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Torah Commentary
Yitro (January 18, 2014)

No Child Left Behind

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

YITRO DEFINITELY IS one of the most interesting personalities in the Torah. Remarkably, he is hardly ever discussed. He’s Moses’ father-in-law, who faded into obscurity. Most likely, the reason for his disappearance from the scene is that he only stayed around for a year after he came to the nation of Israel.

The reason for Yitro traveling to visit the Israelites is given in the opening verse to this week’s parashah:

“Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1)

Originally, after hearing about the events of the going-out of Egypt, Yitro traveled to visit the Israelites. He was so marveled that he converted to Judaism. He understood the events that had happened between the Egyptians and the Israelites differently than all the other people around at the time, and he saw the need to come and join, rather than merely to sit back in awe. The news of several million people leaving their enslavement in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and other events was heard by all the nations, but Yitro was the only one who came.

However, his visit was short-lived. After absorbing wisdom from Moses, and Moses begging Yitro to stay, Yitro decided that his life goal was best served by going back to his homeland to convert the rest of his nation to his newfound way of life. Hence Yitro’s fall into oblivion.

If Yitro did the wrong thing by leaving and fading into obscurity, then why does this parashah feature him so prominently? Why is this portion, arguably the most important in the Torah because it contains the Ten Commandments, named after someone who made such a mistake as to leave the Nation of God?

Some say the reason Yitro is held in high esteem is that his status as a convert juxtaposed with the Ten Commandments serves as a reminder that even someone born Jewish should feel like a convert to the Torah. Every Jew should make a full-fledged, emotional and intellectual commitment to understand and learn the Torah to the best of his or her ability. The text says that Yitro “heard” and came. In Hebrew the word for hear is “shema.” Rabbi Saadia Gaon (10th century), in his Arabic translation of the Torah known as the Tafsir, interprets the word “shema” using the Arabic word “i’lam,” meaning “to know.” Yitro didn’t just hear. He knew that what he heard was true. And then he acted.

Another point of interest is that although Yitro’s return to his homeland — in order to bring Torah concepts to his people — was considered noble, we don’t have any proof that he or his people continued to follow the concepts of ethical monotheism. This is a great lesson to rabbis and teachers: Follow-up with students is extremely important for continued success. On Parashat Lech L’cha, both the midrash and the Talmud critique Abraham regarding “the souls that were made in Haran.” The fact that scripture never again mentions these “souls” is indeed perplexing. What became of them? Why didn’t Abraham keep in contact with his students to ensure their success in following monotheism? There isn’t one particular answer to these questions. We only can speculate and hopefully learn from them important life lessons.

Those of use who’ve been fortunate enough to have students know the value of transmitting information in the easiest way possible. It must be done with a caring heart, proper guidance and a great deal of patience. We need to let our students grow intellectually and independently. Even after our students, converts and, particularly, our children have gone off on their own, regular contact with them, just to follow up, is of paramount importance.

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