According to a statement in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 94a), we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
Well, at least the Jews of Yitro’s time should have been – but there’s a message for us today, too.
After hearing about the exodus from Egypt, Yitro gathers up his daughter (Moshe’s wife) and two grandsons and brings them to see Moshe. He’s welcomed into Moshe’s tent, and they sit and chat. One can only imagine the gap that probably existed between the rumors and the incredible-but-true story; certainly, Yitro reacted more powerfully once he heard the story straight from Moshe:
“And Yitro rejoiced over all the good that Hashem had done for Israel, that He saved [the nation] from Egypt. And Yitro said, ‘Blessed is Hashem, Who saved you… Now I know that Hashem is greater than all gods… And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took an olah and zevachim to G-d, and Aharon came, and all the elders, to eat bread with Moshe’s father-in-law before G-d.” (Shemot 18:9-12)
The phrase “and Yitro rejoiced” – along with the whole passage – is especially noteworthy in contrast to a similar declaration made by a very different individual. When two spies show up at Rachav’s house in Yericho (Yehoshua chapter 2), she uses some of the same phrasing to acknowledge Hashem that Yitro once used – but there’s no joy or blessing associated with her statement. The only emotion Rachav expresses is fear, and I’m not even convinced it’s her own personal terror so much as a collective recognition of G-d’s power and the threat He poses to Jericho. Rachav’s relationship to her knowledge of G-d is more practical: she follows her declaration with a plan to save her family from the imminent attack by the Jewish people with the help of their powerful G-d.
Unlike Rachav, Yitro reacts emotionally and positively to the news of what the Jewish G-d has done. But what exactly is he feeling, and why?
Commentaries are divided on these questions. While all seem to agree that “vayichad” means “and he rejoiced,” probing into why this unusual word is used (instead of perhaps vayismach) leads different scholars to different conclusions. For instance, a passage on that same page of Gemara relates one view that Yitro felt pure joy that motivated immediate conversion (“vayichad” related to the word for “sharp,” indicating that he took a sharp implement and circumcised himself) and another view which portrays a more complex sense of joy coupled with pain on behalf of the Egyptians (“vayichad” hinting to sharp sensations in his skin). Among later commentaries, Ohr Hachaim offers an interpretation of “vayichad” that at first sounds like the latter view in the Gemara – only he describes it as joy that was so overwhelming that it basically caused sensory overload and exploded into goosebumps.
Why was Yitro so happy? Was he simply glad (relieved?) to be reassured that the nation his daughter had married into was well protected? Was he happy to have proof that would finally bring his religious questioning (see Rashi on v. 11, from the Mechilta) to an end?
As a partial answer, perhaps, I can’t help noticing there are quite a few mentions of G-d in the verses describing Yitro’s reaction. I wonder whether perhaps his joy was not so much about practicalities of survival or even the intellectual satisfaction of finding Truth, but simply centered on Hashem Himself. Maybe Hashem has brought Yitro joy just by being and by allowing Yitro a glimpse of what He is to the world.
Malbim seems to say something along these lines, suggesting that “vayichad Yitro” hints that Yitro arrived at the belief that G-d is echad, One: there is no good god and bad god, but One G-d who brought about bad things (bad for Egypt) for a good purpose (saving the Jewish people). While Rachav acknowledged G-d but didn’t seem to care beyond how she could help her family, Yitro’s recognition of G-d is bound up with joy; it’s right there in the same word. Echad – G-d is One – vayichad – Yitro rejoiced. Yitro’s emotions exploded over G-d.
And this is where we get to how Yitro makes the entire Jewish people look bad. The Gemara states:
“It was taught in the name of Rav Pappeyas, It was a disgrace to Moshe and the 600,000 [Jewish adult men – and presumably, those Jews not included in the census as well] that they didn’t say “blessed” – until Yitro came and said ‘Blessed is Hashem!’”
Why is it that sometimes we need outsiders to point out what we’ve got?
I find this with my kids sometimes, unfortunately. Sometimes I take their most impressive middot (character traits) for granted until someone else comments. “Wow, they help set the table!” – just as I was lamenting the arguments or sluggishness that sometimes goes along with the setting of the table. “He davens so nicely” – and I have to remind myself that is truly a blessing, even when it means we’re late because we were waiting for a child who loves to sing every word of his prayer.
In broader contexts, I’ve had numerous encounters with non-Jews who have demonstrated respect and appreciation for Jewish observance, more than many of us tend to even think about and contrary to the frustrations many of us sometimes experience. “It’s so great how you really bring spirituality into every part of your life” – oh, yeah, I guess the bracha I’m about to say on that sandwich really does deserve some careful attention even (or especially) in the midst of my chaotic day. Why did you notice that and I didn’t?
I had the privilege for several years to teach Jewish texts to adult beginners – not “outsiders” to Judaism, certainly, but new to the experience of close text study. Some of these women barely knew Hebrew, and almost none had ever read Rashi’s commentary in the original; they had definitely never struggled for hours to decipher multiple commentaries on the same pasuk, as they did with me, trying to figure out how and why they were similar or different. And the joy they demonstrated in that pursuit was immense, unmitigated. It was a joy that inspired blessings – high-fives in the beit midrash, gratitude for the opportunity to study Torah, a growing appreciation and appetite for the complexity of Torah interpretation and thought. It was a joy that gave me goosebumps – the good kind. Their joy put many of us, who grew up learning Hebrew and reading pesukim with Rashi and Ramban and whoever else, to shame.
It’s so easy, for those who have become accustomed to the habits of Jewish life, to take Jewish ideas and Jewish learning for granted. It’s so easy to become jaded, demanding more and more to “wow” us.
And sometimes, even the “wows” don’t move us. The Jewish people who left Egypt witnessed G-d pouring His wrath out on their oppressors through miracle after miracle, they walked through the split sea, they survived an attack by Amalek that required obvious help from G-d – yet never thought to bless Him the way Yitro did.
(I’m still looking for an explanation as to why Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, wasn’t good enough. Perhaps because Yitro wasn’t there for any of the miracles, his blessing meant more, while the Jewish people who had personally experienced so much should have had a correspondingly more powerful reaction. Or maybe there’s something about the word “baruch,” specifically. In any case, it’s clear that Rav Pappeyus thinks Yitro’s reaction surpassed that of the Jews, to their discredit.)
Unlike Rachav, Yitro was so overwhelmed by his recognition of G-d that it exploded out of him. He rejoiced in his skin; he expressed verbal blessings; he actively initiated the bringing of sacrifices; and the very next day, he looked around to see what he could offer to improve the community (18:13 and on) – all motivated by recognition that there was something (Someone) there to not just believe, not just to act upon, but to celebrate.
The depth of emotion that motivated all that external expression and action put the rest of us to shame.
How often do we truly celebrate our connection to G-d, or our opportunities to live and learn His Torah? Do we sing our prayers? Read a comment in Ramban and high-five each other when we grasp what he’s said and how it changes our perspective?
Maybe it takes an outsider like Yitro – whether or not he ever formally became an insider – to remind us there is joy waiting for us in what we already have.
As a teenager active in NCSY, I was often jealous of my friends who had grown up without much Jewish observance and came to it on their own. Certainly there were advantages to having grown up observant, but I often felt I had a different kind of challenge in finding my own enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvot. At the same time, however, those friendships themselves helped me find it. The friends who wanted what I had, who found joy in it, reminded me there was joy there for me too.
Our awareness of G-d and ownership of His Torah can go beyond telling us what we must do or what ideas make sense, as in the case of Rachav. It can go so deep inside as to explode outwards, affecting ourselves, our actions, and our communities for the better. And if we’re not feeling that depth – we can be like Yitro: We can pick ourselves up to go hear a piece of Torah we might have thought we already knew, maybe talk to a friend for whom the novelty hasn’t dulled, and spark renewed joy in what we always had.
(Note: Since I have not been entirely living under a rock in recent weeks, I did notice what I just did there, but any apparent allusion to Marie Kondo was entirely unintentional.)
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.