February 2018, Parshat Yitro

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha is a favourite for a variety of reasons. Superficially, it is a relatively short one which meant that as a very young teenager I had to spend less time in preparation for the weekly reading. Also, I was on a tight schedule to make it to a few different Shules every week for their $25 contribution to my income which, in the 1990’s was huge; a short Parsha meant less stress getting to my next commitment.

On a more substantial level, Parshat Yitro in content is arguably the
most important in the Torah as it tells us the story of the Jews receiving the Torah at Sinai including the most famous portion in the Torah, the Ten Commandments. Whereas last week we read of the exodus which granted us political freedom, the story of revelation at Sinai is what has defined us as a people and a culture ever since.

It is, therefore, a great wonder that the Parsha is named after Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe and the pagan High Priest of Midian. The first two of the Ten Commandments involve the belief in the One God to the exclusion of all else. Yet, this Parsha is named after someone who, by the Torah’s own account, was a supreme idol worshipper!

Perhaps it is for this reason that there is a tradition going back to Talmudic times suggesting that Yitro actually converted. This is despite the fact the Torah itself never mentions Yitro’s conversion. In fact, the belief that he did convert is based on him saying ‘now I know that God is greater than all the other Gods’. If anything it sounds as if he is holding onto his conception of many Gods just admitting that God of the Jews is greater!

Furthermore, the Torah refers to Yitro as Priest of Midian many times. If he did in fact convert, the Torah is transgressing its own law forbidding abuse of converts which includes reminding them of their idolatrous past.
Finally, and most telling of all, Yitro did not stay with the Jewish people. He stayed with them for a year or so and then went back to Midian despite Moshe imploring him to stay and be part of the people, Yitro responds by saying ‘I shall not go; only to my land and my family shall I go’! If he had in fact converted, what was he doing leaving the community he had just recently joined?

To deal with this final point there is the explanation that he went back in order to convert his people to Judaism. This in itself is very interesting in that it paints Judaism, contrary to accepted wisdom, as being, at least till Talmudic times, a proselytising religion. But as an explanation it seems a little bit superimposed on the text. For if he was going to spread Judaism why wouldn’t he have said so? And why would Moshe implore him to stay?

If not for the fact that our rabbis interpreted the story as they did we may very well have read it as follows: Yitro was a celebrated priest of Midian who came by to drop off Moshe’s wife and children to him. Whilst he was there he shared his great wisdom and set up an efficient working judicial system which hitherto was floundering without hope. He clearly has great respect for the Jewish people, their leader Moshe, his son-in-law, and their God whom he saw as all-powerful. But after he had spent his Sabbatical away he parts ways to return to his land, his people, and presumably his job.

We may well then have gone to moralise that the seminal Torah portion that includes the Ten Commandments is named after Yitro, is truly a testament of his greatness. But what is even more unbelievable is the fact that the Torah is willing to eternalise in greatness this pagan idol-worshipper. Even in our relatively progressive climate today, notions of ‘us and them’ abound. The politics of every nation on earth currently seems to be heading in the direction of those preaching just such a world-view. For the Torah to be willing to memorialise the greatness of such an outsider can only be an instruction of how the ‘us and them’ mentality is merely a primitive animal instinct.

But now that we know from the rabbis of the Talmud that Yitro converted, is there still room for us to learn such a lesson? Does not the fact that the rabbis seem to unanimously agree that he converted contradict the above lesson? In other words, the devil’s advocate could argue that he was celebrated and eternalised only because he was one of us!?

To this I have two responses. First and less exciting, the Midrash Tanchuma does in fact explain that Moshe sent his father-in-law away before revelation at Sinai because he did not want strangers present when God revealed Himself. This suggests that whether he converted or not he was still considered a stranger. That he plays such a central role in such a seminal portion of the Torah is indeed a lesson of inclusion and equality across all humanity whether members of our tribe or not.

The second, and much more substantial, response we can get to when we understand what Yitro’s great contribution was. Yitro witnessed Moshe sitting from dawn till dusk, day in day out, meeting with the people to discuss their issues, complaints, arguments and enquiries. Given there were a few million to get through, he was going nowhere. Even if he acted like a bulkbilling doctor he was never going to make any progress into the line which was getting ever longer as Jews did what they do best, argue, as our great Talmud personifies. Yitro saw before him a very agitated crowd sitting in the desert heat, and an exhausted, deflated, and run down Moshe trying to administer to the needs of his people.

Yitro had this flash of inspiration. Delegate! Get subordinates who will deal with most of the issues leaving you to attend only to the truly demanding issues. And he had a very specific formula: A judge for every 10 people at the very lowest level of the judicial system. Next level up was a judge for every 50. After that for every 100 and then directly under Moshe was the judges who were charged with 1000 people whom they were responsible for. All the judges needed was to be accomplished, people of truth, and who despised money.

The question is, how did Yitro have this flash of inspiration that had all the details so neatly worked out? Put another way how did Moshe, who was so unbelievably superior in every other regard, not come to such a solution whilst Yitro who had spent his entire life fattening livestock for his pagan nonsense did!?

The answer must surely be one word: experience. Yitro remember was the High Priest of Midian. The people of Midian would have sought his counsel. He himself has had the personal experience of how inefficient and impossible it is to tend to everything yourself. What he shared with Moshe was the product of the very system that he had set up in Midian that had helped him disseminate his pagan idol-worship.

So it turns out that what Yitro learnt from his idol-worshipping experience became the great contribution he bestowed on Moshe and the Jewish People. For that he his celebrated and venerated in the most positive light.

If the Torah celebrates the contribution that emanated from such a dubious source surely we must view every people and their culture as a potential source of inspiration.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur