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A Most Successful Man

By all standards, Jethro was the model of success.

He was rich in everything — land, cattle, herd and children. He was respected, an adviser to the greatest of kings. Jethro also had a spiritual side: He was the high priest of Midian. He helped establish the canon of that mighty kingdom.

For awhile, Jethro enjoyed the benefits of international privilege. But there was a dissonance that merely increased with time. He was uncomfortable with the religion of Midian — which required the sacrifice of every first born son. Then, there was the creed of two gods — one for good and the other for bad.

Jethro reveled in being one of three top advisers to Pharaoh. But that soon came with an intolerable price. The emperor said he planned to enslave and eventually destroy the Jews. He was looking for confirmation.

Bilaam, the second adviser, said he loved the idea. The third adviser, Job, kept quiet. Jethro could not: He urged Pharaoh to leave the Jews alone. That sentence changed everything. Jethro was forced to leave Egypt and maintain a low profile in Midian — that is, until Moses showed up, another refugee from Egypt.

Slowly, Jethro realized that his life was a lie. He understood that the religion of Midian was cruelty. He recalled his last meeting with Pharaoh, a tiny man with a beard as long as his body, driven wild by lust. Why did G-d allow such an odious individual to head the mightiest empire on earth? Perhaps Jethro knew what Daniel said centuries later: When G-d sees fit, he sets aside “the lowliest of people” to rule over mankind.

Moses was not going to be in that category. Jethro granted his humble son-in-law permission to return to Egypt and free his people. From now on, Jethro would no longer refer to himself as high priest of Midian, rather the father-in-law of Moses.

When G-d took the Jews out of Egypt, Jethro did not wait. He took his daughter Tzipora and her two sons to Mount Sinai. Jethro knew that would be the destination of the Jewish people to receive the Torah, the ultimate in truth and the guide to life. Would Moses, now perhaps the most powerful man on Earth, remember him? Moses did.

Jethro wandered through the Jewish camp of millions and was struck by the disorder. The most striking image was the long lines that formed every morning of those who waited to speak to Moses. Day and night, Moses would answer questions, give advice and encouragement to the former slaves of Pharaoh. Jethro’s sensibilities were offended: He knew what it meant to be a holy man and would never have deigned to stoop to the commoner and his banal problems. And yet Moses never took a break. This marked a recipe for disaster.

Moses replied that his people “come to me to seek G-d.” The king of the Jews explained that he adjudicates disputes among his flock and he teaches Torah. What could be wrong with that?

Jethro was not impressed: “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out — both you and these people who are with you. For the matter is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone.”

And Jethro showed Moses another way. He would continue to teach Torah to the people. But he would no longer remain the sole judge of Israel. Instead, he would establish a system of justice that ensured that everybody receive his day in court. The key element would be the criteria of judges, “those who feared G-d, men of truth, who hate monetary gain.” They would not be susceptible to bribes. They would see money as no more than a means rather than a goal.

“If you do this thing, and the Lord commands you, you will be able to survive, and also, all this people will come upon their place in peace.”

The amazing thing is that Moses did not argue with Jethro. He could have said that G-d makes miracles every minute — whether the pillar of fire, manna from heaven or clothes that do not fray. G-d will give me the strength to continue what I am doing. After all, the people will be judged by somebody who went to heaven at least three times. The Jewish people deserve this.

But Moses agreed to Jethro’s recommendations. He understood that his father-in-law wasn’t speaking about the sojourn in the desert. He was looking ahead to when the Jews enter the Land of Israel. Moses would be gone by then, taking with him the supernatural. The Jews would need a system of justice, charity and education that maintain the standards of G-d’s chosen people. The time to begin was now.

Abraham Ben Meir, known as the Ibn Ezra, said Jethro had relayed the best of advice. He would be seen as the “eyes” of Israel. He could see farther and clearer and grant that quality to the Jews as well.

“Moses obeyed his father-in-law, and did all that he said.”

And that has been the mark of the true converts of Israel. They brought with them G-d’s blessings that would transform the mundane to holy, justice to mercy, cruelty to charity. Some of them were the children of the most infamous antisemites; others, the children of baptized Jews.

For many, the price of their decision was tragic: The conversion of Robert de Reddinge, a former Dominican friar, led to the expulsion of Jews from England in the 13th Century. Nicholas Antoine, a French Protestant theologian, was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1632. Abraham Ben Abraham, a Polish nobleman, shared the same fate more than a century later.

To Moses’ regret, Jethro would soon return to Midian. Eventually, he and his children would migrate to the Land of Israel and play a significant role in Jewish history.

“And the children of Keni, the father-in-law of Moses, ascended from the city of date palm with the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, south of Arad, and he went and dwelt with the people.”

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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