“An Encounter with Jethro and the Non-Jewish World”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the end of last week’s parasha, Parashat B’shalach (Exodus 17:8-16), the Jewish people have an encounter with the non-Jewish world, a ferocious and devastating encounter. The Torah tells us (Exodus 17:8) “Va’yavo Amalek va’yilachem eem Yisrael biR’feedim,” and Amalek came and did battle with Israel in Rephidim. Joshua leads the battle against Amalek, and, with the intervention of Moses, who raises his hands to direct the Jewish People’s focus to Heaven, the armies of Israel vanquish their archenemy, Amalek. G-d instructs Moses to write this battle down in a book, as a memorial, and to tell Joshua to put this in the ears of the Jewish people (Exodus 17:14) “Kee macho em’cheh et zecher Amalek mee’tachat ha’sha’mayim.” I shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens. G-d promises that the battle with Amalek will be an eternal battle to the end of generations.

In striking contrast to the encounter with Amalek–the non-Jewish world that wishes to destroy us, this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Yitro, begins with an encounter with the High Priest of Midian, Yitro, or Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, Tzippora’s father. After the Exodus and the miraculous splitting of the sea, he comes to embrace the Jewish people.

The Bible had already told us that when Moses arrived in Egypt to begin the rescue of the Jewish people, Aaron told Moses to send Tzippora and the children away. According to tradition, Aaron asks Moses, “We are pained by the people who are already enslaved. Why are you bringing more slaves to Egypt?” So, according to tradition, Tzippora and her children return to Midian. Now, in this week’s parasha, Jethro brings Tzippora and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to join the People of Israel.

Rabbinic tradition has it that Jethro came because he heard the reports of the spectacular splitting of the sea and of the incredible military victory over Amalek. Although Jethro was, or had been, a pagan priest, he was deeply moved by these miraculous events and drawn to the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Torah and the commentaries express Jethro’s ambivalence about the violence perpetrated on the Egyptians. Scripture in Exodus 18:9 records, “Vayichad Yitro al kol hatova asher asah Hashem l’Yisrael,” and Jethro “rejoiced” over all the good that G-d had done to Israel. The Rabbis note that the expression “Va’yichad,” rejoice, could also mean to become prickly. They consequently interpret that Jethro developed gooseflesh when he heard about the destruction of the Egyptians by drowning. From here the Rabbis posit an important principle cited in Tractate Sanhedrin, that one should not say anything negative about gentiles for ten generations to someone who converts, because of the lingering identification with their former community.

Jethro expresses his great respect for G-d, and says (Exodus 18:11), “Atah ya’dati kee gadol Hashem mi’kol Elohim,” Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all gods, and Jethro brings sacrifices, and celebrates together with Moses, Aaron and the Jewish People.

On the next day, the Torah relates that Moses sat in judgment of the Jewish people. Because of the huge throngs, the people stood from morning to evening waiting to consult with, or be judged by Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, sees this painful scene and rebukes Moses (Exodus 17: 14), “Ma’duah atah yoshev l’vadecha, v’chol ha’am ni’tzav aleichamin boker ad erev?” What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing from morning to evening? Jethro adds: It is not a good thing that you do. You will wither, you will burn out, both you and the people, for it is too much for one person! Jethro then suggests to Moses: Listen to my voice, hearken to my advice: Establish a hierarchy of tribunals and courts. Find men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, people of truth who despise unjust gain, and appoint them as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. And they shall bear with you the responsibility of judgment. You will be the representative to G-d. All the matters that they cannot adjudicate, will ultimately be brought to you. Only thus will the people be able to endure, and arrive at their destination in peace. The Torah tells us (Exodus 18:24) that Moses takes his father-in-law’s advice and establishes a hierarchical judicial system.

In light of this event, what can we learn regarding the Jewish view of the gentile world? How does Judaism look upon incorporating ideas and advice from non-Jewish sources?

A well-known statement on this matter is recorded in the Midrash on Eicha (Lamentations), which reads: “Im yomar l’cha adam, yeish choch’ma ba’goyim, ta’amin,” If a person says to you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him. “Yeish Torah ba’goyim, al ta’amin” However, if someone claims that there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe him. This midrashic statement clearly defines the Jewish attitude towards wisdom and advice from the gentile world. Torah is the proprietary endowment of the Jewish people. It is G-d’s instruction to the Jewish people on how they should conduct their lives. If a gentile were to come and say I have a better way for you to live your lives, we Jews must reject those suggestions. However, wisdom, general advice on how to improve one’s everyday experiences, to ease the burdens of life, to better our environment, ideas that are not in conflict with Torah, are acceptable, indeed welcomed.

3,300 years ago, when xenophobia ruled the ancient world, it is quite amazing that the Torah admonishes us not to reject advice simply because it emanates from a non-Jewish source. The gentile world is not to be rejected only because it is not Jewish; in fact, Jews are encouraged to look for good, healthy ideas from anywhere in the world, non-Jewish and secular as well, and embrace those ideas with open arms.

In our lifetimes, we see how the instruments of modernity can advance the cause of Torah: people scheduling Torah lessons over the telephone, obtaining information on the weekly Torah portions from the internet, and listening to the study of the Daf Ha’Yomi, the daily Talmud page, on tapes. The use of radio jingles and cutting edge advertising effectively encourage people to study Hebrew or Basic Judaism or observe Shabbat. Of course we need to make certain that this encounter will enhance and not “defile” our Jewish values. But when used properly, technology, modern scientific knowledge, and general insights into nature of humankind can be of great benefit to our faith and its practices.

And who knows whether we are not correct in thinking that perhaps all these technological advances came into being only to enhance the Torah and its message? Jethro, whose name means “to add,” surely enhanced our people and its Torah, and for this we owe him profound thanks.

May you be blessed.