Nothing, But the Truth
Why is an entire portion in the Torah named after Jethro, a proselyte? And not just any portion, but the portion that describes the Ten Commandments.
Our sages explained that this was a tribute to the advice that Jethro gave to his son in law, Moses, which is recorded in this portion. He advised him to establish a hierarchy of teachers instead of attempting to teach the entire nation on his own. But this only explains why the first half of this portion is named after Jethro. Why is the second half of the portion, the part about the Ten Commandments, named after Jethro?
Another question: The story about Jethro’s visit to the Jewish camp comes on the heels of the Jewish victory against Amalek. Our sages taught that the downfall of Jethro’s former friend Amalek, inspired him to visit the Jews. But there must be a deeper link between the two stories. What links these two men?
The Path Blazer
A proselyte is a path blazer. The proselyte has no tradition to fall back on and no family history to guide him or her. Proselytes blaze their own path. This is especially true of the first proselyte, who had no model to follow; he was the original path blazer. In this, Jethro was like Abraham.
Abraham was the first Jew and Jethro was the first proselyte. Abraham was a path blazer and so was Jethro. Indeed, Jewish tradition considers Abraham the father of all proselytes. When one converts to Judaism they become the son of Abraham or the daughter of Sarah. Abraham’s first “son,” was Jethro.
The Truth Lover
Being the original path blazer is enough of a reason to name the Torah portion that contains the Ten Commandments after Jethro. He personified the idea of embracing G-d’s mandate because it is true, not just because it is one’s heritage or family tradition. But Jethro took it one step further.
Jethro, like Abraham, rejected idol worship before he knew anything about the one true G-d. Abraham was three when he realized that idol worship was false, but it was not until he was seventy-five that he truly came to know G-d. He understood G-d on some level earlier, but He did not really know G-d until he moved to Israel at the age of seventy-five.
Yet, not knowing the truth did not stop him from rejecting falsehood. Now knowing who created the world did not stop him from rejecting idol worship. His father was an idol merchant and a respected advisor in Nimrod’s royal court. His father’s prestige depended on maintaining the charade that he knew to be false.
The path of least resistance and greatest comfort for Abraham would have been to continue in idol worship. Especially since he knew of no alternative. When Abraham pointed out the falsehood of Idol worship and people asked him who then created the world, Abraham had no clear answer. For many that would be reason enough to dismiss his arguments and continue with idolatry, but not for Abraham. Abraham was imprisoned and tortured for rejecting idolatry, but that didn’t deter him either. If it was false, if it was wrong, Abraham would reject it.
Many are enchanted with Judaism. It is true, persuasive, inspiring, and compelling. But it is easy to be enchanted with the truth once you know it. Abraham rejected falsehood even before he knew the truth.
Jethro did the same. Jethro was a supreme idol worshipper. Our sages taught that there was not a single idol Jethro did not worship. But once he concluded that they were false, he rejected idolatry. Of the truth, he had no inkling. He only discovered the truth when he traveled to the desert to meet up with Moses.But despite not knowing the truth, Jethro rejected the falsehood of idolatry.
Jethro was publicly ridiculed and banned for rejecting idolatry. The former powerful leader, became a rejected outcast. No one would have anything to do with him. But he loved the truth so much that if he determined something was false, he rejected it even before discovering the truth.
It is no wonder that the portion that describes the giving of the true Torah, would be named after the truth loving Jethro.
In Our Day
Too many people make the mistake of continuing on an unsuccessful path because they don’t know a better one. They lack the courage to acknowledge that their path is wrong and lack the vision to seek a better path. They are complacent and prefer familiar failure to unknown success. If you ask them why they continue, they reply that they don’t have a better alternative. The unknown scares them, so they embrace their darkness.
This applies to every field in life. It is true of people with broken marriages, who simply accept it and don’t believe it can improve. It applies to those with failed careers or with bitter attitudes. Almost every problem can be solved if we find the courage to seek the solution. To venture into the unknown.
If Jethro personified rejecting what is wrong because it is wrong, Amalek personified rejecting what is right because is right. Amalek was not threatened by the Jew. Jews had no aim against Amalek. Yet Amalek left the comfort of home and traveled into the desert to attack the Jews. The Jew did nothing to Amalek except for embracing the truth. If it was true, Amalek was its enemy. Amalek rejected the truth because it true. Jethro rejected falsehood because it was false.
Two paradigms. Two opposing worldviews. They cannot both be right. If the world embraces the Amalek paradigm, they have rejected the Jethro paradigm. And vice versa. This is why Jethro waited until Amalek fell before journeying to the desert to meet Moses.
The juxtaposition reminds us that there is no room for complacency when it comes to this choice. We cannot pretend to straddle this fence. When it comes to right and wrong, truth and falsehood, there are only two choices. We are either crusaders for the truth, or crusaders for falsehood. There is no middle ground. There are no excuses for remaining in the middle. There is no room for equivocation. There is a stark choice that we each need to make, and it is a choice we cannot shirk.
We either learn from Jethro and Abraham that if something doesn’t work, if it is false, it is poison and must be rejected, or we learn from Amalek. Lying to ourselves doesn’t solve a thing.