Parshat Yitro: Moshe’s Father-in-Law

“And Moshe’s father in law, Yitro, the minister of Midyan, heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and for Yisrael, His people, that Hashem had taken Yisrael out of Egypt.” (Shemot 18:1)

Moshe and Bnai Yisrael are joined in the wilderness by Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro. Yitro brings with him Moshe’s wife and their two children. However, Yitro did not embark on this journey only to reunite Moshe and his family. Yitro had received news of the events in Egypt and the redemption of Bnai Yisrael. According to our Sages, Yitro was so impressed by these events that he converted to Judaism.[1]

There is a substantial dispute among the commentaries regarding the timing of these events. Nachmanides observes that events in the Torah are not always presented in chronological order. However, we should assume that the events are narrated chronologically in instances in which there is no concrete evidence to the contrary. In this instance, there is no reason to assume that the events presented are not chronologically arranged. Therefore, Nachmanides asserts that Yitro came to the encampment of Bnai Yisrael immediately after the confrontation with Amalek.[2]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra disagrees with Nachmanides’ position. He argues that there is significant evidence that Yitro came to Bnai Yisrael’s encampment after the giving of the Torah. According to Ibn Ezra, the events related in our parasha are not presented chronologically. Our parasha first relates Yitro’s arrival at the encampment and later describes the events of revelation. This order is opposite the order in which the events actually occurred.

Of course, this raises an obvious question: Why does the Torah depart from a chronological presentation of events? Ibn Ezra suggests that the Torah abandons a chronological presentation in order to juxtapose Yitro’s support of Bnai Yisrael with Amalek’s hatred. In response to Amalek’s aggression and hatred, we are obligated to destroy it. In contrast, we are obligated to recognize the support of Yitro. We express this recognition by acting with kindness towards his descendants. Ibn Ezra observes that this lesson has a practical application: Yitro’s descendants lived in proximity to Amalek. Bnai Yisrael is commanded to destroy Amalek. However, we must take care to not wage our war against Amalek in an indiscriminate manner. We must be careful to provide for the safety of Yitro’s descendants even when battling Amalek.[3]

The roots of this dispute between Ibn Ezra and Nachminides are found in the Talmud. The Talmud describes a dispute between three Sages on the meaning of our passage. Our passage tells us that Yitro heard of all that Hashem had done for Bnai Yisrael and of their redemption from Egypt. These Sages ask: What specifically did Yitro hear? What was the specific news, or report, that encouraged him to join the Jewish people? One Sage suggests that Yitro heard of the war with Amalek. The second opinion is that he heard of the giving of the Torah. The final opinion is that he heard of the splitting of the Reed Sea.[4]

Two of these positions are easily understood. The parting of the Reed Sea revealed Hashem’s omnipotence. His omnipotence is evidence that He is the Creator. We can understand Yitro’s decision – based on this awesome demonstration – that he must devote himself to the service of Hashem. We can also appreciate the opinion that Yitro was inspired by the giving of the Torah. In the revelation, Hashem revealed Himself to Bnai Yisrael and gave to them the Torah. Hashem – the Creator – provided humanity with His guide to life. We can understand Yitro’s decision as a response to revelation. However, it is difficult to understand the third opinion. According to this opinion, Yitro joined Bnai Yisrael in response to the war with Amalek. What aspect of this war motivated Yitro’s decision? Bnai Yisrael’s defeat of Amalek was miraculous. However, this was not the greatest miracle that the nation had witnessed to that point. It certainly did not compare with the plagues in Egypt or the splitting of the sea. Why would this event motivate Yitro to join the Jewish people?
In order to answer this question, it is important to consider the context of this dispute. All three opinions are expressed in response to a single question: What news did Yitro hear and convert? In other words, what specific information of events motivated Yitro’s decision to convert? We can assume that the Sages regarded Yitro as a righteous convert. Yitro made his decision based upon proper and laudable motives. If we accept this assumption, then we can rephrase the Talmud’s initial question: What was Yitro’s – the ideal convert – motive for conversion?

Again, two of the responses are easily understood. However, with our reformulation of the Talmud’s question, we can understand these two responses more clearly. One Sage suggests that Yitro’s conversion was a response to the splitting of the Reed Sea. This miracle revealed Hashem as the omnipotent Creator. Yitro recognized that he must abandon all other worship and devote himself to the service of the one true G-d. Another Sage suggests that Yitro’s conversion was a response to the revelation at Sinai. We can easily understand this motivation. Hashem gave His people a way of life. Yitro recognized that Hashem’s instructions for living provided the ideal model for human existence. He wished to adopt the Torah life. It remains difficult to immediately grasp the third opinion. Why was the war with Amalek a proper motivation for conversion?

However, now that we understand that these Sages are discussing proper motivations for conversion, we can understand this third position. But first, we must review key elements of Amalek’s attack on Bnai Yisrael.

Why did Amalek attack Bnai Yisrael? Amalek was not threatened by Bnai Yisrael. Bnai Yisrael had not been given their land and would not attempt to conquer Amalek. Obviously, Amalek’s attack was not motivated by practical, territorial considerations. What was Amalek’s motivation? Apparently, Amalek was unable to tolerate the existence of Bnai Yisrael and the message communicated by their redemption from Egypt. In other words, Bnai Yisrael’s experiences in Egypt demonstrated Hashem’s providence, His omnipotence, and His special relationship with the Jewish people. Amalek’s attack on Bnai Yisrael was an attempt to silence these messages.
Amalek’s attack on Bnai Yisrael marked the emergence of a great divide. Bnai Yisrael was not just another nation among the family of nations. Instead, Bnai Yisrael and the messages that their existence communicated evoked antipathy, hatred and opposition. With Amalek’s attack, two opposing forces emerged. Bnai Yisrael’s existence and experiences communicate a new world-view and perspective. Amalek represents those nations that are opposed to this view and seek to destroy Bnai Yisrael and their message.

We can now understand the third opinion. Yitro was motivated to convert by the war of Amalek. Yitro recognized that the nations of the world were choosing sides. He did not feel he could remain a passive observer of this battle. He, too, had to choose between two opposing world-views and he chose to align himself with Bnai Yisrael.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 18:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 18:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Extended Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 18:1.

[4] Mesechdet Zevachim 116a.