Amongst observant Ashkenazic Jews the most often heard exclamation is BARUCH HASHEM! There are stories about the Ba’al Shem Tov coaxing Jews to declare this refrain, and explaining that uttering this phrase contributes to the construction of God’s Throne in heaven. Cool! So, it’s a bit ironic that the three individuals who make this declaration in the Torah are gentiles. The third person was Yitro in our Torah reading, and let’s try to fathom that declaration.
Our parsha begins by announcing the arrival of Yitro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law, at the encampment of B’nei Yisrael. He brings Tzipora and Moshe’s sons, but he clearly came at this time because he ‘heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Yisrael’ (Shmot 18:1). What had he heard? The verse continues: How the Lord had brought the Yisrael out of Egypt.
When he arrives, ‘Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law, everything that the Lord had done to Pharoah and to the Egyptians for the sake of Yisrael, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them’ (verse 8). It’s at this point that Yitro exclaims: BARUCH HASHEM! What new piece of information triggered that famous reaction?
So, there was the news which triggered Yitro’s arrival at the camp. Although there is an opinion that this story is presented out of order and happened after the epiphany at Sinai, I’ll stick with the chronology as presented. I believe the verse is clear enough about this, he heard about the exodus. But we’re less clear on what evoked the famous reaction: BARUCH HASHEM!!
The nominees for best reason to praise God in a desert setting are: splitting of the Sea, providing food and water in the desert, and defeating Amalek. And the winner is (dramatic pause to open the envelope): All of the above. Prof. Everett Fox discusses ‘trek narratives’ (sadly no ‘stars’ involved), and compares the travels with those in Sefer Bamidbar. All of the complaints and travails take place while on the move. Think of numerous kids in the back of a station wagon during a long drive. Just enduring the ‘trek’ is perhaps reason enough for thanking God. Remember, one of the four reasons for reciting BIRCHAT HAGOMEL (blessing for deliverance) is successfully crossing a MIDBAR.
The Ibn Ezra makes a poignant observation which foreshadows much of Jewish history. He notes that the term for the bad stuff is TELA’AH (often rendered ‘travail’). This great Hebrew scholar observes that the term is related to VE-NILU (Shmot 7:18) which means to ‘hate’ or ‘loathe’. The major remarkable events (crossing the Sea, defeating Amalek) were precipitated by a loathing of the Jews by our enemies. Some things don’t change.
The Slonimer Rebbe in his Netivot Shalom commentary observes:
What compelled Yitro to come? It’s when he heard that Amalek attacked the Jews in spite of Miracle of the Sea, when the whole world trembled at the news. Amalek arose based on their denial of God. No wisdom or reason could give them faith. He feared that if he, too, remained in splendid isolation, he could be smitten by this unreasonable denial. He, therefore, felt compelled to come and join the Jews.
It’s best to get your news first hand.
But what is the significance of this exclamation of BARUCH HASHEM! First of all, it is again interesting to note that this expression appears three times in the Torah. Every time it’s exclaimed by a Gentile, Noach (Breishit 9:26), Avraham’s servant (assumed to be Eliezer, 24:27), and here. Clearly, the Torah wants us to know that our neighbors can recognize God’s greatness, too. Sometimes, perhaps, before we got the memo.
Rav Weinreb adds to this reality by pointing out the famous Midrash that Yitro had experimented with every form of idolatry before realizing the truth of the Torah. This great Rav and psychologist notes that the source for this idea comes right after Yitro exclaims BH. The verse quotes him, ‘Now I know that HASHEM is greater than all the gods’ (Exodus 18:11).
Let’s contrast that with what King David said: For I know that the Lord is great, and our Lord is above all gods (Tehillim 135:5). King David doesn’t say ‘now I know’. He just knows. How? With Jews this knowledge is hard wired into the equipment. It doesn’t have to be downloaded from outside sources or events.
Sometimes, we have to be reminded how amazing our relationship with God truly is. Gentiles can help us in that effort, and occasionally join us in this enterprise, which will eventually result in the salvation of all humanity.
There are many stories about the Ba’al Shem Tov going around Jewish villages asking everyone, young and old, ‘How are you!’ just to induce a BARUCH HASHEM! Apparently, he did this for many decades. When asked why, he explained that every time a Jew says BH that person is nourishing the relationship between God and this realm, and making God our King from the verse, ‘You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Yisrael’ (Tehillim 22:4). It’s good to praise God.
We Jews have so much to endow this world with, but, once in a while, we must acknowledge contributions from our neighbors with whom we share this realm.