For most of us, Parshat Yitro is all about the giving of the Ten Commandments. Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, also known as Jethro, gives advice to Moshe about appointing people to judge and lead the Jewish nation. Then, Moshe tells the people that God will speak to them and how they are to prepare for encountering God’s presence. Three days later, the 10 commandments are heard by the entire nation as a whole. This is the only time in the entire Torah, and in all of Jewish history, that the entire people experience God together.
But for me, there is more to the story than that. In fact, Yitro, the leader of the Midianites, is one of just a few parshiyot named after someone who is not a Jew. There are only 2 others who share this honor: Noah, and Balak. Some would argue, however, that Yitro was Jewish. This parsha suggests a few different answers to this question, and though receiving the Ten Commandments was key to our history, Yitro himself is someone I wanted to know more about.
The truth is, we have no proof – no words in the Torah saying “Yitro was Jewish”. However, both words and actions are mentioned that could lead one to believe that he was a Jew, or at least, a monotheist. For instance, in The Living Torah Chumash, translated and edited by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, chapter 18 verse 10 reads: VaYomer Yitro, Barukh A-donai ahsheir hitzil etchem m’yad Mitzrayim u’m’yad Pahro. “He said (meaning Yitro, speaking to Moshe and family): “Praised be God who rescued you from the power of Egypt and Pharoah – and liberated the people from Egypt’s power.” The Torah also says that Yitro proclaimed, “Now I know that the L-rd is greater than all gods.” In additional verses, Yitro then brought burnt offerings and other sacrifices to God.
Still, one can understand verse 11 to be teaching us the exact opposite: When Yitro says “Now I know that the L-rd is the greatest of all deities.” we see from this statement that he believed that there were also other gods. You see, he didn’t fully believe in A-donai as the Jewish people do, but as one powerful God among many. Along with that, if Yitro truly was joining the Jewish people, he would have grabbed his backpack and come along. Yet, in this parsha, he does return to his home encampment after he advises Moshe. Finally, when he praises G-d, he states, “Praised be God” not “Praised be my god,” meaning A-donai.
He is acknowledging that G-d is real, but not committing himself to follow this god, our God, and the 10 Commandments, and all the other rules that became the Torah. This might prove that Yitro was not a Jew–he believed in other gods, he returned home, and he chose to not commit to A-donai and the Torah.
One of my favorite movies as a child was the Prince of Egypt. I especially enjoyed watching the part of the movie where Moses first meets Jethro, and this later turns into a wonderful dancing scene as they sing a song with the refrain “look at life through heaven’s eyes”. Hearing the music and the dancing may have possibly influenced my interest in musical theater. Even though there may have been artistic license in the interpretation, this scene is a modern midrash of Moses’ transformation in the wilderness. After escaping Pharoah, Moses was influenced by Yitro. Now that they were reunited in the Sinai he was able to offer more guidance.
But why was Yitro so connected to the Jews in the first place? To begin with, his daughter, Tziporah, was married to the man who would later be in charge of the Jews. Though in movies, in-laws don’t usually get along well, Yitro welcomed Moshe with great hospitality. Along with that, Yitro seemed very family-oriented, and by accepting Moses, who was not a Midianite, he established a very multi-cultural family. His attraction to the Jews might also have been influenced by the stories he heard from the people about G-d’s miracles. Perhaps he also noticed how strong their faith was, in a god that made a promise to deliver them to an unknown land of milk and honey.
Last year I went to the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco. At the museum there was an exhibit called “Black Sabbath” which explores the relationship between Jews and African Americans through music. This was fascinating to me not only because of my interest in music from around the world but also because of the multicultural aspect. It made me think that, since the Jewish people’s prayers are very melodic and beautiful, perhaps Yitro was attracted to that. Everyone went together to not only worship one god, but to sing praises and prayers. As we read in last week’s portion, when the Jews are saved at the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses' sister Miriam inspired dancing, singing and playing musical instruments. Yitro may have wanted to be a part of this new culture to see what it was like and how they worshipped.
I had a similar experience learning about other cultures with the organization BOCA (Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action). When I was ten, my family went to a BOCA event at St. Paul African Methodist Church in Berkeley celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration. There were people there from a variety of Berkeley’s synagogues, churches and mosques. As part of the celebration, I was invited to read a selection from President Obama’s acceptance speech with children from all different denominations. This was a chance to come together to celebrate something that we all believed in strongly, the ability to see our country differently and hope for change.
In the end, the issue is not about Yitro’s religion, it’s about his personal traits. I think this parsha was named after Yitro so that we can remember how to be more like him. To judge people not by their faith, but, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said “By the content of their character.” Yitro teaches us the importance of learning about other cultures. All three of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions are very similar, and yet we seem to be in constant conflict with each other. So, maybe if we got to know each other better, we might not feel the need to fight in the first place, and to instead, become more peaceful people, something that all religions claim to strive for.