Sunday, August 9, 2020 -
Print Edition

Ruth’s leap, Jethro’s ambivalence

In the post-Shavuot spirit, in contrast to Ruth who was so singleminded in her famous testimony of devotion, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro stands as a contrasting Biblical convert.

From the outset, Jethro is complex and possibly even ambivalent. It is not immediately clear exactly what his role vis a vis the Jewish people is.

In fact, it is not exactly clear who he even is. The famous Rashi quotes Jethro as having seven names, again suggesting complexity and possibly ambiguity in his very identity.

In the Torah text himself Jethro is identified by three different names. Yitro, Reuel and Chovev.

Additionally, there is a well known exegetical controversy about the order of the stories in the Bible as “ein mukdam umeuchar ba-Torah — the stories in the Torah do not appear in the order of their actual occurrence” — regarding Jethro. The question is, did Jethro join the Jewish people before the giving of the Torah, making him a participant at Sinai. Or, was the sequence of events different, with Jethro arriving later, thereby excluding him from this crucial collective moment of Jewish history?

Opinions differ. Nachmanides and Abarbanel place Jethro before the giving of the Torah; Ibn Ezra, after.

Like his name and identity, Jethro’s role in the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah is not clear.

We understand that Jethro, a Midianite priest, abandoned idol worship on his own, before he ever met Moses. Jethro was a religious personality in his own right before he joined the Jewish people.

He then chose to give that all up and embrace the Israelites and their destiny in the desert. He innovated, contributing the judicial system to the Jewish people. His daughter becomes Moses’ wife.

And yet, we see the thread of ambivalence in Jethro committing his destiny to that of the Jewish people woven through his character. In fact, when Jethro hears of all the miracles G-d wrought for the Israelites in Egypt, the Torah says Jethro’s response was “va-yichad, he was joyous.” An unusual word choice instead of the more simple and common “va-yismach.” Rashi explains that at the root of va-yichad are is the word sharp, as in needling. As happy as Jethro was to hear the good news for the Israelites, the thought of the destuction of the Egyptians impacted him. His had goosebumps, like sharp pins and needles. A repressed, intense inner conflict literally came to the surface, bringing out his past on his skin.

Making a clean break with the past isn’t natural and very difficult to achieve.This is the struggle of the convert we see expressed in Jethro

The strongest ambivalence of Jethro is at the end of the desert journey, on the cusp of the people’s entrance into the land of Israel. Jethro basically walks away, calling into question his committment to the Jewish people. In contrast to Ruth’s simple yet profound “your people are my people, your G-d is my G-d,” it seems that when it came time to enter the land of Israel with the Jewish people, Jethro declined.

Again, differing opinions.

According to Nachmanides, Jethro only left temporarily in order to convert his family and then return with them to the land of Israel.

Other commentators come out on the side of Jethro making the choice to return to Midian, his country and people of origin. Whether this is because Jethro feels too old to journey into a new land and start over (Sforno), or because he went back to retreive his family and posessions (Rashi), or because he simply felt unsure in trading the familiar and known for the unknown (Chizkuni), bottom line is, Jethro didn’t throw in his lot with the Jewish people, entering the land with them.

According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, there are two covenants: of fate and of destiny. Jethro was a man of destiny. He was part of the Jewish people for its spiritual journey in the desert. He ate the manna and contributed to the judicial system. But the fate of the Jewish people, when it suffers for being a Jew?

Jethro’s struggles show that he never could fully internalize the fate of the Jew. He did not suffer with the Jewish people in Egypt; he did not bond and forge a Jewish identity in this way. When it came time to risk a new life in Israel, with unknown dangers, this was too much of a leap for him, even after sticking with the Jewish people for years.

Ruth was different. In a moment of truth, she attached herself to both the destiny and the fate of the Jewish people.

Perhaps that is why Ruth is rewarded with Shavuot, a holiday celebrating Jewish destiny.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

Leave a Reply