Torah Thoughts on Parshas Yisro by Rabbi Dr. Don Well
"וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקִים לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא ה' אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִצְרָיִם" שְׁמוֹת י''ח:א'
"And Yisro, priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Yisrael, God’s people; how God had brought Yisrael out from Egypt.” Shemos 18:1
The story of Moshe’s career as redeemer of Israel from slavery in Egypt is bracketed on both sides by the appearance of Yisro. Yisro first meets Moshe in Midian and promptly gives him his daughter Zipporah as a wife. Here, in our parashah, Yisro comes to the mountain of Hashem (Har Ha’Elokim) in Sinai, bringing Tzipporah and Moshe’s two sons to be reunited with Klal Yisrael after the Exodus has fully unfolded. Yisro blesses Hashem for the miracles and benevolence, celebrating the fact that Moshe emerged unscathed from the cruelty of Pharaoh and was empowered to perform miracles to save the people (Rashbam 18:1). It becomes clear that Moshe and Yisro are exceedingly close and dear to each other.
It had always seemed puzzling that Moshe takes Tzipporah as a wife instantly after arriving in Midian. Neither he nor Yisro does a background check on the other; no references, no investigations, and no protracted engagement to get to know each other. Simply “וַיּוֹאֶל מֹשֶׁה לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת הָאִישׁ” (Shemos 2:21). Each makes an immediate commitment; clearly Tzipporah concurs; and Moshe, the son-in-law, becomes part of the Yisro family and household.
Does this not seem rather reckless and rash? It is uncharacteristic of Yisro and Moshe. Troubling! Perhaps we can read between the lines of the Torah narrative and the well-known Midrashic comments on both protagonists and reconstruct what their initial conversation must have sounded like. Without a doubt, each introduced himself. We can imagine Moshe responding: “Yisro? I know that name! Yes, I recall that Pharaoh had three chief advisors whom he consulted on all matters, including the ‘final solution’ of the Jewish problem – to drown all the boys in the Nile: “שְׁלֹשָׁה הָיוּ בְּאוֹתָהּ עֵצָה” (Sotah 11a). Bilaam applauded; Iyov abstained; and Yisro – alone – objected. Enraged, Pharaoh wanted to kill Yisro, who was forced to flee for his life. Yes, I recall – the story still reverberates in palace circles. You are that Yisro! What an honor to meet you!” Simultaneously, something clicked in Yisro’s memory. Viscerally! “Moshe – you? Yes…of course I remember. Moshe was the prince of Egypt, born to the Hebrews, and a favorite of Pharaoh until he smote an Egyptian task master who was beating a Hebrew slave. Pharaoh was enraged and Moshe was forced to flee for his life. Yes, it was reported, I think, in the Cairo Courier or the Giza Gazette. You are that Moshe! What an honor to meet you!”
One can only imagine the delight when these two soulmates discovered each other! Two kindred spirits who identified powerfully with each other. With similar temperaments and parallel experiences, each could appreciate and validate the unique humanity of the other. Each had risked the wrath of Pharaoh for the same reason: he could not tolerate injustice. He could not stand idly by while others were threatened. Each could not abide evil and cruelty. The discovery of this shared personality trait rendered all further shidduch investigations superfluous. Both must have silently whispered a heartfelt thank you to Hashem, who directed Moshe’s footsteps to Yisro’s home.
The Torah’s subtle message was undoubtedly meant for all generations to come. The premier value one seeks in all others – friends, neighbors, suitors – should be this inability to tolerate injustice, this compulsion to help the oppressed, to protest cruelty. This is perhaps an expression of the more general quality of doing chessed, manifesting the middah of caring for others. It is the signature trait of the Jewish people since the time of Avraham Avinu. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, Parashas Vayeira, p.178) cites the Ba’al Chovos HaLevavos who defines it thus: ".וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִרְאוֹת בְּצָרַת חֲבֵרוֹ...הִיא מַעֲלָה גָבוֹהַה וּמִידָה טוֹבָה מְאֹד"
Yisro demonstrates his chessed once again in the opening verses of our parashah. Not only does he bring Moshe his family, but he perceives Moshe’s stress under the burden of dispensing justice. Once again, he offers a solutions to lighten the burden.
The Maharal often reminds us that the entire universe depends on acts of chessed, “עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה“ (Tehillim 89:3). The acquisition of Torah itself is granted only to those who cultivate and share with others acts of compassion and lovingkindness. Hence, at the very foot of Sinai, this foundational parashah is appropriately entitled “Yisro”.
Rabbi Dr. Don Well, a Musmach of HTC, served with distinction as its President. He completed a dual doctoral program at Univ. of Chicago. In Jerusalem he was Senior Research Psychologist at The Henrietta Szold National Inst. & taught at Tel Aviv Univ. Later, he was Dean of Undergraduate Jewish Studies at Y.U., then Exec. V.P. of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater NY. Rabbi Well has published & lectured widely on Jewish Thought, Rabbinics, Education, & Behavioral Science. He and his wife live in Cedarhurst, NY, where he leads a Kollel that he founded.