Although the Torah makes various references to the character of Yitro, or more precisely, Choten Moshe, it is unclear exactly who Yitro was, whether he joined up with Bnei Yisrael, and if he even converted to Judaism. Additionally, his many names make him an even more complex character. Ostensibly, based on the Pesukim in this week’s Parsha, one would conclude Yitro to be positive force within the community as he helped Moshe organize his work to effectively judge Bnei Yisrael and he even has the illustrious title of “Choten Moshe.” However, one could also say that since he is still referred to as Kohen Midyan, a title linked to Avodah Zarah and other bad Midot that Midyanim exemplified, perhaps he is not the Tzadik that we perceive him to be.
The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh clarifies that Yitro had a choice with regards to his title. Upon joining Bnei Yisrael he could retained his title of Kohen Midyan that linked him to his evil past, or he could have chosen the title of Choten Moshe which hints his righteousness. He in fact chooses the second one which he feels to be more honorable and would lead one to conclude that indeed Yitro was a Tzadik. In fact, heretofore Yitro is referred to only as Choten Moshe.
Additionally, later on in Sefer Bemidbar, Yitro is mentioned again. Bnei Yisrael believed that they were finally ready to enter Eretz Yisrael, although they are unaware of the future events with regards to Chet Hamiraglim, and Moshe asked Yitro to join them on their quest while even offering him a prominent position of overseer. Although Yitro is referred to in Sefer Bemidbar as a Midyani, he also called Choten Moshe and his name Yitro is not mentioned. However, Yitro responds that he wants to return home, and it is yet ambiguous as to whether Yitro ends up joining Bnei Yisrael. The Ramban believes that since Yitro did not respond to Moshe’s final plea for him to remain, it must be that Yitro did accept the invitation to join Bnei Yisrael. Furthermore, in Sefer Shoftim the Navi records how Yael, who saves the Jews by killing Sisra, is the wife of Chever, one of Yitro’s names. From here one could conclude that indeed Yitro joined Bnei Yisrael as they later had good relations in Eretz Yisrael and Yitro’s family even had some land. It is even possible to suggest that Yitro converted to Judaism. However, one could also say that Chever’s status as a Jew is unclear as he still had some ties to the enemy. Nevertheless, it is clear that Yitro joined up with Bnei Yisrael.
Returning back to this week’s Parsha, with regards to Yitro’s conversion, it is probable that at least at this time Yitro did not convert. First of all, as Amos Chacham in Da’at Mikra points out, Yitro went home in this Parsha, which implies that he did not become Jewish. Additionally, the Torah uses the word Vayishalach instead of Vayishlach with regards to Moshe’s sending away of Yitro. The former is a more forceful form of the word, which also implies that Yitro did not convert. Furthermore, Yitro first refers to Hashem as Elokim, the word that outsiders use, and subsequently when Yitro talks to Moshe about what happened, Yitro begins to use Hashem’s actual name. However, Moshe then uses the name of Elokim with Yitro, which again implies that the latter remained an outsider. Finally, if Yitro were indeed still a non-Jew, it would make sense for him to be interested in the appointing of the judges, as it is one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach that all non-Jews must observe.
It seems from the end of the story in this week’s Parsha that Yitro was still a non-Jew. However, as a gentile, Yitro’s interest and devotion to the existence of Am Yisrael is remarkable. It is therefore important to recognize how important our relations to the outside world are, and how they can help us in our development as a nation and as individuals.
-Adapted from various Shiurim given by Mr. Ezra Frazer at TABC.