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

(Revised and updated from Yitro 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach (Exodus 17:8-16), the Jewish people have a profound encounter with the non-Jewish world–a ferocious and devastating encounter, that leaves a lasting impression on the Jewish nation.

In Exodus 17:8, the Torah reports, וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק, וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּרְפִידִם , 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 toward 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 place this in the ears of the Jewish people (Exodus 17:14), כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם . I [G-d] shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens. G-d further promises that the battle with Amalek will be an eternal battle to the end of generations.

This week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, opens with a most memorable encounter with a non-Jew, the High Priest of Midian – Yitro, or Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, Zippora’s father. The encounter with Jethro is in striking contrast to the encounter with Amalek–-the non-Jewish world that wishes to destroy the Jewish people. After learning of the Exodus and the miraculous splitting of the sea, Jethro comes to the camp of Israel in the wilderness, to embrace the Jewish people.

Rashi, on Exodus 18:2, cites the Midrash Mechilta 4 that when Moses arrived in Egypt together with his family, to begin the rescue of the Jewish people, Aaron told Moses to send Zippora and the children away. According to the Midrash, Aaron asks Moses, “We are pained by the people who are already enslaved. Why are you bringing more slaves to Egypt?” Zippora and her children then return to Midian. Now, in this week’s parasha, Jethro arrives together with Zippora and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to join the People of Israel.

Rabbinic tradition has it that Jethro came to the camp of Israel 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 was drawn to the Jewish people.
On the other hand, the Torah and the commentaries also suggest Jethro’s ambivalence about the violence perpetrated upon the Egyptians. Scripture in Exodus 18:9 records, וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ עַל כָּל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה השׁם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל , and Jethro “rejoiced” over all the good that G-d had done to Israel. The rabbis note that the expression וַיִּחַדְּ –“Va’yichad,” rejoice, could also mean to react in a prickly manner. They consequently interpret that Jethro developed goosebumps when he heard about the destruction of the Egyptians by drowning. From this, the rabbis posit an important principle cited in Tractate Sanhedrin 94a, that, for ten generations, one should never say anything negative about gentiles to a convert, because of the lingering identification with their former community.

Jethro expresses his great respect for G-d, and says (Exodus 18:11), עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי גָדוֹל השׁם מִכָּל הָאֱ־לֹקִים , “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, saying, (Exodus 18: 14), מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב לְבַדֶּךָ, וְכָל הָעָם נִצָּב עָלֶיךָ מִן בֹּקֶר עַד עָרֶב ? “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 then reports (Exodus 18:24), that Moses takes his father-in-law’s advice and establishes a hierarchical judicial system.

In light of these two events, the battle with Amalek and the encounter with Jethro, 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?

One could conclude that the gentile world is all like Amalek, inspirited with a venal hatred of Israel, and longing for the opportunity to destroy the Jewish people. Jethro proves otherwise.

A well-known statement on this matter is recorded in the Midrash on Eicha 2:13 (Lamentations), which reads: אִם יֹאמַר לֽךָ אָדָם יֵשׁ חָכְמָה בַּגּוֹיִם, תַּאֲמִין , If a person says to you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him. יֵשׁ תּוֹרָה בַּגּוֹיִם, אַל תַּאֲמִין , However, if someone claims that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe him. This midrashic statement clearly defines the Jewish attitude toward receiving 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 Jews should conduct their lives. If a gentile were to come and say I have a better way for you to live your lives, 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 the Torah, are acceptable, indeed welcomed, even from non-Jewish sources.

It is quite amazing that 3,300 years ago, when xenophobia ruled the ancient world, the Torah admonished the Jewish people not to automatically reject advice simply because it emanated from a non-Jewish source. The gentile world is not to be rejected solely because it is not Jewish. In fact, Jews are encouraged to look for good, constructive ideas from anywhere in the world, non-Jewish and secular as well, and embrace those helpful 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 online broadcasts or recordings of the Daf Ha’Yomi, the daily study of the Talmud page. In the early years of NJOP, the use of radio jingles and cutting-edge advertising effectively encouraged thousands of people to study Hebrew or Basic Judaism or to observe Shabbat. Since then, the internet and social media have enabled NJOP to reach hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Jews the world over. 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 the 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 with his sage advice, and for this we are profoundly thankful.

May you be blessed.

On Sunday night and Monday, January 20th and 21st, 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.