The Many Faces of Yitro – Re-release!

Name-Calling

In the second chapter of Bereishit, Adam gave names to all the living creatures. Ramban comments:

והענין, כי הקב”ה הביא כל חית השדה וכל עוף השמים לפני אדם, והוא הכיר טבעם וקרא להם שמות, כלומר השם הראוי להם כפי טבעיהם

The Holy One, Blessed be he, brought every beast of the field and bird of the sky before Adam; he identified their essence and gave them their names – ie the name appropriate to them in accordance with  their nature…

In other words, for the Torah, names reflect essence.

Elusive Character

Speaking of names, Yitro, who appears briefly again in Parshat B’ha’alotcha – has multiple names: no less than seven, according to Rashi.

Since names reflect the essence of a person or being, the inquiring classical Jewish mind will want to ask: “What do the various versions of Yitro’s essence have to teach us?”

Religious Coercion

Flashback: In Moshe’s first encounter with him, Yitro is Kohen Midian – literally: the Priest of Midian.   A man of great influence, he imposes his religious views on others.

In fact, the Yalkut Shimoni states that Yitro only grants Moshe Tzippora’s hand in marriage once the Egyptian fugitive dedicates his firstborn to a life of idolatry. For the midrash, it is this commitment that triggers G-d’s “attempt” on Moshe’s life on the way to Egypt.

Only a quick-thinking, resourceful Tzippora rescues her husband from the spiritual and physical abyss: A last-second circumcision redirects Moshe and his family back onto a monotheistic track!

Fast-Forward….

.. to chapter 18 of Shmot, Parshat Yitro:   Moshe is the leader of B’nai Yisrael.   Ten plagues and a miraculous battle with Amalek later, Yitro now rethinks his beliefs:  As Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religious at MSU (Midian State University) the former cleric crowns the Creator, the “greatest of all gods!”

One of the glaring features of the parsha is not so much the wide array of names, but of descriptions used in reference to Yitro: (in the following order): Yitro, the Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law ; Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law (x3);Moshe’s father-in-law (x2); Yitro (x2); Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law; Moshe’s father-in-law (x6).

A proverbial field day for Bible Critics!  In Parshat Bha’alotcha, yet another reference labels him as “Chovav ben Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law.” Surely, the patchwork “four editor” theory can explain the inconsistency of the text!?

Look Again

Classical Jews, holding firm to the conviction that deep messages are embedded in an eternal Torah, will look to the context of these references to unravel the intent of its Divine author…

In other words…

Only once is Yitro labeled as Kohen Midian (Ch. 4)  That’s when we first meet him.  Moshe, fleeing from Egypt, is a foreigner while Yitro is in a ‘good place’ both religiously and professionally.

It is from this comfortable position that “Yitro, the Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law” begins to read the breaking news out of Mizraim.  With open eyes, he interprets the events of the day.   Distancing himself from his previous beliefs, he seeks to connect himself to Moshe; at this point,  he is now, “Yitro – Moshe’s father-in-law”.

Moshe reaches out to Yitro, now only referred to as Moshe’s “father-in-law”.   In fact, no less than six consecutive references at the end of the chapter use the term, “Moshe’s father-in-law”.

The Message

Consistent with the Mechilta’s declaration that, though Yitro “lived amidst the greatest honor of the world,  his heart prompted him to go forth to the desert wasteland to hear words of Torah” – the text leads us subliminally through the change in labels…. marking Yitro’s shifting values and self-perception.

With his new identity as “Moshe’s father-in-law”, he could have settled with passive membership in the community of Israel.  Instead, he draws on his intuition and talents to streamline the Jewish judicial system.  This is what earns him a parsha in his name.

More life lessons:

  • Newly-adopted values must not remain theoretical, but need to express themselves practically
  • Existing talents garnered from past experience should be channeled in creative and productive ways
  • Altruistic, constructive criticism of the religious status quo does not threaten a society governed by Torah, it enhances it!

Two PS’s

PS #1

Earlier, we noted two mid-story references to Yitro by his personal name, stripped of both the titles “Kohen Midian” and “Moshe’s father-in-law”; the text is followed by a return to “Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law”, then by the six references to Yitro as simply “Moshe’s father-in-law”.

Why?

The answer may lie in another midrash cited by Rashi.  Upon hearing the details of the Exodus, including the demise of Pharoah and Amalek,  “Vayichad Yitro”.  This either means “Yitro rejoiced” – or “Yitro got goosebumps…”

Change comes hard, and he greets the graphic retelling of the events with a degree of ambivalence.  After all, these were his former neighbors and fellow idolators!

“Yitro” here hints that he is not yet fully comfortable with his new identity.  Only after Yitro fully digests the story, is he able to return to his identity as first -”Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law”, then, simply: “Moshe’s father-in-law”.

PS #2

Chovav ben Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law.“  This is the name used in Parshat B’ha’alotcha.  Rashi teaches us that he was called Chovav because of his love for Torah.  The term “Chiba” in Hebrew means love…

Why, then, recall that he is the son of Re’uel the Midianite, then label him “Moshe’s father-in-law”?

A theory: Here we have a more sophisiticated Yitro.  He is no longer giving technical advice; he’s someone who has spent time absorbing the sanctity of what it means to be part of the community of Israel.  What was once a fascination has now become incorporated into his very essence.   No mere outsider or consultant, he is a Jew who possesses Ahavat Torah, love of Torah.

He reflects on and appreciates his path towards religious growth: From the son of Re’uel the Midianite to the father-in-law of Moshe, he matures into a “Chovav”..

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