“And Yitro heard … and he came to Moses” (Exodus 18:1). There are only six Torah portions named after people: Sarah and 5 men, half of them are Jewish and half (at least initially -) not. We meet one of them this week: Who is Yitro that an entire section was named after him, right when we are about to be called to Sinai and given the Ten Commandments??
Yitro, described as “priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law” is the father of Zipora, Moses’ wife, and the leader of the pagan’s desert tribe.
There are a number of interesting Kabalistic insights into Yitro’s previous life. One view is that Yitro was Cain, while Job was Abel. Maybe telling us that the two extremes Cain and Abel stand for – are both unacceptable: Cain’s name is related to kinyan from the root k.n.h. – to buy, to acquire. Cain’s world is about matter. Therefore, bringing a sacrifice to Hashem means nothing to him and our tradition tells us he offers some flax seeds. Abel, whose name, hevel, means “a puff of air” and also “nonsense”, believed that this world is meaningless and the true life is with Hashem. Therefore, when asked, he brought the best of the best, for he needed nothing for himself, and likewise, didn’t think anyone needs any material “stuff” to survive. As we know, both these paths failed. Thus, each “came back” to complete his learning: Abel – as Job, who needed to realize suffering and human needs are real; and Cain as Yitro, the great seeker, who needs to learn that spirituality matters, and one cannot survive only on materialism.
Yitro arrives with Zipporah and the two boys, but very little attention is given to the latter. What we hear about is the meeting between Moses and Yitro, which is described in great details – what they were talking about, how they ate, who they sit with, and all this, a minute before The Giving of the Torah! What’s so important davka (especially) now?
Assuming the Torah is not a history book with laws but rather a ‘how to live’ law book with historical background, we can guess, especially when things are told in a peculiar order, that the Torah wants to teach us something specific. So why is this story here?
Perhaps because this episode is the “watershed” in the life of the People of Israel: on one hand, a family, camp, tribes, slaves. And on the other – becoming a cohesive nation with a unique mission.
They left the past, fled from Egypt with all symbolism of “Mitzrayim”, a narrow place, and now may wonder, what’s next? Long ago, their forefather Abraham was told “lech lecha”, go, leave your father, your homeland, leave everything you have ever known and start fresh. Is it the same command now?
But Yitro represents something new: Sinai is not intended to cut the Children of Israel and isolate them from the rest of the world. The Torah is given in the desert, a spacious and boundless place, open to everyone who wants to come and listen. Beyond the words themselves, it tells us that our way of life is not going to demand an ascetic, reclusive life, but a rather one that makes connections – and impacts – on the world around it. No wonder that it is preceded by Yitro, who offers Moses advice on how to manage his affairs more efficiently, and although Moses is in daily contact with God Himself, he listens and learns, “even” from a Midianite priest.
Where is that line between living with the Torah and incorporating the wisdom of “the nations”? That is still our challenge today, that is where the dialog should be.