“Jethro’s Blessing”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, joins the People of Israel after they had been delivered from the slavery of Egypt. Moses is also reunited with his wife, Tzipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

Jethro is warmly welcomed by the People of Israel and by Moses, who informs Jethro of all the wonders and miracles that were performed by G-d on behalf of the Jewish people as they left Egypt.

The Torah, in Exodus 18:9, relates that Jethro rejoiced over all the good that G-d had done for Israel in rescuing the people from Egypt. Deeply moved by the account of Israel’s salvation, Jethro blesses G-d. Scripture, in Exodus 18:10, records Jethro’s blessing: וַיֹּאמֶר, יִתְרוֹ, בָּרוּךְ השם, אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעֹה:  אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶת-הָעָם, מִתַּחַת יַד-מִצְרָיִם  And Jethro said: Blessed is G-d, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from under the hand of Egypt.

The Talmud, in Brachot 54a, derives from the blessing offered by Jethro, that those who experience miracles are required to acknowledge the miracles by making a blessing. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim, 218:1 and 4, states that individuals who encounter a place where miracles occurred to the Jewish people, should pronounce the following blessing, “Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place.” Individuals who encounter a location where they personally experienced a miracle are to say, “Blessed are You, L-rd, Who performed miracles for me in this place.”

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 94a, cites Rav Pappias, who states that it should be regarded with reproach and as an embarrassment to Moses and the 600,000 Israelites that they never blessed the L-rd until Jethro arrived on the scene and did so.

The author of the Torah Temimah explains that the song that the Israelites sang to G-d at the crossing of the Red Sea cannot be regarded as a blessing or even an expression of thanks. It was, rather, pure praise and adulation. In fact, the praise that they offered was only for the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea, and not even for the exodus from Egypt.

The Ha’amek Davar disagrees, maintaining that the song of Israel crossing the sea was an actual blessing, but in poetic form. Jethro, however, was the first to utter a blessing using the language and the traditional Hebrew formulation for a blessing.

The May’am Loez states that, before blessing G-d, Jethro first blessed Moses and Aaron. The fact that Jethro used the expression, “G-d saved YOU from the hand of Egypt,” indicates that Moses and Aaron were very fortunate to have escaped any punishment despite repeatedly confronting Pharaoh in Egypt. Only after blessing Moses and Aaron did Jethro bless G-d for the national salvation of all the people, and for the miracles that He performed for the community of Israel, redeeming them from the servitude in Egypt.

The Da’at Sofrim adds insightfully that in Jethro’s words can be found unique expressions of his heartfelt emotions. Even the Israelites, who personally experienced the miraculous salvation, never openly expressed their gratitude in such a joyous manner. The Da’at Sofrim also points out that this blessing was not only timely, but also obviously appropriate since it is featured prominently in the Torah. This underscores that Jethro, who had no formal Jewish religious training, was a person of exceedingly elevated spiritual status, enabling him to acknowledge the need to bless G-d, even though the Jewish people had not themselves recognized the need. And, consequently, it was Jethro, a non-Jew, who introduced to the world the concept of blessing G-d. This demonstrates the superiority, at times, of non-Jews, even over Jews who have been exposed to wonders and miracles, and who have received intensive Jewish educations.

The Otzar HaTorah, the ArtScroll Torah Treasury, also cites the Talmudic statement that criticizes Moses and the Jewish people, who until this time, did not bless G-d, while Jethro, the outsider, did bless Him. Citing the Tiferet Shlomo, the Otzar HaTorah points to the fundamental difference between the blessings uttered by Jethro, and the song sung by the Jewish people when they crossed the Red Sea. The Jewish people praised G-d at the sea for what G-d had done for them. Jethro, however, went even further by praising and blessing G-d for what He did for others (for Israel), when he said, אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם  Who rescued you, not me. “I was not rescued,” says Jethro, “Yet, I will bless G-d.” This level of thanks is far superior to the thanks articulated by the Israelites.

It is, undoubtedly, for this reason that our formal prayers, known as the Sh’moneh Esrei or Amidah, were composed in the plural, indicating that the highest level of prayer may be reached when we pray not only for ourselves, but for others. In fact, the Talmud, in Baba Kamma 92a, states that one who prays for others, when he himself requires the same salvation, will be responded to first.

Again, we see that there is much to learn from the seemingly insignificant nuances of the Bible, as well as from the written texts and the commentaries.

May you be blessed.

On Wednesday night and Thursday, January 15th and 16th, Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is celebrated. In Israel, it symbolizes the arrival of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat from the seven special species of fruits that grow in the land of Israel.