“Who is the Real Jethro?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Jethro, a man of great stature and distinction, is first encountered in the Bible in Exodus 2:16. The Torah describes Jethro as Kohen Midian (the Midianite Priest), and the father of seven daughters.

Moses had fled from Egypt, where Pharaoh sought to kill him. When he arrives at the well in the land of Midian, Moses meets Jethro’s seven daughters who have come to water their father’s flocks. Moses saves Jethro’s daughters from the abusive Midianite shepherds and waters Jethro’s flocks. When Jethro hears of Moses’ chivalrous actions, he invites the refugee from Egypt into his home to eat and to dwell with them. Moses soon marries Jethro’s daughter, Tzipporah.

While serving as shepherd for Jethro’s flocks in the wilderness, (Exodus 3:1) Moses receives a calling from G-d to return to Egypt to lead the Children of Israel out of bondage. Moses requests, and receives, permission from Jethro to return to the enslaved people in Egypt (Exodus 4:18).

Since that first textual encounter with Jethro in the early chapters of Exodus, much has transpired. Ten plagues have struck Egypt, Pharaoh and his hosts have drowned in the sea, and the people of Israel have begun their journey to the Promised Land. When the people reach Rephidim, they are attacked by Amalek. Joshua leads the battle against the vicious enemies. With the help of G-d and Moses, Amalek is roundly defeated.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro arrives at the camp of Israel together with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah and her children. They meet Moses at Har Ha’Eh’lo’him, the mountain of G-d.

Scripture reports, in Exodus 18:7, that upon Jethro’s arrival, “Va’yay’tzay Moshe lik’raht choht’no va’yish’tah’choo va’yee’shahk lo,” Moses personally went out to meet his father-in-law, prostrated himself before him and kissed him. They inquire about each other’s well-being, and Moses brings Jethro to his tent.

Moses informs his father-in-law of all the miracles and wonders that G-d had performed on behalf of Israel, rescuing them from Egypt. Jethro then blesses G-d and acknowledges the G-d of Israel as the greatest of all powers. He offers burnt sacrifices and festive offerings to G-d.

In the Five Books of Moses, there is no other personage of non-Jewish origin who is accorded as much honor and distinction as Jethro.

The Jewish people are particularly indebted to Jethro for his profound contribution to the judicial system of Israel. After seeing Moses deal with burdensome communal matters, Jethro makes an insightful recommendation to establish a judicial hierarchy, which enables Moses to share the leadership responsibilities with other talented jurists. Because of that, an entire parasha is named for Jethro (the name Jethro is based on the Hebrew word that means to add, to add a parasha).

The fact that the Ten Commandments is recorded in parashat Yitro adds significantly to the glory of Jethro.

The Torah in Numbers 10:28-32, records that Moses invites Jethro to join the nation (he had arrived from Midian nearly a year before) and accompany the people to the land of Israel. The Torah, however, does not definitively report whether Jethro agreed, but most commentators assume that he did. Others say that Jethro instead chose to return to Midian in order to convert the masses to monotheism.

Despite the great respect with which Jethro is treated in the Torah, the Midrash offers a far more ambivalent portrait of Jethro. As opposed to Bilaam’s wicked council to Pharaoh regarding the Jews, and the non-committal advice of Job to Pharaoh, Jethro is regarded as a true hero by the Midrash for his favorable counsel to Pharaoh regarding the Israelites. According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Numbers 10:32, in return for his uncompromising support of Israel, Jethro’s descendants were bequeathed a very fertile plot of land near Jericho. Additionally (Judges 4:17-22), Jethro merited to have his descendant, Yael, a heroic Kenite woman, save the Jewish people by hammering a tent peg through the Canaanite general Sisro’s skull, marking the final defeat of the enemy.

Despite the abundant praise, Jethro also receives some bad reviews. The Midrash reports that the idolatrous Jethro would not grant Moses permission to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites unless Moses promised that one of his children would be dedicated to idolatry. According to Judges 18:30, the priest who officiated at Micha’s idol and, subsequently, for the tribe of Dan was Moses’ grandson, Yonatan the son of Gershom, the son of Menashe. The commentators regard “Menashe,” which is written with a floating “nun,” as a subtle way of disguising the name Moses, out of respect for him (Rashi, Sanhedrin 101b, Tanchuma Exodus 19).

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) points out that the story of Jethro comes on the heels of the attack and defeat of Amalek, in order to underscore that not all gentiles are wicked. While there are always vicious enemies such as Amalek, there are also wonderful friends such as Jethro.

The commentators’ ambivalence toward Jethro is similarly reflected by their response to the question of what did Jethro hear that moved him to come to Israel. Some say that Jethro was moved by pity when he learned of the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Some say that Jethro heard of the triumph of the Israelites over Pharaoh’s army and wanted to associate himself with a victorious people. Others say that he heard that Israel was on its way to a rendezvous with G-d, and Jethro wanted to share in Israel’s spiritual destiny (Michiltah Amalek 3:1).

Once again, we see that some of the commentators regard Jethro in a most favorable light, as a sensitive person, who had pity on the Israelite slaves who were being abused and tortured by the Egyptians. Some commentators also regard Jethro as a spiritual person, who wanted to cast his lot with the Jewish people and their G-d. On the other hand, it is also revealed that Jethro longed to be associated with a winner, and in those days, there was no greater winner than Israel, who had defeated the greatest power on the face of the earth, the Egyptians.

It’s difficult to understand the wide range of opinions among the Bible commentators and the Midrash with regards to Jethro. On the one hand, he is given the most favorable assessments that are given to any non-Jew. But a constant gnawing suspicion often surfaces that Jethro is not sincerely loyal, that he is leading our Jewish grandchildren astray, or that he is joining the “club” only for personal honor.

It is impossible to know which portrait best reflects the true Jethro. Unfortunately, we will likely never know.

May you be blessed.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday, February 7th and 8th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel, it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.