The first 12 pasukim of our parasha, Yitro, relate the story of Yitro’s departure from Midian in order to join Moshe and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The Torah initially gives Yitro three appellations: Yitro, Kohane Midian and chotane Moshe (Moshe’s father-in-law). (Shemot 18:1) Subsequently in the narrative, however, he is no longer known as Kohane Midian and is referred to either as “Yitro” (18:9-10) or “Yitro chotane Moshe” (18:2, 5, 6 and 12)
Names and titles are significant in Tanach, since they often encapsulate the essence of the person who bears them. As such, what does “Kohane Midian” mean, and why did Yitro lose this honorific? Rashi suggests the following Midrashically-based explanation: “He [Yitro] was knowledgeable about every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he did not worship.” (Shemot 18:11) According to this view, Yitro, in the persona of Kohane Midian, begins our parasha as the foremost idolatrous priest of Midian. Yet, for some reason, he abandons this role and lifestyle and transforms himself into someone else entirely — namely, Yitro chotane Moshe. What can account for this radical spiritual and existential change?
We are fortunate that Chazal focus on this problem in their explication of the first two words of our parasha, “Vayishmah Yitro” (“And Yitro heard,”) when they ask, “What matter did he [Yitro] hear that caused him to come [to Moshe] and convert?” (Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 116a) Their answer informs our understanding of Yitro until the present moment:
Rabbi Yehoshua said: “He heard about the war with Amalek, for as it states in juxtaposition to Yitro’s act of hearing: ‘Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword’.” (Shemot 17:13) Rabbi Eliezer Hamoda’i said: “He heard about the Giving of the Torah and came [to meet Moshe and convert.] This was the case, since when the Torah was given to the Jewish people, its sound [the sound of the glory of this act] reverberated from one end of the world to the other, and all of the kings of the idol-worshipping nations were overcome with a sense of fear and trembling and broke out in a song [of praise]. As the text states: ‘The voice of the L-rd will frighten the hinds and strip the forests, and in His Temple everyone speaks of His glory’.” (Tehillim 29:9)
This Talmudic passage emphasizes that Yitro heard something overwhelming — either the war with Amalek or the Giving of the Torah — that caused him to abandon polytheism, join the Jewish people and become a ger tzedek (righteous convert). Rashi underscores this idea in his commentary on the verse, “Moses saw his father-in-law off, and he went away to his land,” wherein he states that Yitro returned to Midian, rather than stay with the Jewish people, in order “to convert the members of his family.” (18:27)
The Rav (my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal) describes Yitro’s authentic nature and response to the Giving of the Torah as the ideal reaction the non-Jewish world should have had toward our acceptance of the Torah:
“Jethro was a Gentile; he was, what might be called today, the Archbishop of Midian. He came to the Jews with an open mind. He wanted to observe for himself what the Jews had accomplished and were about to engage in. He stayed with the Jews, and was so overwhelmed by their conduct, that he renounced paganism and embraced Judaism. This is one illustration of a Gentile’s reaction to Jews and Mattan Torah. Chazal did not describe Jethro as one of the chasidei umot ha’olam (a saintly Gentile). Rather, they portrayed him as a decent person, whose positive reaction should have been emulated by other Gentiles who witnessed the exhibition of Mattan Torah. (Noraos HaRav, Volume V, page 81)
According to the Rav, when Yitro stayed with us at Mount Sinai, it was not the wonders and miracles associated with the Exodus or the Torah itself that led him to convert to Judaism. Instead, it was our conduct, the way we behaved toward one another, that convinced Yitro of the falsehood of polytheism and the truth of Judaism.
The Rav’s insight is reminiscent of the famous concluding pasuk in chapter three of Sefer Yonah concerning the people of Nineveh: “And G-d saw their deeds that they had repented of their evil way.” When Yonah proclaimed his prophecy to Nineveh’s citizens, “in another 40 days Nineveh shall be overturned” (3:4), they instantly believed him because “the people of Nineveh believed in G-d” (3:5). Therefore, they immediately realized that there was only one way to nullify Hashem’s decree, namely to undertake a positive and comprehensive societal change that would affect everyone, from the king and his courtiers in their magnificent castles to the lowliest peasant in his ramshackle hut.
I believe that Yitro witnessed precisely this kind of G-d-inspired change when he stood in the midst of our nascent nation. It was then that he saw, “the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers” (Devarim 29:9-10) serving Hashem through acts of lovingkindness toward each other. This is exactly what led Yitro to convert to Judaism, and encourage the rest of his family to join him in his spiritual journey.
With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may we live lives that serve as models to all humankind so that, as Isaiah the prophet taught us so long ago, we will be a “light unto nations” (49:6) and His “witnesses” to the entire world (43:10). V’chane yihi ratzon.