him to become a Jew.

But we note that Hashem named only four Parshiyot of Torah for biblical personalities: three of these personalities earned this merit either through their role at a crucial time in human history (Noach), or through their contributions toward forming and solidifying B’nai Yisrael and bringing them closer to HaKadosh Borchu (Yithro: through his suggestions which were adopted to form B’nai Yisrael’s justice system, and Pinchas). Of course we know that Balak had a Parsha named for him and that B’nai Yisrael would always recall the evil perpetrated against them by his biblical axis of evil with Bila’am and how the temptation and seduction of the yeitzer hora jeopardized the Jewish nation — a battle in which Am Yisrael has yet to decisively and finally prevail.

It would seem that, just as Moshe Rabbeinu showed HaKar’as HaTov for the waters in the plague of da’am by having Aaron strike them with the staff turning the waters to da’am (blood), so too Hashem as it were, showed HaKar’as HaTov to Yithro for his contributions to B’nai Yisrael’s justice system.

In the sefer Ner Uziel: Perspectives on the Parsha, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z’l writes on our Parsha Yithro (p. 380-383) indicating that were Yithro to have come to join the Jews after the singular events of Yetziat Mitziyim or the K’riyat Yam Suf, it would have been unlikely that he could have been accepted by the B’nai Yisrael due their concern as to what his true motivations might be; i.e. whether he was anxious to be on a winning team, or on the right side. This type of motivation is not unlike many athletes who, when reaching free agency status seek the best remuneration deal, i.e. to earn more than their peers, or to join onto the team which has either gone all-the-way or is perceived as “the team to beat.”.

This concern for one’s true motivations in converting seems to this author to be why Rabbi Milevsky cites indications that B’nai Yisrael didn’t accept Gerim during the reigns of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech when B’nai Yisrael was at the zenith of prestige and power in the world.

But when Yithro came to join with the B’nai Yisrael after their difficult war with Amalek, one could reckon that the B’nai Yisrael saw that his motivations were true, pure and sincere to throw his lot with B’nai Yisrael out of recognition that their connection with Hashem was the one true path.

The commentary of R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z’l in the new Hirsch Chumash (published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman), on page 302, Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posukim 2 and 3 of our Parsha Yithro seems to concur with R’ Milevsky concerning the timing of Yitro’s coming to join B’nai Yisrael. R’ Hirsch writes:

…Yithro’s intention is that his daughter and grandchildren should continue staying with him, and he [Yithro] comes to the wilderness not so as to bring them to his son-in-law, but out of longing for Hashem…

Later in the Perek, on posuk 11, page 304, R’ Hirsch goes on to explain more background behind Yithro’s joining B’nai Yisrael with both his rendering of the posuk and with his commentary on it:

“Now I recognize that Hashem is greater than all the gods; for I recognized Him precisely in the evil that they [the Mitzriyim] plotted against them.” (posuk 11)

…Yithro recognized Hashem’s greatness precisely in those miracles that showed the Mitzri’s hidden machinations against Israel [which] were well-known to Him. Yithro now recognizes that all of the plagues… were closely related to the poverty, slavery and the status of strangers that the Mitriyim had intended to inflict upon Israel….

The makkos [plagues] thus revealed to Yithro not only Hashem’s omnipotence, but also His omniscience. He sees the inner thoughts of men, nations, princes and fashions their fate so as to teach and educate them.

“Measure for measure” is our sages’ expression of Hashem’s way of repaying a person for his deeds (citing Sotah 8b) and it is this way of Hashem that Yithro now recognizes.

But Rabbi Aba Wagensberg spoke out several years ago citing another possible event which Yithro may have seen, which when grouped with the other events performed by Hashem for B’nai Yisrael, compelled his joining with them. Rabbi Wagensberg indicated at that time that his vort was one which he felt that Kiruv people need to hear regarding reaching out to their fellow Jews.

Rabbi Wagensberg indicated that as Yithro watched events unfold, he longed to join with B’nai Yisrael but feared doing so out of feelings of inferiorty due to his own background of having served every possible avodah zora throughout his life to that point.

Rabbi Wagensberg then cited a source indicating that there was a second crossing of the Yom Suf. This citing, not recalled for sure by this author, may have been in a Targum Yonaton Ben Uziel on Parsha Shemos, perek 14, posuk 3 (in Parsha Beshalach);

“And Pharoah will say of [or say to] the B’nai Yisrael, ‘They are locked in the land, the Wilderness has locked them in.”

According to Rabbi Wagensberg’s citing, the two Jewish rasha’im Dasan and Aviram “sat on the fence” observing the drama of Pharoah’s rushing the Jews out of Mitzrayim, followed by what appeared to them to be the Jews’ wandering aimlessly until they found themselves walled-in by the sea. The dilemma of Dasan and Aviram was; to stay in Mitzrayim with Pharoah, or join their brethren.

Targum Yonaton Ben Uziel renders perek 14, posuk 3;

“V’Amar Pharoah l’V’nai Yisrael…”, And Pharoah will say to B’nai Yisrael…”

indicating that Pharaoh is talking to what is left of B’nai Yisrael in Mitzriyim — Dasan and Aviram.

As this author understands Rabbi Wagensberg’s description; when Dasan and Aviram saw the utter confusion in Mitzri ranks and that the Mitzriyim, along with their chariots and horses, sunk in the Yam Suf and that the Mitzriyim all floated back to the sea’s surface dead, the two came down on the side of joining their brethren; the winners. The two “free agents” with less than sterling track records (not to mention their ERAs) thus davened to Hashem who answered their tefillohs by doing a second k’riyat Yam Suf so that Dasan and Aviram could cross over to join their brethren.

According to Rav Wagensberg’s depiction, when Yithro, having known Dasan and Aviram had been rasha’im in Mitzrayim, saw that Hashem made a special opening in the Sea to enable them to return to their brethren, he reasoned that if Hashem accepted their Teshuva, that there was a strong chance that He would accept him (Yithro) into B’nai Yisrael. According to Rabbi Wagensberg, it was then that Yithro set out with Tzippora and Moshe’s two sons to join with the Jews.

The point here seems to be that no matter one’s past errors and indiscretions, if sincerely contrite and sincerely seeking to do Teshuva and to regain closeness with Hashem, one is able to do so, as exemplified by the letter Hay where one can fall and yet climb back up in Kedusha. But is there also a red-line? Does this axiom even apply to Ehud Barak (who has nothing but disdain for Torah and all who follow it), or to Shimon Peres (who once equated PA prime minister Salam Fayyad to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion), to Sharon who made 9,000 of his fellow Jews Gerim in the Land of Israel, or Ya’ir Lapid and a whole host of other modern-day Dasans and Avirams with their miles-long rap sheets of anti-Jewish, anti-Torah indiscretions??

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima — the Ultimate Redemption bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim” — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.