December 7, 2022 -

Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Recognizing our Teacher’s Teacher (Yitro – 02/06/21)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Recognizing our Teacher’s Teacher
There are 54 Parshiyot, Torah readings, in a year. Of all of them, it could be that this week’s parsha, Yitro, is the most significant one.
Breishit informs us that God created the world, and that, of course, is essential knowledge. The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the exodus from Egypt provide us with our history. But for us as a people, what’s more crucial than the revelation on Mt. Sinai and the covenant we made with God at the time? If not for this episode, there are no Jews, just freed slaves.
If you agree with me then that this parsha holds the essence to our existence, then why is it named after Yitro, Jethro, a non-Jewish Midianite priest? Shouldn’t the parsha be called something bold, such as “Sinai”, “The Voice of God”, or “Covenant”?
Now, this question is not new. It’s been asked in Midrashim and the Zohar and by rabbis year after year.
The simple answer is that Yitro is the embodiment of someone who’s committed to spiritual truth. He’s the high priest of Midian, yet when he hears of the plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, he leaves everything behind him and joins the Jewish people.
עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל יְהוָ֖ה מִכָּל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים כי
“Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods…”
Yitro is considered the first official convert to the Jewish faith. The parsha is named after him because he epitomizes absolute devotion and allegiance to God and the Torah.
For years, I was satisfied with this answer.
But a little while ago, new information came to me when I read the book “Exodus” by Biblical scholar Professor Richard Elliot Friedman, and now my answer has changed.
Friedman asks, how did Moses come to learn about God, specifically one with the name of י ה- ו-ה?
Yes, Moses is nursed by his Jewish mother, Yocheved until he is weaned at age 2 or 3. Nonetheless, it’s improbable he retains much knowledge from that time.
And yes, when he grows up, he goes out to his brethren and feels compassion and kinship with them, but does that mean Moses knows about their worship?
Perhaps the princess who raised him informed him that he was adopted, but that knowledge wouldn’t necessarily provide him with theological information.
Even at the Burning Bush, he asks God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
Clearly, Moses does not know who the Hebrew God is.
Yet when God first speaks to Moses, Moses does not assume he’s talking to a speaking bush; he understands some higher power is communicating with him; he has developed a belief in a singular God. Since Moses was raised in polytheistic Egypt, where would Moses have gotten this information?
The only new factor in the story is his father-in-law, Yitro, Jethro, the Midian High Priest. Could Yitro be Moses’ teacher?
Friedman writes: “I mentioned that some of the Western Asiatic people who lived in Egypt were known as “Shasu.” We have two inscriptions from Egypt that refer to the “Shasu of yhwh” (Egyptian yhw3). They are the oldest known references to Yahweh outside of the Bible. William Propp notes that these people are located “in the rough vicinity of Midian”—southeast of Israel, near the land of Edom.
The French scholar Thomas Römer wrote: In sum, what we know about Moses and Midian confirms the evidence provided by the biblical texts that suggest a provenance of Yhwh from the south, and possibly a connection with the Shasu, the group of semi-nomadic tribes that may include the Midianites and Kenites.”[1]
After Moses saves a Jew from being killed by an Egyptian taskmaster, he’s forced to flee Egypt and settles down with Yitro (Jethro), the High Priest of Midian. He marry his daughter, Zipporah, and starts shepherding his sheep.
Yet, there’s most likely another relationship going on between son-in-law and father-in-law. Moses, who would ultimately become the greatest of prophets, surely began as a young spiritual seeker. If Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, was a member of “The Shasu of Yhwh”, then Moses would have gained his knowledge from Yitro. Hence, Yitro is also Moses’ teacher.
Friedman’s initial question was, who taught Israel about Yhwh, for clearly, Elohim or El was God’s name in early Israel? His answer: Moses.
From the Torah, itself, it’s clear that Moses is the initiator of this worship.
In Parshat Va’era, when Moses suffers setbacks freeing us from Pharaoh’s subjugation, God tells Moses:
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name (Yhwh) יהוה.
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD (Yhwh). I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.”
The transmission of divine knowledge is clear: we learned about God (Yhwh) from Moses, and Moses gained this knowledge from Yitro. Therefore, our debt of gratitude to Yitro is very great.
The most important parsha in the Torah, the one where God speaks to us as a nation and forms an eternal covenant with us is named after the one teacher who began this process, Yitro.
Gratitude is a cardinal principle in Judaism. I believe the rabbis implemented this virtue more than a thousand years ago, naming this parsha “Yitro” as a subtle expression of our indebtedness to our teacher’s teacher. May the name, Yitro, remind us of our humble roots, and inspire us to be grateful to all our benefactors.
[1] Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus (p. 132). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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