This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, named after Moses’ father-in-law, known in English as “Jethro”. It is in this parasha that the Israelites finally experience the great revelation at Mt. Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and the first portions of the Torah. This seminal event took place in the third month (Sivan), on the fiftieth day following the people’s exodus from Egypt. It is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot, following the 49-day Omer-counting period that starts during the holiday of Passover. In many ways, this is the birth of the Jewish people, and the official starting point of the Torah tradition. And yet, the parasha is named after Jethro, who is described as a chief idol-worshipping priest in the land of Midian! Who was Jethro and what made him so special?
In the House of Pharaoh
The Talmud and a number of midrashic sources provide details of Jethro’s earlier life. Though there are minor variations among these texts, the consensus is that Jethro was once an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt, along with Balaam and Job. When Pharaoh asked his advisors how to control Israelite overpopulation, Balaam offered to throw the newborn into the river, and Pharaoh agreed. Jethro, unable to support such a cruel decree, resigned from his post, and having insulted the Pharaoh, was forced to flee. This is how he ended up in Midian.
(Interestingly, this is also how Moses got his miracle-working staff. According to tradition, this was a unique staff, created by God at the very start of time and presented to Adam. It was passed down from generation to generation, through Noah and Abraham, and down to Joseph. When Joseph passed away, it remained in Pharaoh’s palace. When Jethro fled, he took the staff with him. Arriving in Midian, he temporarily stuck it in the ground, but it immediately sprang forth roots, and no one was able to dislodge it, until Moses. Some even say this is what convinced Jethro to give his daughter Tzipporah to Moses for a wife!)
Meanwhile, although Job didn’t support the decree to murder the Israelites, he nonetheless remained silent. For this reason, he deserved the terrible punishment that he later suffered.
Idolatry and Repentance
Jethro travelled much of the known world and dabbled in various forms of idolatry. Finally, he settled in Midian, near the holy mountain of Sinai. He became a high priest, and prince, of Midian. Ultimately, though, after all of his idolatry, he recognized the unity and omnipotence of Hashem, and repented wholeheartedly. Many say he even circumcised himself later on.
In this week’s parasha, he comes to visit Moses and the Israelites after having heard the miracles that happened in Egypt. He rejoices for the nation, and even utters a blessing: “Blessed is Hashem, who saved you from the hand of Egypt, and the hand of Pharaoh…” (Exodus 18:10). Some suggest that he was the first to utter the popular phrase “Baruch Hashem”, although this term was first spoken by Noah (Genesis 9:26) when blessing his son Shem, and later by Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) when he found a wife for Isaac.
In the parasha, we read about Moses’ gruelling daily schedule: taking care of people’s problems from early morning to late night. Jethro sees the toll it is taking on Moses, and advices him to appoint wise men and judges over the people. Jethro breaks it down much like a modern court system: a judge for every 10 families, then a greater judge for every 50, and an even more experienced one for every 100 families, followed by a grand judge for every 1000. Moses himself would serve as the “supreme court”, tackling only the toughest issues. This freed Moses to spend more time with God, and indeed, the very next passage describes his ascent of Mt. Sinai.
Had Moses continued to deal with all of the people’s problems all day long, every day, there would have been no opportunity to go up Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights like he did, and to bring down the Two Tablets, together with the first book of the Torah which he scribed (Exodus 24:7). Therefore, it is possible to say that without Jethro, there would have been no Sinai revelation!
Jethro the Prophet
The chapter ends by saying that Jethro left the Israelite camp and returned home. Rashi comments here that he went back to Midian to convert the rest of his family to Judaism. However, another religion has a totally different spin on the narrative.
Druze is a little-known, monotheistic religion that has its origins roughly a millennium ago. Today, it has as many as two million followers, most of whom live in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The religion began in Lebanon as an attempt by a secretive group of scholars to fuse the teachings of the three great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), together with concepts from Greek philosophy, Egyptian philosophy, and Hinduism. It was originally known as the “Unity Faith”.
The name of the religion is said to come from one of its early leaders, Muhammad ad-Darazi, “the tailor” (d. 1018 CE), originally an Ismaili Muslim from the city of Bukhara. Ad-Darazi became a high-ranking member of the Fatimid military, and was tasked with destroying the rising “Unity Faith”. His army was defeated, and ad-Darazi taken captive. Exposed to the teachings of Unity, he soon converted, and rose to prominence among the faithful. He was executed by the Fatimid Caliph just a few years later.
According to the Druze, Jethro was the greatest of prophets, and relayed his wisdom to Moses (whom they accept as a prophet as well). The Druze believe Jethro is the earliest founder of their religion, and their spiritual ancestor. What they believe to be the shrine and tomb of Jethro in Northern Israel is one of their holiest sites.
Since Moses, the founder of Judaism, married Tzipporah, the daughter of Jethro, many Druze see a special relationship between themselves and the Jews. Today, the Druze are recognized by the State of Israel as a distinct ethnic community, and serve in the IDF and in Israeli government. At least in a spiritual sense, it seems like the warm relationship between Moses and Jethro continues in modern times.