Was Yitro Selfish?

Rabbi Reuven Mann


This week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha, talks about the beginning of the journey to Eretz Yisrael. The Jews had spent an entire year camped around Mount Sinai. During this time, their major occupation was the study of the Torah that Hashem revealed to Moshe.  They also engaged in the great project of constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle). All of this spiritually prepared them to enter the Land, build the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), and transform themselves into a “wise and discerning” nation.

The plan was to make a quick journey through the wilderness, followed by invasion and conquest of the Land. That was what Hashem “wanted,” but things do not always work out as planned. G-d conferred free will upon man, which thus enables him to “thwart” the Divine Plan. The generation that had experienced enslavement in Egypt ultimately could not overcome their limitations and succumbed to the fear-mongering of the spies.

The episode of the spies, which delayed the conquest, was to occur later. At this point, Moshe believed that the people were embarking on the journey and would be at the gates of the Promised Land in just a matter of days. It is interesting that even the greatest prophet did not know what lay ahead. Hashem alone decides what information to reveal to a prophet, even the most exalted one, to whom G-d spoke “face to face.”

The Torah records an intriguing discussion between Moshe and his distinguished father-in-law, Yitro. It would appear that Yitro wanted to return to his homeland of Midian. He had come when he heard about the great miracles that Hashem had wrought when delivering the Jews from Egypt. 

Yitro’s goal was to learn about the Exodus in depth with the greatest teacher, Moshe Rabbenu. The lessons had a great impact on him, so he brought sacrifices and uttered praises to Hashem. In fact, Yitro converted to Judaism and, according to some, was present at the Revelation. Interestingly, he did not return home at that time. Instead, he spent the entire year with the Jewish encampment around Mount Sinai.

It was only now, when they were breaking camp and embarking on the trek to Israel that he decided it was time to go. Moshe implored him to join the people in their journey to the Land, so he might share in the “goodness” that G-d had promised them. Surprisingly, Yitro refused, and Moshe tried again. He said, “Please do not abandon us, for you know our encampment in the desert, and you have been for us as eyes. And when you come with us, all the goodness that Hashem bestows on us, He will bestow on you.”

This dialogue is difficult to understand. Why would Yitro not want to continue his life as a Jew by residing in the Land? If his intention in leaving Midian was merely to spend some time studying with Moshe, why did he stay with the Jews for the entire year? Could it be that he was content to dwell with them in the desert, but not to live with them in the Land “which flows with milk and honey”?

Rabbi Soloveitchik gave a unique and fascinating explanation. Yitro had a powerful thirst for knowledge. The year spent at Sinai was one in which the people were completely immersed in studying the Torah, written and oral, that Moshe conveyed to them. 

However, now the period of intensive and exclusive learning was over. The Jews were embarking on a new venture, the conquest of a land and establishment of a state. Yitro did not want to spend his time engaged in these activities. He wanted to return home, where he had all his necessities, and resume his full-time immersion in the study of Torah. 

On the basis of this interpretation, I would like to explain Moshe’s response to Yitro’s initial refusal of his invitation. Moshe was imploring him to partake of the “good” that G-d had in store for them in Israel. I believe he meant that it is very nice to go off and study Torah by yourself in Midian. But if is a greater good to build up the nation and establish its religious infrastructure in the land Hashem had designated for the Jews. 

One must study Torah for himself, of course, but needs to consider others as well. He must work for the good of the community and build up the spiritual foundations of the Jewish people to perpetuate the Torah eternally.

Shabbat shalom.