“Welcoming Jethro, the Idolatrous Priest”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we read of the arrival of Moses’ father-in-law in the wilderness, where the people of Israel were encamped by the Mountain of G-d. Jethro arrives with Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, and her two children, Gershom and Eliezer.

The reception that Jethro receives from Moses is quite extraordinary. Scripture tells us (Exodus 18:7) “Va’yay’tzay Moshe likrat chot’no, v’yish’ta’choo va’yee’shak loh, va’yish’ah’loo eesh l’ray’ay’hoo l’shalom, va’ya’vo’ooh ha’oh’helah,” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, prostrated himself and kissed him [Jethro], and each inquired about the other’s well being.

Moses tells his father-in-law everything that G-d had done to Pharoah and to Egypt for Israel’s sake, about the Egyptian enslavement and how G-d had rescued them. Jethro is then welcomed by Aaron and the elders of Israel as well, who join in the sacred meal of the sacrifices that Jethro offers.

Moses appears to be entirely enraptured by Jethro’s arrival, so much so that it appears to dominate his entire attention. Otherwise, how else can we explain that there’s no mention of Moses greeting his wife who he hasn’t seen for years, or even embracing his own children?

What accounts for the prominent reception that Jethro receives? After all, Jethro lived most of his life as a pagan priest. In fact, he was Head Priest of the idolatrous nation of Midian!

There are several allusions in the Torah and in the Midrashim to Jethro’s pagan past. In parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:11), we are told by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) that the tribes would mock Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, saying that his maternal grandfather (Jethro) had offered fattened goats to idolatry (see Exodus 6:25, where we are told that Pinchas’s father, Elazar, son of Aaron, took for himself the daughter of Putiel [Jethro] as a wife). In light of Jethro’s notoriety as one the foremost leaders of paganism in the ancient world, we would not expect such an extraordinary reception for him. Surely, we would expect it to be somewhat restrained.

On the other hand, when Jethro arrives in the camp of Israel we see from the textual references that Jethro had already undergone a significant transformation and is far from being a pagan idolater. After blessing G-d (the Jewish G-d) for saving the Israelites from the hand of Egypt and the from the hand of Pharoah, Jethro boldly declares (Exodus 18: 11), “Ah’tah yah’dah’tee kee ga’dol Ha’shem mee’kol ha’elo’him,” Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all gods. Jethro, the life-long religious leader, is surely quite familiar with every manner of idolatry. But now he is sincerely convinced that only G-d is the one true god. It is probably on the basis of this wholehearted declaration that Jethro makes, affirming his belief in G-d, that Rashi and other commentators, as well as the Midrashim, feel that Jethro had rejected paganism even before meeting Moses (see Rashi to Exodus 2:16).

The Midrash embellishes this theme, declaring that Jethro had suffered many indignities for rejecting the pagan deities that were worshiped by the Midianites, and for whom he served as the High Priest. That may very well be the reason why Jethro appears impoverished when we first encounter his family in Midian. After renouncing his faith in paganism, Jethro is shunned by the Midianite people, which explains why he had no male shepherds and that his daughters were tending to his small herd at the well. Poor Jethro, he went from being the celebrated High Priest of Midian to becoming an impoverished, rejected, and very much disliked, former religious leader of Midian–a great personal sacrifice indeed.

This then should explain why Jethro was so warmly welcomed by Moses. It was, after all, a kiddush Hashem, a great sanctification of G-d’s name for any person, let alone the High Priest of Midian, to renounce pagan idiolatry and to give up his most respected station in life.

There may, however, be another explanation for the overwhelming happiness that Moses expresses upon welcoming Jethro.

Aside from being a celebrated High Priest of Midian, according to the Midrash, Jethro was one of three primary advisors to Pharaoh. The Midrash relates that Pharaoh had a unsettling dream that was interpreted by Pharaoh’s advisors and wise men as a warning that a child would be born in Egypt who would destroy Egypt through water.

Balaam, the son of Be’or, advised Pharaoh that in order to save Egypt, all the Jewish male children must be cast into the water and drowned. Job, the second advisor, decided to sit on the fence, refusing to take a firm stand. Hedging his bets, he says to Pharaoh: “Behold all the inhabitants of the land are all in your power. Let the king do as is fitting in his own eyes.” Only Jethro (Reuel) had the courage to warn Pharaoh not to harm the Jewish people. He tells Pharaoh to let the Jewish people leave Egypt so they may go to the land of Canaan where their ancestors sojourned. Pharoaoh, embracing Balaam’s advice, rejects Jethro’s counsel and, in anger, chases Jethro out of Egypt.

It was this same Jethro, the distinguished former advisor to Pharaoh and High Priest of Midian, who greets Moses in Midian. Moses, fleeing for his life, is now a homeless wanderer who claims to have been a Prince of Egypt. Jethro not only welcomes Moses into his home, graciously providing him with hospitality, he even offers the stranger his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Flash forward 40 years. The roles are now reversed. Jethro arrives in the wilderness, bringing Moses’ family to rejoin the Jewish leader. He introduces himself as the father-in-law of Moses–his new claim to fame! Jethro is welcomed royally and introduced from then on as the father-in-law of Moses, despite his idolatrous past.

Jethro more than compensates the Jewish people for their warm reception by offering them wise counsel on how to effectively organize the nation’s judicial system (Exodus 18: 13-23).

Moses’ exceptional behavior toward Jethro, was not a random act of kindness. It is a fulfillment of the Jewish philosophical belief that acts of kindness revisit and compensate the performer with greater intensity than the original kind acts (sometimes referred to as “the chesed boomerang”).

Jethro was surely worthy of the warm welcome from the People of Israel. He had indeed earned it.

May you be blessed.