All that Jethro wanted to do was to listen, think and find the truth. That was the key to his success. He remains a true inspiration.
This week’s Torah portion is Yitro (Exodus 18:1–20:23). Yitro, or Jethro, was Moses’ father-in-law. The Torah tells us that Jethro heard about the Exodus and all the miracles that God had performed for the Jewish people and thus decided to join them. As it says in the opening verse of the reading: “And Jethro, Priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God did for Moses and for Israel his nation, for God took Israel out of Egypt.”
Jethro was certainly one of the most distinguished people ever to convert to Judaism. (Don’t worry! Ruth and Rahab also make the list!) Not only was Jethro a non-Jew, but he was also an idol worshiper. And not only was he an idol worshiper, but he was also the chief priest of Midian. His entire life revolved around his idolatry.
Jethro actually had seven names, the original one being “Jether” (Yeter in Hebrew). Our sages teach us that when Jethro converted, “Jether” was essentially dropped and merged into “Jethro” by adding a letter to his name. This was deemed a token of affection and appreciation to Jethro not only for realizing the truth of the one God, but for teaching it to others as well. Indeed, this week’s Torah portion was named after him.
As you can see, Jethro was no ordinary individual and no ordinary convert. He came from the swamps of idolatry and immorality and made it to the top – to become Moses’ father-in-law.
So here’s the question: Why does the Torah continue to refer to Jethro as “Priest of Midian”? He gave all that stuff up! Why are we reminding him about his ‘checkered past’? It is in fact a sin to remind people of past lifestyles that they had clearly renounced. Why could the Torah not have simply stated, “And Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that the God did for Moses and for Israel his nation, for God took Israel out of Egypt”?
At first glance, it does seem to be inappropriate to mention that he had been an idolatrous priest. But in this particular case, it was included for Jethro’s benefit, in order for us to better appreciate who he was and from where he came. In most cases, reminding a person about his or her past could be degrading. But here it was an honor. We need to be reminded of how far Jethro had come and, hopefully, to be inspired.
This verse also teaches the secret to Jethro’s success in becoming a loyal believer in God and follower of the Torah. What was that secret? Take a look at the verse telling us that Jethro “heard” (“…and he heard”). The difference between Jethro and most other people was his willingness to “hear,” to listen, to learn and to grow. If one is willing to listen and, by extension, to think, then one can go from being the Priest of Midian to Moses’ father-in-law.
It makes no difference who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done. It’s never too late to come home!
To read more of Rabbi Enkin’s insights into this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.