The Conversion of Yitro

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Yitro – a leader in Midyan (and) the father-in-law of Moshe – heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and His nation Yisrael.  That Hashem had taken forth Yisrael from Egypt (Sefer Shemot 18:1)

1. Yitro and Moshe’s reunion

Parshat Yitro begins with a description of Yitro’s reunion with his son-in-law Moshe.  During the many years that Moshe was a fugitive from Egyptian authority, he was sheltered in Midyan by Yitro.  Moshe married Tzipora – Yitro’s daughter – and together they had two sons.  When Moshe retuned to Egypt – at Hashem’s command –Tzipora remained in Midyan with their sons.  

Yitro hears of the redemption of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt and travels from Midyan into the wilderness of Sinai to reunite with Moshe and to bring to him his family.  From the Torah’s description of this encounter, it is clear that Moshe and Yitro were very close friends.  Upon meeting they warmly embrace.  Moshe treats Yitro with care and respect.  

Moshe carefully describes to Yitro the wonders that Bnai Yisrael had experienced and witnessed.  Yitro rejoices, praises Hashem and declares his recognition of Hashem as the true  G-d.  In order to fully appreciate the significance of this encounter between Moshe and Yitro and to fully understand the impact of Moshe’s message upon Yitro, it is important to review an earlier conversation between these two friends.

And Moshe went and returned to Yeter his father-in-law.  And he said to him, “I will go now and return to my brothers in Egypt.  I will see whether they yet live.”  And Yitro said to Moshe, “Go in peace.”  (Sefer Shemot 4:18)

2. Moshe’s deception of Yitro 

Moshe received his first prophecy during the period that he was living in Midyan in his father-in law’s home.   This prophecy came to Moshe while he was shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness of Sinai.  Moshe’s prophecy began with a vision of a burning bush.  An intense fire burned in the midst of the bush but the bush was not consumed by the flame.  This vision initiated a dialogue with Hashem in which Moshe learned that Bnai Yisrael would be redeemed from bondage in Egypt and led to the Land of Cana’an.  He learned that Hashem had selected him to serve as His messenger.  He would address Paroh and his ministers and he would lead Bnai Yisrael to the land promised to their forefathers. 

Moshe returned to his father-in-law and asked his leave to return to Egypt.  However, Moshe did not reveal to his father-in-law the true purpose of his journey.  The above passage describes the conversation between Moshe and his father-in-law – referred to by both the name Yeter and the name Yitro.  Moshe tells Yitro that he wishes to return to Egypt in order to assess the welfare of his people.  He does not indicate to Yitro that he has received a prophecy or that his mission is to redeem Bnai Yisrael.  Why did Moshe conceal from his beloved friend his true motives and the purpose of his journey?

I am Hashem your G-d, your G-d, who took you forth from the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.  You should have no other gods than I.  (Sefer Shemot 20:2)

3. The intent of the first statement of the Asseret HaDibrot

This passage is the first statement of the Decalogue – the Asseret HaDibrot.  Although the statement is brief, its ideational content is remarkably dense.  The statement begins with a declaration – I am Hashem your G-d.  This declaration does not contain an explicit directive.  Nonetheless, it is understood by the Sages to be a commandment.  We are enjoined by this declaration to accept Hashem as our G-d.  

The declaration presents an obvious problem.  It seems that the same declaration could have been formulated more succinctly as “I am G-d.”  Why does the declaration include the identification of G-d with the name “Hashem”?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno responds that the appellation “Hashem” communicates the idea of a creator of the universe who sustains its existence.  According to Sforno, the actual meaning of the declaration is that Hashem – the Creator and the One Who Sustains all existence – is to be accepted by us as our G-d.  

Sforno also notes that the term used in the passage for “I” is anochi.  In Biblical Hebrew the word “I” can be represented by either of two terms – ani or anochi.  Ani is the more common term and anochi is used only occasionally.  Why is anochi used in this instance?  Sforno explains that the term anochi means “I and no other”.  The meaning of the passage is that Hashem – the Creator and Sustainer of the universe – and He alone is our G-d.  The passage enjoins us to serve the Creator and the Source of all existence.  It is the positive formulation of the admonition that completes the statement – Have no other G-d than I.

However, the passage includes another element.  G-d identifies Himself as the One Who delivered us from Egypt.  In other words, the passage identifies our G-d in two ways.  He is identified as the Creator and Sustainer of all existence and as our Redeemer from bondage in Egypt.  Why is it necessary for G-d to identify Himself in both ways?

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – explains that as Hashem – Creator and Sustainer of the universe – G-d’s relationship extends equally to all of His creations.  He created all organic and inorganic matter.  The brute animal and the human being are all the product of His act of creation and His constant sustaining will.  As Redeemer, G-d gave expression to a special covenantal relationship with Bnai Yisrael.  In our redemption from Egypt, Hashem revealed a unique providential relationship with Bnai Yisrael.

From Netziv’s perspective the passage commands us to accept as our only G-d, Hashem – Creator and Sustainer of all existence.  It also enjoins us to recognize that this Sovereign of the universe revealed, through our redemption, His special relationship to and involvement with Bnai Yisrael.  In other words, we are commanded to affirm a paradoxical truth.  This Sovereign, who rules the entire vast universe, has entered into a covenantal relationship with a nation of human beings.  This nation is a minute and seemingly insignificant element in the vast universe.  Yet, Hashem has selected this nation as a special object of His attention!  

I know now that Hashem is greater than all gods.  For in the way that they planned (to execute Yisrael, they were executed).  (Sefer Shemot 18:11)

4. Yitro’s explanation of his transformation

After Yitro hears Moshe’s description of the rescue of the Bnai Yisrael and the destruction of the Egyptians, Yitro declares his acceptance of Hashem as the only true G-d.  This declaration clearly implies that, up to this moment, Yitro’s commitment to Hashem was less than complete.  Rashi confirms this interpretation of the passage.  According to Rashi, Yitro was acknowledging that to this point his acceptance was incomplete.  In what respect was this acceptance deficient and what specifically brought about the transformation in Yitro’s attitude?

In his commentary on Parshat Bo, Nachmanides outlines the false beliefs that were prevalent at the time of the exodus from Egypt.  He explains that acceptance of a G-d Who is Creator and Sustainer of the all existence was not universal.  Among those who did accept the existence of such a G-d, there was doubt regarding His relationship with His creation. Many rejected the notion that His knowledge extends to the mundane particulars of the material universe.  Others assumed that His knowledge encompasses all.  Yet, they regarded as preposterous the view that He should care about or involve Himself in the trivial affairs of humankind.  

Nachmanides explains that the wonders of the exodus addressed all of these false beliefs.  The miracles demonstrated Hashem’s omnipotence.  The sovereignty over the natural order that was demonstrated by these wonders left no doubt that Hashem is the Creator and the Sustainer of the universe and therefore, He has complete authority and control over its every aspect and element.  Furthermore, the rescue of Bnai Yisrael from among the Egyptians demonstrated that this omnipotent sovereign is aware of and interacts with humankind.  He has selected Bnai Yisrael as His people and the shield of His providence extends over them.

In the context of Nachmanides’ comments, the meaning of the first statement of the Decalogue is even richer.  This declaration enjoins us to acknowledge and accept as our sole G-d the Creator and Sustainer.  It also instructs us to acknowledge that He relates to humanity and to Bnai Yisrael.  Implicit in the declaration is the message that He alone is our salvation.  Ultimately, all that befalls us is an expression of His will.  We should place our trust and hope in no other – neither a false god nor a powerful person.  In other words, this first statement of the Decalogue can be viewed as a statement and acknowledgment of the lessons of the redemption from Egypt.   

Yitro’s transformation can now be more thoroughly understood.  Yitro attributed his transformation to the realization that Hashem had destroyed the Egyptians by the very means they had employed in their genocidal campaign against Bnai Yisrael.  The Egyptians had condemned the male newborns of Bnai Yisrael to death by drowning.  Paroh and his armies were drowned when the waters of the Reed Sea crashed down upon them.  In other words, the events of the redemption demonstrated to Yitro that Hashem’s knowledge and involvement extends to the affairs of humanity and His justice reigns in the material world.  

Apparently, this was the area of deficiency in his acceptance of Hashem that Yitro acknowledged.  Until these events, he had readily accepted the existence of a Creator Who sustains all existence.  However, he was unwilling to embrace the concept of a Sovereign of the universe who is also involved in the affairs of humankind.  The events of the redemption transformed his perceptions.  These events provided uncontestable evidence of Hashem’s involvement with humanity in general and Bnai Yisrael in particular.

5. Moshe’s reason for deceiving Yitro

Finally, Moshe’s reason for concealing from Yitro his true reason for returning to Egypt can be identified.  Moshe understood his father-in-law’s theology.  He realized that although his father-in-law fully accepted the reality of a Creator and Sustainer of the universe, he was not yet prepared to acknowledge the involvement of this G-d with humanity.  The miracles and wonders through which Hashem would reveal Himself to all of humanity as the G-d of Providence had not yet occurred.  Moshe was wary of asking Yitro to accept more than could be demonstrated.  Therefore, Moshe asked his father-in-law’s leave by providing a reason that he knew his friend could appreciate and accept and he bid his time waiting for the opportunity to lead Yitro to a higher level of knowledge and understanding.