Parashat Yitro / Will the Real Jethro Please Stand Up?

Is Jethro's newly acquired prudence a genuine change of heart or simply a brilliant act of deception that tricks Moses, and perhaps even God?

Is Jethro a sincere penitent or merely a deceptive but very clever person? The ambivalence is reflected in the words ‘the simpleton will become prudent,’ describing the change Jethro undergoes. Is his newly acquired prudence a genuine change of heart or simply a brilliant act of deception that tricks Moses, and perhaps even God?

Balaam disappoints Balak, king of Moab, by blessing the Children of Israel instead of cursing them, and then addresses other peoples: “And he looked on Amalek, and took up his parable, and said: Amalek was the first of the nations; but his end shall come to destruction. And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said: Though firm be thy dwelling-place, and though thy nest be set in the rock” (Numbers 24:20-21).

Balaam, perhaps even a greater prophet than Moses, describes Amalek and the Kenites from the standpoint of an outside observer. Although Amalek’s fate is grim, the dwelling-place of the Kenites is firm and stable. Both peoples are described in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 - 20:23). The Kenites are the descendants of Jethro (Yitro), who is Moses’ father-in-law. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Israel defeats Amalek. This week’s reading begins: “Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). Rashi asks in response: “What events did Jethro hear about that made him meet Moses in the desert? The splitting of the Red Sea and Israel’s war with Amalek.”

The midrash explains that it was not simply Jethro’s astonishment that prompted him to meet Moses: “Amalek and Jethro were Pharaoh’s allies in his plan to destroy Israel. However, when Jethro sees that God has erased Amalek from this world and the world-to-come, he soberly assesses the situation and becomes penitent, as it is written: ‘For I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek’ (Exod. 17:14). Soon afterward, it is written: ‘Now Jethro … heard.’ Jethro says to himself, ‘I have no other alternative; I must now accompany Israel’s god.’” (Shemot Rabbah 27:6).

Both Amalek and Jethro initially plotted to annihilate Israel; however, when Jethro sees Amalek’s fate, he sets off to meet Moses. The same midrash describes Jethro’s conversion as a direct response to recent events, while Balaam, who views political developments as an outside observer and describes them poetically, is not so quick to judge: “Regarding Balaam, it is written, ‘And he looked on Amalek’ – he does not repent. When he looks upon Jethro who did repent, what does he say? ‘And he looked on the Kenites ….’ One is reminded of a parable here: A hunter is on the prowl for birds. He captures one and as he is about to capture a second, it flies away and rests on the image of a king. The hunter thinks, ‘If I throw a stone at the bird, I endanger myself. If I try to hit it with a rod, I might strike the king’s image. I can only say to the fine bird: You have chosen an excellent place for refuge.’” Similarly, Balaam sees how Jethro and Amalek plot to destroy Israel. Looking at Amalek, Balaam erases its name; when he looks at Jethro, now penitent, he says: “You have chosen an excellent place for refuge” and “firm be thy dwelling-place” – much like Abraham’s dwelling place.

Poet-prophet Balaam, who predicts the fate of nations, is like the hunter searching for birds. The first bird is Amalek, who attacked Israel in the desert.

That bird is “caught” by Balaam, who says: “Amalek was the first of the nations; but his end shall be destruction.” When the second bird sees what happened to the first, it flies away and rests on the king’s image; that is, it escapes by fleeing to Moses in the desert. The hunter will not throw a stone at it now, because he would be displaying disrespect for the king; similarly, he will not use a rod to hit the bird. Balaam’s only recourse is to admit that the second bird has defeated him. This is the meaning of Balaam’s sarcastic (according to the midrash) but prophetic words about the Kenites, “Though firm be thy dwelling-place, and though thy nest be set in the rock.”

According to a literal reading of the text, Jethro is a noble figure, a wise gentile who, in addition to being Moses’ father-in-law, is also his mentor. Jethro is the only person who sees Moses in his plight and can help extricate him from it. Moreover, Moses only listens to Jethro’s council.

The midrash provides a short biography of Jethro; its outline appears in Proverbs (19:25): “When thou smitest a scorner, the simple will become prudent; and when one that hath understanding is reproved, he will understand knowledge.” Literally, this verse deals with how people change after seeing the fate of their friends. If you hit a scorner, the simpleton – who may initially want to imitate him – sees what happens to the scorner and becomes prudent, thereby escaping punishment.

According to Shemot Rabbah (27:60): “The words ‘When thou smitest a scorner’ refer to Amalek, while ‘the simpleton will become prudent’ refer to Jethro. ‘And when one that hath understanding is reproved’ refers to Moses who is rebuked by Jethro when he sees him sitting in judgment concerning the Israelites’ legal and religious disputes. Jethro says to Moses, ‘Thou wilt surely wear away’ (Exod. 18:18). Jethro tells Moses: ‘Don’t rely on what I am counseling. Consult with God, as it is written, ‘Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel’ (18:19). What is written afterward? ‘So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said’ (18:24).”

Amalek is the scorner, who is smitten at the end of last week’s reading; when Jethro sees Amalek’s punishment, he becomes penitent and joins Moses – the “one that hath understanding.” Jethro, who rebukes him, is the simpleton who has learned an important lesson from another’s fate. In fact, Jethro’s penitence is so profound that he becomes Moses’ adviser. God affirms Jethro’s counsel, and that helps us interpret the verse from Proverbs, “he will understand knowledge”: Jethro will understand knowledge – that is, God’s will.

The short biography provided in the midrash is given from a one-dimensional perspective. Jethro plots together with Amalek against Israel, becomes penitent, joins the Children of Israel in the desert and gives counsel to Moses. However, in the middle of this didactic biography, the midrash “gives the floor” to a second perspective – that of Balaam, as explained in the parable of the hunter. In Balaam’s view, Jethro’s repentance is merely a ruse intended to save him from Amalek’s fate. Similarly, Jethro’s good – and true – counsel is meant to save him from the hunter.

Both perspectives are interwoven in a single midrash; the reader cannot decide which one to believe. Is Jethro a sincere penitent or merely a deceptive but very clever person? The ambivalence is reflected in the words “the simpleton will become prudent,” describing the change Jethro undergoes. Is his newly acquired prudence a genuine change of heart or simply a brilliant act of deception that tricks Moses, and perhaps even God?

Perhaps through this duality, inherent in every move Jethro makes, Moses finds something very profound with which to identify. After all, he is familiar with the idea of doing something against your will (Exod. 4:13) – of being committed to a particular role although you realize you were not intended to fill it, of being part of something and yet being an outsider, of speaking the truth although existing in a reality of lies and violence. In the Book of Numbers (10:31), Moses pleads with Jethro, “Leave us not, I pray thee,” as if he’s telling his father-in-law, “If you leave, who will understand my soul?” In a final act that perhaps reveals his initial intentions, Jethro offers a response even before Moses makes his urgent request: “I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred” (Num. 10:30).

Is Jethro a sincere penitent or merely a deceptive but very clever person? The ambivalence is reflected in the words ‘the simpleton will become prudent,’ describing the change Jethro undergoes. Is his newly acquired prudence a genuine change of heart or simply a brilliant act of deception that tricks Moses, and perhaps even God?
 

Willem can Swanenburg