Outsiders Looking In
Yitro is one of the most enigmatic of all of the personages that appear in
the Torah. There are many Yitros in Yitro’s life and perhaps this is the
reason that the rabbis taught us that he possessed seven different names.
Each name perhaps represented a different Yitro at a different point of
his life. We meet him at the crossroads of his life’s choices and beliefs.
On one hand he is a priest or former priest of paganism in Midian. He has
experimented with every form of religion in the world before coming to the
faith of monotheism. He is influenced undoubtedly by his unexpected son-in-
law, Moshe. But he is also greatly influenced by the Exodus from Egypt and
the visible and impressive miracles that accompanied this event.
But there is also an inner conviction that moves him and makes him a
monotheistic believer. He states: “Now I know that the Lord is God for He
has avenged Himself on the Egyptians in the manner that they intended to
destroy the Jews.” The Egyptians drowned Jewish children in the Nile and
they were therefore drowned themselves at Yam Suf. Thus Yitro is impressed
not only by the miracle of the destruction of the Egyptian oppressor but
by the manner and method of destruction that the miracle exhibited itself.
It is the measure for measure method of punishment that truly fascinates
him and leads him to abandon his home and background to join Israel in the
desert. Having arrived at his new beliefs by judicial and rational
analysis, Yitro then applies that same method in advising his son-in-law
Moshe as to the formulation and efficient operation of the Jewish judicial
system in the desert. He is consistent in his analytical approach to
matters. Perhaps that is why he was so positively influenced by the
measure for measure punishment of the Pharaoh and his Egyptian hordes.
Yitro is the ultimate “outsider” looking in to see Torah and the Jewish
people. Many times the “outsider” sees things more clearly than
the “insider” in a society does. In Yiddish there is an expression that a
temporary guest sees for a mile. (I know that this lost something in
translation but you get the gist of it.) The Jewish people, especially in
our religious world, live a somewhat insular existence. Due to this, many
times we are unable to see what otherwise can be plain to others.
The example of Yitro encourages us to give respect to the insights
of “outsiders” in our community. Oftentimes they come from different
backgrounds and have fought their way through many false beliefs to arrive
at Torah and the observance of mitzvoth. Their views and experiences
should be important to us. The tendency to force the “outsiders” to become
exactly like the “insiders” is eventually counterproductive to both
groups. Yitro never becomes Moshe but Moshe and Israel benefit from
Yitro’s judgment and advice. We can all benefit from insights, advice and
good wishes from our own “outsiders.”
Rabbi Berel Wein