“Jethro, the minister of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard everything that G-d did to Moses and to Israel His people – that G-d had taken them out of Egypt.”
Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes to Moses to celebrate with him the many wonders that G-d had wrought for them and to express gratitude to G-d for all the miracles and favors that He had showered on Israel. The question is, at what point did he come? Did Yitro decide to join Israel because of the miracles, without the obligations of the Torah, or was he also impressed with the Torah’s wisdom and wished to accept its authority over him? Despite the fact that his arrival is set before the chapter of the Giving of the Torah, the Rabbis disagree as to when Yitro actually came – before or after the Torah. Rabbi Yehoshua holds that Yitro came before, as the order of the chapters show, while Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i thinks that he came afterward (Zevachim 116a).
The same dispute as to the timing of Yitro’s journey occurs among the later Bible commentators. Rashi’s position is unclear; while commenting on the first verse of the parasha he says “What was it that he heard and came? – The parting of the Sea of Reeds and the war against Amalek,” suggesting that he came before the Torah was given. However, on another verse referring to Yitro’s joy, Rashi says that it was about the good things that G-d had given Israel, “the goodness of the manna, the water well and the Torah” (v. 10), implying that he came after the Revelation at Sinai. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) maintains that Yitro came after the Torah was given to Israel and he adduces several proofs including the simple fact that the war with Amalek took place in a region called Rephidim and that they journeyed to Sinai directly from Rephidim, as the verse narrates, “and they journeyed from Rephidim and they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai” (19:2). Since the arrival in Sinai took place immediately after they left Rephidim, the scene with Yitro must have happened subsequently to this chapter. Other commentators, primarily Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Abarbanel (1435-1508), strongly disagree with Ibn Ezra and insist that Yitro arrived before the giving of the Torah, especially because Moshe does not include this majestic revelation in his story to Yitro. The Tosafot on Avoda Zara 24b, s.v. Yitro, also agree with the position of Nachmanides.
It was necessary for Israel to undergo the harsh experience of enslavement in Egypt for its function as a refinery that purified the human nature in them.
The significance of this debate has many lessons. First, we must remember that the Rabbis did not see the Torah as a book of history that followed a strict chronological order (“en mukdam ume’uchar baTorah”), but rather as a book of lessons and concepts. Nachmanides asserts that in general, we should accept the order in the Torah as chronological unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, but those who maintain that the order need not be as it appears in the Torah have a different point of view. They maintain that the placing of Yitro’s story out of sequence has some important lessons.
The clear juxtaposition of the accounts of two non-Jews, Amalek and Yitro, is very instructive. Amalek attacks Israel without reason and his motive is sheer hatred and envy. Yitro, on the other hand, comes with admiration and joins the Jewish people as a convert (ger). This placing together suggests that we should not view all non-Jews as hostile or inimical to the Jewish message, thus preserving the universalist tone of the Jewish mission. Immediately after the tragic story of Amalek attempting to thwart Israel’s march, the Torah goes out of its way to introduce a tale out of sequence in order that we should not be left with the impression that all non-Jews must be seen with suspicion and fear. When Yitro saw that G-d performed miracles for Israel as He took them out of Egypt and fought for them against their enemies, he understood that G-d loved Israel and he wanted to be a part of this nation beloved by G-d (Maskil le David by Rabbi David Shmuel Pardo, 1718-1790).
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Rav Abraham Kook, connected this controversy to a discussion about the humanist aspect of the Jewish people. Rav Kook’s father writes in Orot, p. 155, that the human aspect of the Jew may not be identical with the human aspect of all other human beings. Those who contend that Yitro came before the giving of the Torah wish to suggest that the Jewish people had a human element like every other human being and that the teachings of the Torah were superimposed on top of that aspect they shared with the rest of humanity. On the other hand, those who maintain that Yitro arrived afterwards are stating that the humanistic aspects in every Jew are the result of the Torah itself and they stem from the teachings of the Torah. Rav Kook explains that at first G-d wanted the human aspect of all men to be the same and that the Torah would be like a crown on top of that natural form. However, as Man degenerated into baser forms, human nature was debased as well. The holy teachings could not simply be placed on top of the base nature because it would be ruined by it. Therefore, it was necessary for Israel to undergo the harsh experience of enslavement in Egypt – called “the iron crucible” – for its function as a refinery that purified the human nature in them. After this inhuman and sadistic experience, the Jew became more sensitive and caring, resenting all callousness and cruelty. In that fashion, the human spirit of Israel became more refined and cleaned of impurities; thus, they were able to receive the more complex and demanding spiritual principles of the Torah. In Egypt, Israel became a new creature, not only in its spiritual dimension, but even in its physical/secular aspect, which would make him more suited to the exigencies of the Torah and its unique values. Jacob, the Man, becomes Israel the receptacle for the divine inspiration. This special human dimension of the Jew may be what made him survive under great stress, crises, and many predicaments throughout its history.
Therefore, Yitro’s coming after the Torah implies that it was necessary to be touched by the atmosphere of Torah even before being able to accept its precepts. Yitro’s nature, coming after the Torah’s arrival, was somewhat transformed even before he was ready to submit to the yoke of Torah. This is what is meant in the Passover Haggadah when we say, “Had G-d brought us to Sinai and not given us the Torah it would have been sufficient for us (dayenu).” The Torah can only come atop a person with some sensitivity and moral constitution. The study of Torah is also a way to refine the humanistic dimension in us and to restore the pure original nature with which G-d endowed Man.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.