Perhaps the best description of Yitro based upon the Torah’s selection of stories is that he was on a mission to discover truth. He was a marvelous listener, curious and philosophical, open to hearing and exploring anything that might lead him to the truth.
This characteristic is illustrated by Yitro’s interest in personally visiting Bnei Yisrael himself, as opposed to merely returning Moshe his family unaccompanied. He had heard of unparalleled miracles (Shmot 18:1) and his curiosity pushed him to take a firsthand look. However, his openness and intellectual honesty is more clearly seen when accepting Moshe’s correction. Initially the Torah states, “And Yitro, the Kohen of Midyan, father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that Hashem did to Moshe and Yisrael, his nation, that Hashem took Yisrael out of Mitzrayim” (ibid) yet after hearing Moshe’s perspective (ibid 18:8), Yitro changed his, “And Yitro rejoiced for all of the good that Hashem did for Yisrael, how he saved them from the hands of Mitzrayim” (ibid 18:9).
Perhaps the Torah’s introduction to our Parsha, “And Yitro heard” (ibid 18:1) captures more than what he was doing. It captures who he was. It characterizes Yitro as an observer, someone who listens, and more particular someone who values listening.
The midrash further supports this image by quoting Yitro’s self-portrayal, “There is no idolatry in the world which I did not worship, yet I never found a God like Hashem. Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all Gods” (Tanchuma Yitro 7). Yitro, worshipping every type of idolatry before arriving at his conclusion of Hashem’s greatness, illustrates his extensive search for truth. Both his intellectual curiosity and diligence are properly expressed here.
Another midrash reinforces this by asserting, “He was called by seven names” one being “Yeter” because, “There was another Parsha added to the Torah” (Shmot Rabbah 27:8). Since every letter of Chumash is critical and divine, the midrash cannot mean that this Parsha is extra and without it Chumash would be equally complete. What does the midrash mean?
Yitro was an unnecessary character in the storyline. Without him, the story remains intact. Not being a central part of the plot portrays him as an outsider with an unbiased perspective.
If Yitro was intended to serve as an objective bystander then juxtaposing his arrival with Amalek’s (Shmot 17:8-16) successfully highlights their contrasting nature. Unlike Yitro, Amalek came with a prejudiced and destructive agenda (Ibn Ezra 18:1).
In addition to serving as a foil for Amalek, a second objective is accomplished as well. If Yitro, the archetype of an unbiased viewpoint, thought that the exodus was something remarkable, then it was. Yitro’s narrative was placed here to testify to the unparalleled miraculous events that had transpired during the exodus.
Interestingly, another midrash comments, “When he converted, another letter was added, just like Avraham, he was called Yitro” (Shmot Rabbah 27:8). Yeter (Shmot 4:18) became Yitro (ibid 4:18) gaining a letter in his name upon conversion, similar to Avraham.
In truth the similarities are striking,
- Both were converts.
- Both were raised in a community of idolaters, explored many forms of idolatry and continued searching until they eventually became the one sole monotheist in their social setting.
- Both welcomed in and fed lost travelers (Avraham took in and fed the three angels (Bereshit 18:1-8) while Yitro took in and fed Moshe (Shmot 2:21-18)).
- Both traveled along with their families in greater spiritual exploration (Bereshit 12:4-5, Shmot 18:1-6).
- Both played a critical role in arranging their child’s marriage. Avraham sent his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak. Yitro invited Moshe for dinner and subsequently gave his daughter to Moshe (ibid 2:20-21).
- Both had a child whose spouse was met at a well (Bereshit 24:13–16 and Shmot 2:16-20).
- Both found themselves at a crossroad which required them to leave behind their previous life and go to Eretz Yisrael.
The parallels, however, end here, for both were confronted with the commanding challenge of leaving behind their past lives and heading towards Eretz Yisrael, but their responses were profoundly different. Avraham successfully stepped forward, ascending onwards to Eretz Yisrael, while Yitro, by contrast, returned home to Midyan (Bamidbar 10:30).
The distinction gains greater significance when one takes their differing circumstances into account. Avraham had to leave his life behind after being commanded to “Lech Lecha” –“Go for yourself” (Bereshit 12:1). By contrast, Yitro’s journey to Eretz Yisrael would have been accompanied by his family, his daughter, Tziporah, and son-in-law, Moshe. Beyond that, Avraham had to take an incredible leap of faith without any external proof of Hashem’s existence, while Yitro saw and heard from a nation who had experienced miracles first hand. Avraham had every reason not to go to Eretz Yisrael, while Yitro had every reason to go. Yet Avraham displayed tremendous conviction by going, while Yitro could not bring himself to do so.
The Torah highlights the contrast between the two with Yitro’s reply to an invitation asking him to join Bnei Yisrael. He responds, “Lo Alech Ki el Artzi V’el Mo’ladity Alech” -“I will not go. To my land and my birthplace I will go” (Bamidbar 10:30). These are the exact same words the Torah used when describing Avraham’s “Lech Lecha” – “Go for yourself” (Bereshit 12:1). Avraham was commanded to leave, “M’Artzecha U-M’Mo’Ladticha” – “From your land, and birthplace” whereas Yitro went “el Artzi V’el Mo’ladity Alech” – “To my land and my birthplace.” By deliberately using the exact same language, the Torah subtly hints that Yitro did not accomplish what Avraham did.
Furthermore, repeating “Alech” – “I will go” twice, recalls “Lech Lecha” – “Go for yourself” and again alludes to this parallel. However, here the two words with the root “Lech” are separated textually, implying that Yitro broke the “Lech Lecha” – “Go for yourself.” Not only is the “Lech Lecha” – “Go for yourself” destroyed, but what is placed inside is exactly what destroyed it. In between is “el Artzi V’el Mo’ladity Alech” – “To my land and my birthplace,” Yitro’s decision is to go home, and not to Eretz Yisrael.
Perhaps Yitro’s inability to join Bnei Yisrael stemmed from his persona as an objective party. Yitro’s intellectual nature and drive brought him two results. First, it brought him to truth; he discovered monotheism and the Torah. However, it also prevented him from fully investing in those beliefs. Yitro’s detached intellectual style allowed him to find God with a fair and unbiased viewpoint, but it came at a price, for it was precisely his desire to remain intellectual and objective that kept him aloof and incapable of commitment. Sadly, Yitro was unable to live the life he valued because it would have forced him to abandon his role as an objective individual. This stands in strong contrast to Avraham, who was more philosophically successful and managed to invest fully in his beliefs, expressed here by, heeding Hashem’s command to move to Eretz Yisrael.
The lesson is simple. We should use our intellectual capabilities to further our religious commitment, not disrupt us from it.