Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

E Pluribus Yitro

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Yitro is a shadowy figure in the Torah.  He is mentioned only a few times, as the Midianite who shelters the fugitive Moshe, as Moshe’s father-in-law, as a visitor  to the encampment of the recently escaped Israelites who advises Moshe to establish an orderly judicial system in order to relieve himself of the burden of adjudicating petty disputes, and as the guest who refuses Moshe’s entreaties to stay and returns to his home.  Yet, in Jewish tradition, he is accorded a great deal of honor and respect.  The hagiography surrounding Yitro is almost universally positive, and the extra-Biblical tales regarding him identify him as a wise and righteous man, who eventually casts his lot with the Jewish people. 

Why?  He appears to be a footnote, not a hero.  Advice on the orderly administration of justice would hardly appear to qualify him for the pantheon of the righteous.  And, according to the text of the Bible, he really doesn’t appear to do anything else, even if the lesson to in-laws not to overstay their welcome is a welcome one.  Why were chazal enamored of Yitro?

Let’s explore.  All of us live within social constructs that help us define our personalities and our identities, both for ourselves, and for others.  We are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lawyers, doctors, truckers, farmers, clerks, teachers, students, friends, lovers, Democrats (feh), Republicans . . . the list is endless, and each category, each classification, helps to make us who we are, to ourselves and to others.  When we think of a person, any person, it is almost always in a context that includes one or many of these categories, these externalities, these manifestations of the roles we play in society and commerce.  So-and-so is my brother, my Rabbi, my friend, the pharmacist, the Mayor, the police officer.  These associative classifications are not merely convenient descriptions, adjuncts to ourselves.  In many cases, the external label, group, classification is what defines us, becomes the very essence of our personality.  We all know people who simply have no existence, no separate identity separate from that taxonomy–a mother, a President, a doctor–these roles overwhelm any individualized characteristics of the person apart from the roles they play.

Initially, that appears to be the case with Yitro.  Who is Yitro?  When we first meet him in Chapter 18 of Exodus he is the Priest of Midian and Moshe’s father-in-law.  Six times in the first eight verses of that Chapter, Yitro is described as Moshe’s father-in-law.  That is his claim to fame.  That is his status.  That is who he is.  When we meet him, in the parsha bearing his name, he is יתרו כהן מדין חתן משה.  We know him by reference to his relationship to Moshe and by his status in Midianite society.  After he leaves Midian, the latter ceases to be of any relevance, since it afforded him no status in the camp of the Israelites, and, therefore, the Torah stops referring to him as כהן מדין.  In a society in which that title carries no significance, it falls away as identification.  In the camp of the Israelites, his status flows from his relationship to his son-in-law; he is יתרו חתן משה, or simply חתן משה, the latter indicating that the only important part of his identity derives from his association with Moshe, and not from any individual traits, characteristics, virtues, or skills.  And thus it makes perfect sense that the six references to Yitro following the initial one (which refers to him while he was in Midian and heard of the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt), are all variations on the Hebrew word for father-in-law.  In the camp of the Israelites, that is who Yitro is. He is defined and circumscribed by his societal relationship.  What he is becomes who he is.  And that is not at all remarkable.

But then, something that is quite remarkable happens, which, I think, accounts for the high regard in which Yitro is held by Jewish commentators.  It is not at all remarkable that Yitro seeks an audience with his son-in-law in order to get a first-hand account of the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus.  Indeed, it is for that purpose that he was moved to leave his home and travel to the desert encampment.  And, like a good son-in-law, Moshe complies.  ויספר משה לחתנו את כל אשר עשה השם לפרעה ולמצרים על אודת  ישראל–And Moshe recounted to his father-in-law (note–even in this most personal setting, Yitro is still defined by his relationship to Moshe to the extent that his name is not utilized at all in this passage) all that God had done to Pharaoh and Egypt on account of Israel, and all of the hardships that they encountered on the way, from which God saved them.  Sippur yetziat mitzrayim from the lips of Moshe Rabbeinu.  What price would that bring on e-Bay?

It is difficult to imagine the impact that hearing Moshe’s first-person narrative would have. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the narrative at all.  “Then I extended my staff over the sea, and guess what happened?”  In any event, I submit that it is Yitro’s response to the experience of hearing the story of the Exodus–סיפור יציאת מצרים–from the lips of Moshe himself that ennobled him to generations of Jewish commentators and serves as the basis not only for their conclusion that he was deserving of praise, but also for the legends of his wisdom and righteousness.

The first words following Moshe’s report are “Vayichad Yitro–ויחד יתרו.”  No one knows exactly what that means, since it is the only time the verb “vayichad” is used in the Bible.  Some commentators see the root of the Hebrew word for “joy” (chedva) and translate that Yitro rejoiced.  Some see the root of the word “fragment” and conclude that Yitro’s entire being was devastated by the extent to which God had deviated from the laws of nature and the deference due to monarchs such that his personality was fragmented and shattered.  But, to my knowledge, no one comments on the fact that this is the first time he is referred to as Yitro, his name, his essential self, without reference to any externality.  I submit that this critical fact explains the word ”Vayichad.”  It derives from the word “Echad–One.” Yitro became one, himself, his essence.  Once one understands that it relates to the unity of a person, it is hard to see the word bearing any other meaning.

The experience of hearing sippur yetziat mitzrayim from the lips of Moshe had the effect of removing all of the externalities with which Yitro might have been associated and revealing his essential self, his essential character. 

See it in the words of the Torah:

ויספר משה לחתנו את כל-אשר עשה יקוק לפרעה ולמצרים על אודת ישראל, את כל-התלאה אשר מצאתם בדרך ויצלם יקוק.

ויחד יתרו על כל-הטובה אשר-עשה יקוק לישראל אשר הצילו מיד מצרים.

So the encounter with Moshe and the description of the beneficent wonders performed by God for the Jews have the effect of stripping away from Yitro everything that was not Yitro himself, leaving only the essential Yitro.  And for the briefest of moments in which Yitro has every externality removed, the moment in which his raw, unaffected nature is exposed, what does he say?

ויאמר יתרו ברוך יקוק אשר הציל אתכם מיד מצרים ומיד פרעה, אשר הציל את-העם מתחת יד-מצרים.  עתה ידעתי כי-גדול יקוק מכל-האלהים . . .

These are the only two verses in the entire Torah in which the name Yitro is utilized without a modifier or qualification.  These are the only two psukim in which we are assured of seeing nothing but Yitro, unadulterated by society or family or anything other than his own identity.  And what does he do while in that distilled, unified state of consciousness?  He recognizes the good that God has done for Israel, he blesses God and His people, and he recognizes God as superior to all other gods.

In the next verse, and the ensuing verses, he is back to being chotein Moshe.  No one can exist in this world in such a naked, exposed, unprotected, pure state for very long.  But the way that Yitro reacts when he is in such a state reveals his nature and character and justifies the respect accorded him by our sages.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I feel that the current situation, horrific as it is, has caused the Jewish people to confront its situation in isolation, to assess its own character, and, as was the case with Yitro, to align itself with its characteristics that are most noble and most enduring. 

יחד ננצח.  עם ישראל חי.

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.
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