Yitro's Visit to Moshe and Bnei Yisrael

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Yitro's Visit to Moshe and Bnei Yisrael

By Rav Elchanan Samet




In the opening chapter of the parasha, chapter 18, stand two main characters: Yitro the father-in-law and Moshe the son-in-law. A close look reveals that this chapter actually deals with two separate issues: verses 1-12 describe Yitro's arrival and the welcome that he receives, while verses 13-27 deal with Yitro's advice to Moshe with regard to a judicial system, and its implementation. In addition, there is a time difference between the two parts of the story: verse 13 begins with the words, "And it happened the next day..." Hence, what we have before us is in fact two separate stories, which are juxtaposed simply because Yitro is the central character in each. We shall devote this shiur to an examination of the first of these two stories.


What is the meaning of this short account of Yitro's arrival and reception? What does it mean to teach us? Two possible interpretations seem to present themselves.


The first approach views this story as a further chapter in the life story of Moshe. We learned earlier (chapter 2) about his birth and his upbringing in Pharaoh's palace, and then about his marriage to Tzippora and the birth of his elder son, Gershom. In chapter 4 (24-26) we were told about the brit mila of his second son (whose name - Eliezer - we find out only now, in parashat Yitro). Chapter 6 (16-27) provided us with Moshe's genealogy within the tribe of Levi. From our story, we deduce that throughout Moshe's negotiations with Pharaoh in Egypt and up until the time of the events in our parasha, Moshe's wife and sons were in Midyan, in Yitro's home. (This would seem to contradict what we learned in parashat Shemot [4:20]: "And Moshe took his wife and his sons and he placed them to ride on the donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt." The commentators offer various explanations for this seeming contradiction - see Rashi [18:2], Ibn Ezra [Perush Arokh 4:20], and Ramban [4:20].) The crux of our story, then, seems to be teaching us that after a prolonged period of separation during which Moshe led the battle against Pharaoh, he finally merited to be reunited with his family.


But this fails to answer one pressing question. Wherever the Torah tells us about Moshe's life and the history of his family, it is not only so that we know the story. In each instance there is also another reason - or other reasons - for the incident being narrated by the Torah. Why, then, is it important that we know this story?


The second approach to our story focuses on Yitro as the main character. Many midrashim and medieval commentators ascribe to Yitro a different motivation in coming to Moshe: he did this not in order to bring about family reunification, but rather in order to become part of Am Yisrael. The point of the story would then be to indicate that there was one person out of all the nations of the world who was profoundly influenced by the great events that had happened to Bnei Yisrael, to the extent that he joined the camp of Israel and attached himself to their God. In so doing, Yitro was the paradigm of what will happen at the end of days to all the nations: "Nations will come to You from the ends of the earth and will say, 'Our forefathers bequeathed only lies, vanity with no point'" (Yirmiyahu 16:19).


But this view presents a difficulty: if this was indeed Yitro's intention in coming to Moshe, why does the Torah take such pains to emphasize the family aspect of his action? "And Yitro, FATHER IN LAW OF MOSHE, took Tzippora, MOSHE'S WIFE - after he had sent her - AND HER TWO SONS... and Yitro, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, AND HIS SONS AND HIS WIFE, came to Moshe... and he said to Moshe: I, YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW YITRO, have come to you, AND YOUR WIFE AND HER TWO SONS WITH HER." Would it not be more appropriate to lessen the personal, family aspect here in order that Yitro's spiritual motives could come to the fore?




Let us examine the question of the story's point through a study of its structure. The structure will clarify the meaning in several ways, as we shall see.


Like many biblical stories, ours may also be divided into two halves of more or less equal length: the first half, verses 1-6, deals with Yitro's preparations for the encounter. It starts in Midyan and continues with the journey from Midyan to the Israelite camp. (Even verse 6, "And he said to Moshe...," precedes the encounter - as proven by verse 7, and Chazal therefore explain that these words were spoken by Yitro through a messenger or a letter.) The second half, verses 7-12, describes the meeting itself - first with Moshe, and then with Aharon and all the elders of Israel. The location of the action in this half is the camp of Israel, close to the Mountain of God. The division of the story into two halves is therefore justified both by content and by location. Let us now note the main points of the story in such a way as to emphasize the division, and thereby also the similarities and differences between the two parts. We shall highlight the internal structure of each half of the story by emphasizing the subject of each component sentence as well as the verb indicating the main action of that sentence.


(1) YITRO, priest of Midyan, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, HEARD all that the Lord had done for Moshe and for Israel His nation when God took Israel out of Egypt.

(2) YITRO, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, TOOK Tzippora, MOSHE'S WIFE - after he had sent her - (3) and HER TWO SONS, one named Gershom, for he said "I was a stranger in a foreign land," (4) and the other named Eliezer, "For the God of my father was a help to me, and saved me from the sword of Pharaoh."

(5) YITRO, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, CAME, with Moshe's sons and his wife, to Moshe, to the desert where he was encamped, at the Mountain of God.


(7) MOSHE WENT OUT towards HIS FATHER-IN-LAW and he prostrated himself and kissed him and each asked after the other's welfare, and they came to the tent.

(8) MOSHE TOLD HIS FATHER-IN-LAW everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt on behalf of Israel, and all the trials that had befallen them on the way, and how God had saved them.

(9) YITRO REJOICED for all the good that God had done for Israel, that He had saved them from the hand of Egypt.

(10) YITRO SAID, "Blessed is God for saving you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, for saving the nation from under the hand of Egypt. (11) Now I know that God is the greatest of all the gods, for in what they prided themselves, He was greater."

(12) YITRO, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, TOOK a burnt offering and sacrifices for God,



Although there is a strong connection between the verbs of the two halves (as we shall soon note), this does not indicate unity of content. In the first half Tzippora and her two sons are mentioned three times, but their presence there is even more obvious: they "fill" five out of the six verses of this half. Every one of Yitro's actions involves them: he TAKES THEM (2) and COMES WITH THEM to Moshe (5), he SAYS TO MOSHE, when announcing his arrival, that THEY are with him (6). Especially noticeable is the importance of Moshe's sons, in that their names and the reasons for them occupy two full verses of this half (3-4), both of which are surprising: a) what we are told in verse 3 is unnecessary, for Gershom's name and the reason for it are known to us from the time of his birth (2:22); b) while Eliezer's name and the reason for it, as narrated in verse 4, were not previously known to us (we never learned of his birth), this would still not seem the appropriate place to include it.


A study of the second half holds a suin sto: Moshe's wife and sons are not mentioned even once, as though they have been completely forgotten, and as though they had not formerly represented the focus of all of Yitro's actions. Who stands in the spotlight in the second half? Yitro himself, both as the object of the actions of other characters in the story and as the subject of some actions of his own. But Yitro himself had formerly placed his daughter and his two grandsons at the center of his activity; how could they now disappear from his consciousness and from his actions?


This difference leads us to examine the juxtaposition of verbs in the two halves. Let us compare:

(2) YITRO, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, TOOK Tzippora, Moshe's wife - after he had sent her - and her two sons...

(12) YITRO, FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE, TOOK a burnt offering and sacrifices for God.


(6) HE SAID to Moshe: I, your father-in-law YITRO, come to you, with your wife and her two sons with her.

(10) YITRO SAID: Blessed is God Who has saved you from the hand of Egypt...


(5) Yitro, father-in-law of Moshe, CAME with (Moshe's) sons and his wife to Moshe...

(12) And Aharon and all the elders of Israel CAME to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before God.


The parallel between the verbs in the two halves obviously comes to point out a difference between them as to content: in the first part, all of Yitro's actions concern the "family issue" - the welfare of Tzippora, his daughter, and her two sons, who should now return to Moshe. But in the second half, by contrast, all his actions bear a religious character: Yitro TAKES a burnt offering and sacrifices TO GOD, he SAYS words of praise TO THE LORD, and others COME to eat bread with him BEFORE GOD (at the feast of the peace offerings offered by Yitro).




What gives rise to this change in Yitro's actions? From the perspective of the plot, it would appear to arise from what Moshe tells his father-in-law in verse 8. But this raises another question: from the beginning Yitro knew about what had happened; what did Moshe's narration of it add to his knowledge? Let us compare:

(1) Yitro, priest of Midyan, father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that GOD had done FOR MOSHE AND FOR ISRAEL, HIS NATION, when God took Israel out of Egypt.

(8) Moshe told his father-in-law all that GOD had done TO PHARAOH AND TO EGYPT BECAUSE OF ISRAEL, and all the trials which had met them on the way, and how God had saved them.


First of all, there is a difference in the SCOPE of what is heard: in Midyan, Yitro heard only about the actual exodus from Egypt, while Moshe added how God had saved Israel from the trials that had met them along the way: the splitting of the sea and the initial miracles of the desert (Rashi adds also the war against Amalek). But there is another difference that pertains specifically to the exodus itself: in Midyan Yitro heard of "all that the Lord had done for MOSHE AND FOR ISRAEL, HIS NATION," while Moshe tells him of "all that God had done TO PHARAOH AND TO EGYPT ON BEHALF OF ISRAEL." It would seem that this means that while in Midyan, Yitro was interested in those aspects of the exodus that related to his personal and family interests. As a devoted father and grandfather he realized that the time was now ripe to return his daughter and her sons to Moshe. This is emphasized in the text: Yitro initially hears what "God did for MOSHE," and only afterwards "and for Israel, his nation." (From the wording of the text it is not clear whose nation is being referred to - God's or Moshe's. Ibn Ezra deliberates on this question.) By referring to the exodus ("when God took Israel out of Egypt") as "all that God had done for Moshe," the text reflects Yitro's Moshe-centered perception of these events.


The reception which Moshe arranges for his father-in-law at the beginning of the second half still does not hint at anything more than the family aspect of the event. What changes the nature of the story is what Moshe tells his father-in-law. Not only does Moshe reveal more of what has happened, but he changes Yitro's whole understanding of these events: it is not Moshe himself who stands at the center of this historical story, but rather THE WORKS OF GOD, repaying Pharaoh and Egypt for their evil deeds and saving Israel. Through Moshe's narration, the family aspect of the story now pales into relative insignificance beside its religious meaning: the revelation of God ruling His world with justice. And Yitro responds first emotionally - "Yitro rejoiced" - and then verbally: "Yitro said, Blessed is the Lord..." Then he draws his conclusion: "Now I know...," and finally he responds with action: "Yitro, father-in-law of Moshe, took a burnt offering and sacrifices to the Lord."


Attention should be paid to the fact that in the description of Yitro's initial reaction, "Yitro rejoiced... Yitro said," he is twice called by his name without any other title - for the first time in the story. Until now he has always been referred to as "father-in-law of Moshe." We may understand from this that only now does he perform acts that are born of his consciousness as a person, rather than as a result of family motives as in the past. But at the conclusion of our story, its two themes - the "family" and the "spiritual" - are united, and therefore when offering the sacrifices he is again referred to as "Yitro, father-in-law of Moshe." This comes to teach us that following his words of praise and recognition of God, his relationship with Moshe takes on new meaning. Now, not only is Yitro proud of his son-in-law ("for it is worthy to follow the king," as the Ramban explains), but Moshe is also proud of his father-in-law who has come to "take shelter under the wings of the Shekhina." "And Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread before the Lord with THE FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSHE:" Rashi asks, Where was Moshe? He was standing and serving them.


An analysis of the story based on its structure and a comparison of its two halves has brought us to the conclusion that the two approaches we presented to explain the significance of the story were both insufficient: this is neither one of Moshe's "family stories" nor a story of Yitro's "conversion." Our story narrates a process of ascent: it starts as a story where the main character is motivated by narrow (albeit honorable) family concerns, and is elevated in the second half to a story of his new awareness of God, the God of Israel, and of the great honor bestowed on him by the elders of Israel for this attainment.


The midrashim which interpret the story as being about Yitro's conversion, indeed match the literal meaning of the text - but they belong to the second half of the story. The discussion in the midrash as to the question of "What was it that he heard that made him come?" will find its answer in the text if we ask, "What did he hear FROM MOSHE that made him want to convert?" Indeed, the answer provided by the midrash - "the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek" - corresponds with what Moshe tells his father-in-law: "...all the trials that met them ALONG THE WAY, and how God saved them," rather than with what Yitro heard in verse 1 - only about the exodus.




To conclude our study, let us examine a hidden parallel between the first and second halves of the story which reveals further depth. At the point where the significant spiritual change takes place in Yitro's character and in his motives (verses 8-11), there is one word which is repeated four times, as a sort of motif:

  1. (8) "Moshe told his father-in-law... all the trials which had met them on the way, and how GOD SAVED THEM.
  2. (9) Yitro rejoiced for all the good that God had done for Israel, in SAVING THEM from the hand of Egypt.
  3. (10) Yitro said, Blessed is GOD WHO SAVED you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh,
  4. WHO SAVED the nation from under the hand of Egypt."

It appears from the above that the main focus of Yitro's joy and praise were for Israel's salvation by God.


This verb is found in one other place - in the first half, and in a context similar to that of the s:

(4) "And the other named Eliezer, for the Lord of my father was a help to me AND SAVED ME from the sword of Pharaoh."

Previously, we asked why Eliezer's name and the reason for it are provided specifically here, in the middle of the story of Yitro's visit to Moshe, rather than in the story of Moshe's departure from Midyan or in the story of the circumcision of his second son (both in chapter 4). We may now have the answer to this question. The parallel between the two halves comes to teach us that the elevation of Yitro from "father-in-law of Moshe" - someone who is concerned only for the return of his daughter and grandsons to their husband and father - into a man who recognizes God and His guidance of the world, is not coincidental. The attainment of his new level of spiritual awareness is due to more than just his act of bringing back Tzippora to her husband and thus coincidentally hearing some inspiring words from Moshe. Rather, it is the very devotion of the father-in-law to his son-in-law that contains the seed of his spiritual growth during the course of the narrative. Someone who remained close to Moshe and had long before realized that the "God of his father was a help to him AND SAVED HIM FROM THE SWORD OF PHARAOH" (who had sentenced Moshe to death for having killed the Egyptian taskmaster), someone whose grandson was permanently named after this salvation, would be ready for this expansion of awareness from private, family salvation (as expressed in the name of his grandson) to national, historical salvation of the whole of Israel. Yitro ultimately utters the blessing: "Blessed is GOD who SAVED you from the hand of Egypt AND FROM THE HAND OF PHARAOH."


Chazal homiletically interpret (in the Mekhilta as cited by Rashi): "'Yitro heard... all that God had done FOR MOSHE AND FOR ISRAEL HIS NATION' - Moshe is regarded as equal to all of Israel." This derasha enunciates a theme arising from a comparison of the two parts of the story: it is the identification of the father-in-law with his son-in-law that ultimately brings him to identification with all of Am Yisrael, who are all collectively equal to Moshe.




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