“The Arrival of Jethro”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, arrives at the camp of the People of Israel, located by the Mountain of G-d.

The Torah, in Exodus 18:5, tells us, “Va’yah’vo Yitro cho’tayn Moshe oo’vanav v’eesh’to el Moshe, el ha’mid’bar ah’sher hoo choneh shahm, Har ha’Elokim,” Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to Moses with his [Moses’] sons and wife, to the wilderness, where he [Moses] was encamped, by the Mountain of G-d. Announcing to Moses that he had arrived, Jethro informs him that he has brought Moses’ wife and their two sons to be with him.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) questions why the Bible finds it necessary to specify the obvious fact that they were in the wilderness. Citing the Midrash Mechilta, Rashi explains that the location is emphasized in order to praise Jethro. Prior to his arrival, Jethro was living in a place of great honor and distinction (he was once the religious leader of Midian), and yet his heart moved him to go out to the wilderness, to a place of desolation, to hear the words of the Torah.

It is hard to imagine that a person of such stature and esteem would abandon everything in order to pursue his attraction to Torah. In some way, it recalls the story that I recently heard of the late Reggie White, one of America’s most decorated players in NFL history. During his professional football career he was famous not only for his outstanding play, but also for his Christian ministry. An ordained Evangelical Minister, he was nicknamed the “Minister of Defense.”

After retiring twice, first in 1998 and then in 2001, he began studying Torah in the original Hebrew. In December of 2004, at age 43, he suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Two years after his death, he was elected to the pro football Hall of Fame.

While White never renounced his Christianity, he clearly told all who would listen that no Christian could properly understand the Bible without studying Torah intensively. Whether White would have eventually converted to Judaism had he lived is not known, but his attraction to Torah, like Jethro, was indisputable. He was willing to endure the controversy and ridicule that his statements elicited, because his belief in Torah was unshakable. (Link to Reggie White)

At the height of his career, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, lived like a king, surrounded by great riches and glory. But his heart told him that the idolatrous pagan beliefs of Midian were mistaken. Forsaking his palace and leaving behind his wealth and glory, he arrived in the wilderness, a barren and empty desert, devoid of everything, seeking to convert, and eager to hear the message of Torah. He paid no attention to his gilded past and to all the good that he had in life. He no longer saw himself as a Priest of Midian, instead he identified himself simply as the father-in-law of Moses. It was that identity that meant the most to him.

Why did Jethro come to the wilderness, to the Mountain of G-d? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) suggests that Jethro had heard from Moses about the special spiritual qualities of this location (after Moses’ encounter with the burning bush) and was determined to be influenced by that spirit, in the hope that it would further enhance his own spirituality.

There is no question that for those with no Torah background, the journey to Torah is not an easy one. It is a process that frequently means abandoning one’s past, even though it may have been rich and meaningful. It may mean separating from one’s family and friends and adopting strange religious rituals and a lifestyle that is perceived by others as odd. It often means moving out of “palaces,” and living in more modest dwellings, in order to embrace the word of G-d.

The Talmud, in Berakhot 34b, states that, “In the place where penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot stand.” The sacrifices that are made by the Baalei Teshuva (and converts to Judaism as well) are hard to imagine. Their commitment and devotion to Jewish life often puts those who are born into religious life to shame.

This devotion and commitment perhaps explains why the verse concerning Jethro’s arrival in the wilderness concludes with the words, “where he [Moses] was encamped by the Mountain of G-d.” The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839 Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry) suggests that Moses himself was a “place” where the Divine presence rested. Wherever Moses was, that location became, in effect, the Mountain of G-d. It is for this reason the rabbinic dictum found in the Talmud Taanit 21b states, “It is the man who sanctifies the place, rather than the place that sanctifies the man.” It could very well be that Jethro himself added to the sanctity of that place as well by his commitment and his earnest embrace of Torah and the word of G-d.

While the commitment of Jethro and those like him cannot but leave us inspired, it must also leave us with questions about ourselves. If we were asked to forsake our comfortable lives in order to embrace the word of G-d, would we measure up to Jethro?

May you be blessed.

Special note:
To hear one of the most meaningful presentations on the issue of Baalei Teshuva and their newly-found devotion to Jewish life, I urge you listen to Hilly Gross’ address at the 10th Anniversary of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. It may be accessed here.