Parshat Yithro 5779: Yithro’s True Motivation for Joining B’nei Yisrael? — Revisited, and Message for Today?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Yithro is being dedicated in remembrance of Rebbetzin Doba Gittel bat HaRav Yosef Leib (Shapira) of Ramat Beit Shemesh, as well as for speedy, full and complete recoveries Shira Yael bat Liora Sara (Ish-Ran), Amichai Yishai ben Feiga Gitel Galila (Ish-Ran), Netanel Ilan ben Shayna Tzipora (Felber) and Naveh Micha’el ben Osnat Esther (Rotem) — victims of recent Islamic murder attempts.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Yithro 5779: Yithro’s True Motivation for Joining B’nai Yisrael? — Revisited, and Message for Today?

by Moshe Burt

Our Parshat Yithro opens:

“Yithro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that Hashem did to Moshe and to [Am] Yisrael, His people — that Hashem took [Am] Yisrael out of Mitzrayim.” (Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 1 as rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition, The Torah with Rashi Commentary)

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’nei Yisrael free of Mitzri bondage, at seeing K’riyat Yom Suf and at B’nei Yisrael’s victory over Amalek.

Why was it that Yithro sought to join B’nai Yisrael? What exactly did he hear? We are not absolutely certain, and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Shemos, Parshat Yithro, pages 128-134) notes that scholars debate Yithro’s motivations, the timing of his visit to the encampment of B’nei Yisrael and when or if he later left the encampment to return to Midian. There is also no certainty as to whether any one specific event Yithro heard triggered him to circumcise himself and to go out to join the B’nei 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 — in the case of Noach, or through their contributions toward forming and solidifying B’nai Yisrael and bringing them closer to HaKadosh Borchu as with Yithro: through his suggestions which were adopted to form B’nei Yisrael’s justice system, and Pinchas, whose action regarding Zimri and Kozbi ended a plague of Jewish death and brought Hashem’s conveyance upon him the Kehuna and eternal life. And we know that Balak had a Parsha named for him and that B’nei 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’nei 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’nei Yisrael due their concern as to what his true motivations might be; i.e. whether his motivations were sincere, or whether he was just anxious to be on a winning team, or on the right side. This latter 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 G’erim during the reigns of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech when B’nei Yisrael was at the zenith of prestige and power in the world.

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

A 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 304, Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 11 provides some background behind Yithro’s joining B’nei Yisrael:

“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.”

…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 Mitzriyim 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.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his sefer “Growth Through Torah” (Parsha Yithro, page 179) explains further noting and expanding on a Rashi citing of Gemora (Zevachim 116a):

What did Yithro hear to make him come to join the Jewish people? The miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.

What was unique about what Yithro heard, didn’t all of the other surrounding nations hear about this also? The answer is, said Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman (Ohr Yohail, Vol. 2, Vayakhail, page 139), that they heard and remained the same. Yithro, however, didn’t merely hear, he took action…. Yithro picked himself up and changed his life.

And Rav Pliskin also cites Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (“Growth Through Torah, pages 179-180) who asked how Yithro was so moved by the war with Amalek. Rabbi Lopian replied (Lev Eliyahu, Vol. 1, page 278):

At times the best way to appreciate Torah values for living is to observe the behavior of those who lack those values. Amalek also heard about the crossing of the Red Sea. They [Amalek] themselves were in no danger from the [B’nei Yisrael], nevertheless they cruelly tried to wipe them out. Hearing this, Yithro was moved. He realized how one needs the Almighty in his life for basic values.

But Rabbi Aba Wagensberg spoke out several years ago citing another possible event which Yithro may have seen, which when grouped with the other miraculous events performed by Hashem for B’nei 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’nei Yisrael but feared doing so out of feelings of inferiority 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 Pharaoh 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 Pharaoh’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’nei Yisrael…”, And Pharoah will say to B’nei Yisrael…”, indicating that Pharaoh is talking to what is left of B’nei 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 along with Yithro’s sincere contrition and sincerity of desire to come close to Hashem and to cast his lot with Am Yisrael, his merit of a Parshat in his name and a place amongst Am Yisrael can be traced back as far as Pharaoh’s palace.

Yishai Chasidah’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Jewish Personalities (pages 306-309) cites examples of how Yithro was positioned and merited to express insights to Moshe Rabbeinu which were crucial to the evolution of Torah’s judiciary system:

Three were in the same counsel [in saying, “Come let us deal wisely with them” to Pharaoh Sh’mos Perek 1, posuk 10]…. Yithro, who fled merited to have his descendants sit in the Office of Hewn Stones [the seat of the great Sanhedrin].

“Come let us deal wisely with them” to Pharaoh Sh’mos Perek 1, posuk 10. Reuel, the Midianite answered the king, “Do not raise your hand against them, for their G’d has chosen them since the days of old. Which of the ancient kings who harmed them ever escaped harm? Your father raised Yosef up, and [Yosef] saved the inhabitants of the land of Egypt from famine. Now, if it is good in your eyes, desist from destroying them.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Sh’mos 168)

Chasidah cites the incident of little Moshe’s reaching for the king’s crown while being raised in Pharaoh’s palace:

The Mitzri sorcerers said [other midrashim indicate that it was Bila’am who said:] “We fear that this one who takes your crown and places it upon his own head who is destined to take away your kingdom.” Yithro, who sat among them said, “Test him. Set before him a plate containing gold and glowing coal. If he reaches for the gold, he has understanding, and you will kill him. If he reaches for the coal, he has no understanding and does not deserve the death penalty.” It was brought before Moshe, who reached for the gold, but [the moloch] Gavriel came and pushed his hand [to the coal]. (Sh’mos Rabbah 1:26)

Chasidah then cites Midrash HaGodol on BaMidbar (Perek 10, posuk 30) which gives insight into Yithro’s righteousness, kindness and integrity. After a drought year, Yithro stated;

This has been a year of drought, and I borrowed money which I used to support the poor. If I don’t go and pay my debts, I will be desecrating the Name of Heaven.

Chasidah also cites Yerushalmi Brachot (Perek 2, posuk 8 ) which writes of Yithro and his merit and place among B’nai Yisrael;

When B’nai Yisrael do Hashem’s Will, HaKodesh Borchu searches throughout the world, and if he finds a righteous person among the nations, he brings him and attaches him to B’nai Yisrael. One of the examples given was Yithro.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Shemos, Parshat Yithro, pages 132-133):

…Torah’s…. text chooses Yithro,the one individual present at Sinai whose relationship to Revelation most clearly mirrors our own accross the ages — an “outsider” who did not personally witness the miracles of Yetziyot Mitzrayim, the parting of the Reed Sea, the defeat of Amalek; a “late comer” whose information concerning Hashem’s revelation is (at least according to most authorities) heard rather than seen.

The text then brackets the narrative of the national Revelation with Yithro’s individual, internal struggle as he decides whether to accept or reject the laws of Sinai, to affiliate with the B’nei Yisrael as they begin their journey or to return to the known comforts of home [meaning Midian].

Through this focus on Yithro, the Torah foreshdows the personal struggle of each Jew in every generation.

Distant from Sinai, we, too, must decide whether or not to heed Matan Torah’s eternal call; we must determine to what extent we will truly be part of our people’s ongoing journey from Revelation to the end of days.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of four plus years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone 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, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — 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.