Reading portion Exodus 18:1-20:23
There is a dispute regarding the time of Jethro’s arrival in the Israelite camp. According to some, he arrived before the Torah was given, because the news of the Splitting of the Sea and the Amalekite attack influenced him to join Israel. According to others, he came after the Torah was given, and he was convinced to come by the news that the Ten Commandments had been given.
In explaining the plain meaning of the verses, the sages follow the opinion that Jethro came after the Torah was given. If so why did the Torah mention his arrival at this point, rather than later, when it actually took place? The sages explain that the Torah wished to draw attention to the contrast between Jethro and Amalek. Jethro was an outsider whose counsel was a major benefit to Israel, while Amalek was an outsider who launched an unprovoked attack against Israel. Centuries later, Jethro’s descendants lived in Amalekite territory and would have been in grave danger when the Jews fought Amalek.
Consequently, when King Saul was ordered to attack Amalek he showed Israel’s gratitude by warning Jethro’s descendants to evacuate the area of the impending war.
The sages, however, maintain that events in the Torah should always be assumed to have occurred chronologically, unless there are compelling reasons to say otherwise. Consequently, he holds that Jethro arrived before the Torah was given. The sages deal extensively with the textual proofs for and against each of the interpretations, but these are beyond the scope of our commentary. The sages mention both opinions, but do not indicate which they prefer.
Whereas Jethro had once been a distinguished personality – minister of Midian and former advisor to Pharaoh – and Moses was merely a homeless wanderer who married the dignitary’s daughter, now the roles were reversed. Jethro brought Moses’ family to rejoin him and introduced himself as Moses’ father in law, his new claim to distinction and he is referred to that way throughout the chapter. He was received royally, not only by Moses, but by the entire nation, and he later justified the honor by offering counsel on how to organize the nation’s judicial system.
In recognition of that service, he was given the name Jethro, which connotes the concept of addition, to allude to the fact that his advice was described in a passage that was added to the Torah. When he converted to Judaism, the letter vav was “added” to his name, which was changed from Jether to Jethro.
Rabbi Shlomo Bressler in his “Dvar”, depicts from this reading portion the description of Jethro hearing of the travels and trials of the Jews, Jethro being moved to convert, coming to Moshe for the conversion, and then leaving Moshe. If Jethro was so moved, why would he ever leave a situation where he’s surrounded by God, clouds, heavenly food, and Moshe as a teacher? And how could Moshe, as a leader, allow Jethro to just leave the camp? After all, he was the only Jew NOT to have witnessed the giving of the Torah!
Rabbi Leibowitz asked this question in Majesty of Man, and answers by explaining that Jethro, a priest of Midian was SO moved by God, the Torah and the Jews that he felt that he had to go back to his home to try to convert his family and friends. Jethro was willing to give up being surrounded by what he obviously believed in and WANTED to be around, just for the sake of others! If this was the determination of someone that had no responsibilities toward the people he was trying to help, how much more determination should we demonstrate when we actually HAVE a responsibility to help one another!?
Dr. Ron Wexler
Ten Commandments Commission