The not-so-simple story of Yitro and the Jews

The not-so-simple story of Yitro and the Jews

Yitro, the titular figure in this week’s portion, plays a significant supporting role in the story of Moshe’s life. More broadly, midrashic interpretations of his character shed light on the complexity of understanding an individual’s motivations and religious development over the course of his life.

The Midrash Talpiot suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter – who rescued Moshe – and Tzipporah – who married Moshe – were twin sisters, one of whom was adopted by Pharaoh and the other of whom was adopted by Yitro. The commonality between Pharaoh’s daughter and Tzipporah is clear: neither is born Jewish, but, despite growing up in a context of intense Jewish persecution, both choose to cast their lots wholeheartedly with the Jewish people. I think that the midrash is also suggesting an additional point of connection or contrast: Yitro and Pharaoh are also portrayed by the midrash as foils to each other, perhaps because they represent two extremes of animosity and sympathy in potential relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

However, upon delving into biblical and midrashic descriptions of Yitro’s character, we find that his relationship with Israel is ambiguous, evolving throughout the Torah. The first narrative about Yitro is found in Shemot 2:15-21. (In fact, it is Reuel who is described in these verses, but let us assume the perspective of the Midrash Mehilta 1:1 that Reuel and Yitro are the same person.) This passage contains an ambiguous depiction of Yitro’s relationship to the Children of Israel and to Judaism. On the one hand, Yitro is defined by his decision to offer hospitality to the traveling stranger, Moshe – behavior that is often portrayed as a hallmark of kindness and ethics in the Torah. In a similar vein, Shemot Rabbah 1:32 suggests that the inhospitality of the other shepherds to Reuel’s daughter – despite his status as a priest of Midyan – indicates that he had rejected their religion in his search for God. On the other hand, the Torah’s description of Yitro as “priest of Midian” seems to cast him as a representative of idolatry. This may be the basis of less charitable midrashic interpretations of Yitro’s relationship to Judaism, such as the Mehilta Yitro 1:1, which says that Yitro made Moshe swear that his first child would be dedicated to idolatry, and Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 247:168, which tells a story in which Yitro imprisoned Moshe for ten years.

Turning to the next Torah passage that mentions Yitro, we find a somewhat less ambiguous presentation of Yitro’s relationship to Jews and Judaism. In the beginning of this week’s portion, Shemot 18:1-12, Yitro joins Israel, declaring God’s greatness and offering sacrifices. Several midrashic sources suggest that Yitro was sincerely moved to convert to Judaism when he heard about the miraculous acts of divine salvation that the Children of Israel had experienced, starting with the parting of the Red Sea and culminating in the war with Amalek (see Zevahim 116a, Shemot Rabbah 27:2). On the other hand, other midrashim take the perspective that Yitro originally allied himself with Pharaoh and Amalek, only joining Israel’s cause in the wake of the Jewish defeat of Amalek (see Midrash Shmuel Bet 12:2, Shemot Rabbah 27:6). This perspective is supported by the juxtaposition of the war against Amalek in Shemot 17, with Yitro’s conversion in the subsequent chapter.

One verse has sparked particular controversy about Yitro’s motivations in converting, and about the depth of his loyalty to the people of Israel. Shemot 18:9 contains the phrase “Vayihad Yitro al kol hatovah.” The meaning of “vayihad” is unclear; it is interpreted variously by midrashim as meaning that he proclaimed God’s unity (ahdut), that he circumcised himself with a sharp knife (herev hadah), or that he got gooseflesh (hidudin hidudin) out of sympathy with the fate of the Egyptians. Of these, the first two interpretations seem to indicate Yitro’s wholehearted identification with Israel, while the last indicates a more jaundiced view of his relationship to Judaism. However, it is interesting to note that R. Yonatan Eybeschutz interprets the idea of Yitro’s gooseflesh in a way that turns this notion on its head; he suggests that Yitro was unnerved by hearing of the destruction of Egypt because he wanted to feel that his own decision to join the Jewish faith was entirely sincere and he felt queasy at the idea that it might be colored by some feeling of fear or self-interest. (See Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s fascinating article “The House I Lived In: A Taste of Gooseflesh” in Tradition, Summer 2011, which quotes and develops this idea.)

The last Torah passage in which we encounter Yitro is Bemidbar 10:29-33. In these verses, Yitro expresses his desire to return to Midian rather than enter the Land of Israel together with the People of Israel. It is interesting that notwithstanding his desire to return to Midian, midrashic interpretations of these verses take an entirely positive view of Yitro’s motivations. For example, Mehilta Yitro 1:2 suggests that Yitro wanted to return to Midian in order to spread Judaism to others, and Midrash Hagadol says that he wanted to return in order to return other people’s property. It seems that at this point in the story, Yitro has proven his feeling of solidarity with Judaism, and the midrashim view him in a universally charitable light.

It is interesting to consider the ways that the midrash tries to parse out Yitro’s motivations over the course of his story, exploring the depth of Yitro’s idealism versus his potential self-interest, and ultimately landing on the side of idealism. His path to Jewish identification is, in the eyes of the midrash, complex and ambiguous rather than linear or clear-cut like Tzipporah or Pharaoh’s. By analyzing the twists of his story and their midrashic interpretations, we come to appreciate this complicated characters as well as the many ways in which individuals follow their own uncharted paths to religious identification and growth.