It’s Only a Couple of Names by Rabbi Ezra Frazer


Parshat Yitro opens with Yitro arriving in the wilderness upon hearing about the great miracles that God had performed during the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim.  After greeting him, Moshe proceeds to tell him about these miracles (Shemot 18:8).  Moshe presumably added a greater level of detail to Yitro’s knowledge of these events, prompting Yitro to gush with praise of God (18:10-11).  Although the Torah does not fully explain whether this encounter left a lasting impact on Yitro, certain textual clues chart an interesting set of developments in Yitro’s experience.

Yitro’s title in the opening verse is “Chohein Midyan Chotein Moshe,” “Priest of Midyan and father-in-law of Moshe,” linking his name with both his past history as a pagan priest and his current relationship to Moshe.  He retains the title “father-in-law of Moshe” throughout the first story of the Parsha - culminating with his offering sacrifices to God in 18:12 - while he is never again called “priest of Midyan.”  Starting with the end of 18:12, his first name disappears, and he remains “father-in-law of Moshe” for the rest of the story, as he counsels Moshe regarding the proper way to build a judiciary system and then departs for Midyan.  The Or HaChaim (18:1-2) observes part of this shift in Yitro’s titles, and suggests that the Torah is subtly praising Yitro; as a prominent Midyanite priest, he married off his daughter to a complete stranger, without worrying about his image as a priest.  Moreover, by now visiting Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness and by praising their God for Yetziat Mitzrayim, Yitro demonstrates that he prefers being known by his son-in-law, Moshe, to his own lofty title of priest of Midyan.  The Or HaChaim thus reads the words “VaYikach Yitro Chotein Moshe,” “And Yitro the father-in-law of Moshe took” (18:2) homiletically to mean that Yitro took for himself the title “father-in law of Moshe” and all that it represents, while he rejected the aforementioned title of priest of Midyan and its pagan associations.

Indeed, Yitro’s titles are not the only ones that shed light on his spiritual development.  The use of God’s names in Chapter 18 adds further meaning to Yitro’s character.  In the Parsha’s opening verse (VaYishma Yitro Chohein Midyan Chotein Moshe Eit Kol Asheir Asah Elokim LeMoshe UlYisrael Amo Ki Hotzi Hashem Et Yisrael MiMitzrayim) the objective narration refers to God with the more intimate name YKVK when describing His miracles, but the Gentile Yitro - while he has heard about these same miracles - knows God only through His less intimate name, Elokim.  Upon hearing Moshe describe these events with the more intimate name (VaySaper Moshe LeChoteno Eit Kol Asher Hashem LePharoh UlMitzrayim), Yitro, too, learns to praise God with this name (Baruch Hashem Asheir Hitzil Etchem… Atah Yadati Ki Gadol Hashem MiKol Elokim).  Surprisingly, though, the story reverts to the name Elokim for the rest of Chapter 18.  While Yitro is proud of his son-in-law and is wowed by his son-in-law’s God, Yitro nevertheless remains a foreigner, with a simple reading of this Parsha giving no indication that Yitro ever considered formal conversion or anything similar.  He embodies God’s values, but God will never be the God of him or of his people.

The final story of Chapter 18 drives home this point.  Yitro successfully convinces Moshe to create a proper justice system, and Yitro demands high ethical standards for these judges, including the trait of fearing God.  Here, too, Yitro uses the term for fearing God (Yirei Elokim) that is normally associated with the morality of virtuous Gentiles (e.g. Shemot 1:17, Iyov 1:1; see, however, Bereishit 22:12).  Yitro thus represents high ethical standards, but he expresses no interest in changing his national affiliation.

The Torah offers one final hint of Yitro’s character with the word Shalom (peace).  This word appears only three times in Shemot, and all three relate to Yitro.  He sent Moshe in peace to check on Bnei Yisrael when they were enslaved (4:18), he greets Moshe in peace in our Parsha (18:7), and his plan for a justice system brings peace to a nation that he does not intend to join, with the help of a God who will never be his own (18:23 “Im Et HaDavar HaZeh Taaseh VeTzivecha Elokim VeYachalta Amod VeGam Kol HaAm HaZeh Al Mekomo Yavo BeShalom). 

Despite his seeming aloofness, Yitro made important, lasting contributions to the Jewish people.  If an outsider can “add an extra Parsha to the Torah” (see Rashi 18:1 s.v. Yitro), then imagine what those who are “insiders” can do.

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