Midrash Tanchuma Yitro: Hearing is believing – A pagan priest’s unlikely journey

We have all heard about people who experienced miracles that changed their life. Soldiers saved from certain death, survivors of a terrible accident or a life threatening disease. However, how many people change their life based solely on something they heard. For Yitro, just hearing about the miracles of the Exodus was a life changing experience. 

Compare that to the Israelites who lived these miracles yet had lapses in faith not long afterwards. In fact, the Torah expressed concern 3,000 years ago that in the future Jewish children would hear about the miracles of the Exodus and not relate to them:

“And when, in the future, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:14)

Yet Yitro was so inspired by the Exodus story that he converted to Judaism. The Midrash examines this phenomenon from many different vantage points. 

Perhaps to show how rare this is in Tanach, Midrash Tanchuma mentions someone else who changed his life upon hearing of a miracle. But unlike Yitro, this is a most uninspiring story.  

Hearing is disbelieving

King Yehoash also found god after hearing of a miracle.  However, the god he found was none other than himself. 

It seems that as a baby he miraculously escaped death while his whole family was wiped out by his grandmother, Queen Asaliah. The High Priest, Yehoyada, hid Yehoash in the Holy of Holies. At the age of 7 Yehoash was crowned King.  At first, the High Priest had a positive influence on Yehoash and he destroyed idolatry. However, after the High Priest died, Yehoash heard something that changed his life.

He was told that he survived 7 years in the Holy of Holies. A place where only the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year – on Yom Kippur. Therefore, he must be a god. 

He heard it and he believed it. 

This led to the reemergence of idolatry. He was rebuked by his son-in-law – Zechariah – who was also the son of the High Priest who saved the king’s life. Yet Yehoash ordered that his son-in- law  Zechariah, who was both a priest and prophet, be stoned to death in the courtyard of the Temple (Chronicles II – 24:22). It was a crime so nefarious, we read about it on Tisha B’Av in the Book of Lamentations:

“Alas, a priest and prophet are slain In the Sanctuary of God “(Lamentations – 2:20)  

What did Yitro hear that made all the difference?

According to the Midrash, Yitro’s decision to embrace Judaism wasn’t just about the miracles. It stemmed from a recognition of a certain poetic justice in the way God runs the world.  The Egyptians  were punished measure for measure (מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה). Yitro saw the divine justice of a punishment that fit the crime.

Yitro said: ‘Now I know that God is greater than all gods’; the Egyptians  intended to destroy the Israelites in the water, and they themselves were drowned in the water.”  (Exodus 18:11)

Yitro had impressive credentials for evaluating the true God

The Midrash lists Yitro among 4 people in the world who were most qualified to make a declaration about the nature of God.

It seems that Yitro worshiped every form of idolatry in the world. That added far more significance to Yitro’s statement (quoted above): 

Now I know that God is greater than all gods.”  (Exodus 18:11)

Naturally, Moshe is on the list as the only person in the world who dared to ask God:  “Show me Your ways, (Exodus – 33:13). Therefore we can certainly trust Moshe’s judgement when he made the following declaration:   “…”His ways are just” (Deuteronomy – 32:4). 

Someone who you might not have guessed to comment on the nature of God is Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia. He destroyed the First Temple. Yet he was chosen precisely because God allowed him to rule the world. He was in the unique position to make the following declaration: “He (God) runs the world according to His will” (Daniel – 4:32) 

King Solomon’s international trade routes 

The Midrash describes that because of international trade, his table never lacked for exotic fruits – regardless of the season. Perhaps that’s how King Solomon merited to be the only one who could say   “God made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes. 3:11)

I had a banker at Mizrahi Tefahot in Jerusalem from India. His family traces their roots to the days of King Solomon who sent them to India to open a trade route there. 

Yitro as a paradigm for welcoming every convert

It says in our Parsha that Moshe was informed that his father-in-law, Yitro, was on his way to see him along with Moshe’s wife and children. Midrash Tanchuma wants to know who informed Moshe that Yitro was coming.

Rabbi Yehoshua said Yitro sent a messenger. Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in said that Yitro sent a letter.  Rabbi Eliezer said that the message was delivered by God along with a message for all time:

“I am He who brought Yitro near and did not keep him far off, and so when a man comes to you to be converted, bring him near, do not keep him far off.”

 It seems that God is making an extraordinary admission. God encouraged Yitro’s spiritual journey. No wonder God describes Himself as one who   “…loves the outsider/convert…”  (Deuteronomy 10:18) and commands the Jewish people in the very next verse:  “and you should love the outsider/convert because you were outsiders in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19). 

Throughout the Torah we are reminded to be especially sensitive to the needs of those who are most vulnerable in society – the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the convert. It was one of the purposes of the entire Egyptian bondage. However, it seems that our Midrash is accentuating something else – the unique and courageous  journey of the convert. Yitro serves as both a challenge and an inspiration to the spiritual lethargy that we as Jews experience from time to time.

My wife and I were privileged to host many converts at our (pre-corona) shabbat table in Jerusalem. Every one of their life stories were powerful and awe inspiring. One story in particular was reminiscent of Yitro. Our guest from South America told us that as a young girl she had polio and spent a great deal of time in the hospital. To keep from boredom she watched a lot of television. One time she saw a documentary on the Holocaust. She broke down in tears and asked her father how this could happen. He assured her that the Jews are doing better and even have their own country. She felt somehow compelled to learn more about the Jews. Despite being wheelchair bound, she travelled to that country and felt that she was home. 

Does this make any sense? She didn’t live through these dramatic chapters in history, rather,  like Yitro, she only heard about it and that was enough. 

Evidently God’s walks hand in hand  with every convert along their journey.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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