Parshat Yithro 5781: Yithro: Ger Tzeddik, or Righteous Gentile?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Parsha Yithro is being sponsored by Jonathan and Debbie Sassen and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh in Lilui Nishmas Jonathan’s Mother Tova bat Yaakov. To the Sassen family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

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.

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Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Yithro 5781: Yithro: Ger Tzeddik, or Righteous Gentile?

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.

In previous vorts on Parshat Yithro, we examined how, when and the possible reasons which brought Yithro to want to join with the B’nei Yisrael. We learned how Yithro’s suggestion to Pharaoh regarding the incident of the crown and the burning coal saved Moshe’s life (thanks to the Moloch).

We also learned that Yithro’s suggestions to Moshe regarding the governance of the people served as the blueprint for B’nei Yisrael’s law-enforcement and judiciary system in Bamidbar, and eventually in the Sanhedrin.

But did Yithro become a Jew? Or did he remain a righteous gentile? Is it possible that whether or not Yithro remained with the B’nei Yisrael relates to whether or not Yithro became a Jew?

This author excerpted Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s summary entitled “The Mystery of Moshe’s Father-in-Law,” in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Shemos,Parshat Yithro page 127):

After a mutually respectful reunion with his son-in-law and a celebratory meal including Aaron and the elders, Yithro counsels Moshe concerning the governance of the people. Moshe accepts his father-in-law’s suggestions and the Torah then records: “And Moshe released his father-in-law and he [Yithro] returned to his land [Midian].” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posukim 1-27)

Yithro, thus, apparently departs before Matan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai) even begins.

Rabbi Goldin asks the following questions (ibid,Sefer Shemos, Parshat Yithro, page 128):

Did Yithro end his first visit to the B’nei Yisrael by returning to Midian before Revelation? If so, why does text inexplicably record his presence, chapters later, as the Jews prepare to depart from Sinai? If he never left in the first place, why does Torah state in Parshat Yithro, “And Moshe released his father-in-law and he [Yithro] returned to his land.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 27)

Why should we care whether or not one additional individual joins the B’nei Yisrael in their journey? If Yithro’s fate is so important, why isn’t the text clear concerning his final decision?”

Rabbi Goldin now provides possible approaches to these questions (ibid, Sefer Shemos, Parshat Yithro, pages 129-131):

The Ibn Ezra postulates that…. Yithro’s commendable behavior towards the B’nei Yisrael is to be seen in stark contrast to the unprovoked hostility of the Amalekites.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 1)

Yithro, argues the Ramban, arrives at… Sinai before the Revelation, as indicated in the text… The two conversations between Moshe and Yithro recorded in the text… both occur. Yithro discusses his plans with Moshe before the Revelation, returns to Midian, subsequently rejoins Moshe at Sinai after Revelation and the second conversation takes place. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 1)

At the dawn of the history of Judaism, the Torah demonstrates that the approach of normative Judaism to the Gentile world is far from monolithic. While those, like Amalek, who perpetrate evil are to be resisted in implacable fashion, “Righteous Gentiles” such as Yithro are to be treated with respect and honor.

The Abravanel maintains that Yithro arrives before Revelation. He claims, however, that Moshe’s father-in-law then remains with the B’nei Yisrael for two years, sharing in the experience of Matan Torah. (Rabbi Goldin citing Abravanel on Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 1)

The Sforno… suggests that Yithro believed that he could not, at his advanced age, tolerate the environment of a new land. Moshe was successful in convincing his father-in-law’s descendents to join the B’nei Yisrael’s historic journey. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sforno on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 10. posuk 30)

The Sifrei quotes Yithro as offering arguments which in the centuries to follow will often be raised by those choosing to live in the diaspora: I will not join you because of my familial obligations and because of my material success outside the land. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sifrei on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 10. posuk 30)

Other sages, while agreeing that Yithro returns to Midian, attribute higher motives to his decision.

An early source… Tannaitic scholar Rabbi Eliezer Hamoda’i… maintains that Moshe’s father-in-law offers the following rationale: What good can I possibly do, Moshe, if I join you on this journey? A candle only makes a difference where it is dark. You, Moshe, are like the sun while Aaron is like the moon. In the face of your illumination, I, a mere candle, will have no effect at all. I will therefore return home, to Midian, where I will convert the members of my family, bringing them under the cover of the wings of the Almighty. (Rabbi Goldin citing Mechilta on Sefer Shemos, Perek 18, posuk 27)

Yishai Chasidah’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Jewish Personalities (pages 306-309) 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’nei Yisrael;

When B’nei 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 Goldin notes (ibid, 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 foreshadows 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.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, Sefer Shemos, Parshat Yithro, pages 133-134):

If the story of Moshe’s father-in-law reflects the universal struggle of all Jews for philosophical self-definition, it also validates the spiritual journey of one specific subset within our community: converts to Judaism.

Does Yithro eventually convert to Judaism? The answer remains unclear, as well it should. After all, conversion is a difficult process and not all can or should see it through. If Yithro did convert, however, we can be certain that he was welcomed with open arms by Moshe and the B’nei Yisrael.

This struggle by Jews for “philosophical self-definition” in our times extends not only to those of us in Eretz Yisrael, but to ALL Jews throughout the nations, and particularly to the millions of our brethren in the United States.

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 thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he and his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha are finally home in Eretz Yisrael. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half 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. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei 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.