Jethro: Israelite or Midianite?

People often greatly care about their origins.  One of the first questions many of us ask a new person we meet is “Where are you from?”  Ellis Island gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, testament to people’s interest about their history.  Many families (including mine) have written family trees, some of which go back 500 or 1000 years.  What is it that keeps pulling us towards our personal history, even when life pulls us away from this history?

This week’s Torah portion features the 10 Commandments as well as the delegation of authority through setting up a court system.  This morning, however, I want to talk about the person for whom the portion is named, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew), who is Moses’ father-in-law.  Jethro faces a tension between the land of his origin and his location at the beginning of this portion.  As we find out in Exodus 2, Jethro is a Midianite priest.  His daughters go to draw water for their flock, shepherds drive them away, and Moses intervenes, watering the flock himself.  As a result, Jethro gives his daughter Tzipporah to Moses as his wife, officially connecting his Midianite/Egyptian family with Moses and the Israelites.  Fast forwarding to this week’s portion, Moses tells Jethro of God saving the Israelites from the Egyptians.  Jethro’s reaction, in 18:9, is the word yihad, a word which appears only 6 times in the Torah, 3 times as a noun and 3 times as a verb.  This word is generally translated as “rejoice.”  However, Rashi brings in a second translation from a Midrash, that Yitro felt stinging sensations (hidudin) as he was saddened by the destruction of Egypt.  Despite having a daughter who married into the Israelite family, Yitro is still tied to his Egyptian origins and cannot rejoice at his brethren’s demise.

The Tur, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of the 14th century, has a different reading of that verse.  He reads the word yihad as yahad, unify, stating that Jethro unified his house with the one God and became a Jew.  This is an anachronistic reading, as in biblical times people did not undergo religious conversions-rather they chose to affiliate with an ethnic group.  However, it does connect to a late statement, when Jethro states “blessed is Adonai who saved you from Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh.” It seems that Jethro is in fact rejoicing in the Jewish God-however he also says “who has saved you,” excluding himself from being part of the Israelites.

My question is should we view Jethro as a “converted” Israelite, like the Tur, or as remaining a Midianite?  I believe the answer is the latter, as in Exodus 18:27, after Jethro instructs Moses how to set up judges, Moses sends him back to his land, Midian. Jethro had just proclaimed the glory of the Israelite God, so why would he leave the Israelites?  Even more interesting, in Numbers 10:30, when Moses asks Jethro to stay with the Israelites, and he replies, “I will not go with you, but rather to my land and to my birthplace will I go.”  Moses’ father-in-law once again says he will return to his native land rather than stay with Moses and with his daughter Tziporah. In this case Moses begs him to stay, and while the outcome is ambiguous, it appears to me that Jethro leaves the Israelites. While Jethro has developed a relationship with Moses and the Israelites, he chooses to return to his native Midian rather than continuing on with the Israelites.

          Has anyone here ever struggled over whether to stay in your community or move somewhere new?  What factors did you have to consider?  In the end, which choice did you make?

I see Jethro’s situation as personally speaking to us.  He journeys with the Israelites in both Exodus and Numbers and praises their god.  At the end of the day, however, Jethro decides to return to his homeland.  This teaches me that it is often difficult to leave one’s homeland, and even if he/she physically leaves, there will remain unbreakable ties to the land of one’s formative years.  While Jethro believes in the Israelite God rather than that of the Midianites and his offspring will continue as Israelites, he is still drawn towards his native land.  This story also gives me newfound appreciation for Abraham being able to leave his homeland.

I want to commend everyone here for continuing to strengthen their ties to the Jericho Jewish Center.  Our congregation understands the importance of maintaining a strong Jewish presence in Jericho.  To be able to maintain a congregation for almost 60 years is an incredible feat and is testament to the hard work, dedication and faith of our congregants, as well as following in the footsteps of our ancestors.  Maintaining the rich history of our congregation is special, showing that there is value in continuity. You would not believe how many congregants I have spoken with many who, though they only come on the High Holidays, proudly proclaim “I’ve been a member here for 40 years!”  How fortunate are we to have congregants who play such vital roles in our congregation and who have invested so much in our success.  May today be a day of great celebration for all that we have in our community at the Jericho Jewish Center.

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One thought on “Jethro: Israelite or Midianite?

  1. I’ve always believed that Jethro returned to Midian as a believer in Adonai hoping to instruct the residents there to become believers as well…..Renee Ritz

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