What Did Yitro Hear?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Yitro, devotes a great deal of space to the activities that Yitro engaged in immediately after the Jews left Egypt. Since the Torah is not interested in history or biography, it is not clear why it provides so many details about his doings. We first encountered Yitro in the story of Moshe’s intervention to save his daughters from the shepherds who were bullying them.

The Torah informs us that Yitro was the Kohein Midian, the priest of Midian; in other words, he was a religious leader. The Rabbis tell us that Yitro had renounced idolatry, and because of that, his neighbors had placed him under a ban. In fact, according to Rashi, the mistreatment of his daughters who tended his sheep was a result of the excommunication placed on him.

In my opinion, this interpretation enables us to understand Moshe’s otherwise “strange” behavior. We may ask, why did he risk his life by taking on a band of shepherds? Fighting against a single Egyptian to save the life of a Jew is one thing: one against one is fair odds. One against a gang is extremely dangerous, especially when the crime was the theft of the water Yitro’s daughters had drawn for their sheep. Is that important enough to warrant risking one’s life?

In my opinion, Moshe was fully aware of the circumstances behind the harassment of the girls. He realized that they were being persecuted for their renunciation of idolatry. He understood that the entire purpose of human existence is to recognize Hashem and serve Him. To be deprived of that right is the most egregious injustice, which must be opposed, even if it endangers one’s life.

Yitro saw the special qualities of the “Egyptian” who had rescued his daughters and then watered their sheep. He rebuked them for not showing gratitude by inviting him for a meal. Yitro then gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moshe in marriage and thus acquired him as a son-in-law, recognizing how important this would be for his own continued spiritual growth.

The friendship established between the two men was interrupted when Moshe returned to Egypt to take on the leadership of the Jews. We must assume that Yitro followed the events in Egypt with great interest. Our parsha begins by informing us that Yitro “heard all that G-d did for Moshe and His people Israel, that the L-rd took out Israel from Egypt.” The Hebrew term Shema (hear) implies much more than a superficial auditory impression. It denotes an in-depth consideration of the significance of an important matter.

Thus, the Torah is telling us that Yitro was cognizant that something of great magnitude had occurred in the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. He pondered the matter deeply and decided that it wasn’t for naught that G-d had blessed him with Moshe as a son-in-law. Yitro then made a bold decision that would change the course of his life and earn him the great merit of having the parsha of the Torah that contains the Ten Commandments named after him.

Yitro’s greatness stemmed from the fact that he was not complacent, but was an energetic pursuer of truth. He realized that a general report about what happened to the Jews was insufficient. To achieve a full understanding, he had to get a firsthand description from Moshe. Yitro put aside all other concerns and made it his business to obtain a personal meeting with his Rebbe and son-in-law, what Chabad Chasidim call a “Yechidus.”

Yitro brought along his daughter and grandchildren so Moshe could be reunited with his family. He was respectful and tactful in not imposing himself on his busy mentor. Yitro’s overture was successful. Moshe went out to welcome his father-in-law, embraced him, and after exchanging pleasantries, they sat down to “learn.” Moshe then recounted in great detail all the Divine Providence that G-d had manifested for the sake of the Jews in Egypt.

Yitro reacted with great joy, and he blessed Hashem for the salvation He had wrought. He expressed the enormous personal benefit he had received from his visit in his statement, “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all gods, because that which they plotted was turned against them.” Yitro’s knowledge of G-d was brought to a higher level by a careful study of the events under the tutelage of Moshe Rabbeinu.

The Torah records Yitro’s actions because they contain important lessons for all of us. The most vital good that man can obtain is correct knowledge of G-d. That is what we were created for and is the most essential condition of human perfection. Hashem revealed Himself to the Jewish people in a manner that is accessible to everyone. However, this knowledge will not suddenly and miraculously fall into a person’s lap. One must actively and energetically seek it. Yitro loved the truth and never stopped pursuing it. When the crucial opportunity materialized, he put everything else aside and seized it.

Yitro was successful because Hashem rewards all those who seek Him and make the strenuous efforts necessary to obtain true knowledge of Him.

Shabbat shalom.