The more important question often is not what was heard – the information conveyed and received – but, rather, how did those hearing this information respond to it. This is precisely on what Rashi, Shemot 18:1 wishes to focus in asking what Yitro heard that led him to travel to the camp of Bnei Yisrael? The verse already states what Yitro heard so why is Rashi asking what Yitro heard? Torah Temima, Shemot 18:1, note 1 explains that the question is not about what information Yitro may have received concerning the fate of Moshe and the Jewish People for that is clearly in the verse. His question concerns what made Yitro act. What specific information caused Yitro to go to where the Jewish People were? Rashi’s answer is that Yitro heard about the splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek and it was specifically this that made him take Tzipporah and Moshe’s sons and go join the Jewish People.
Rashi’s words are actually based upon T.B. Zevachim 116a which presents a three-way disagreement concerning the news of which specific event actually caused Yitro to come to convert.1 Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was the war with Amalek; Rabbi Elazar HaModaii says that it was the giving of the Torah; and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says that it was the splitting of the Sea.2 The issue is not what Yitro heard but, rather, what made Yitro act – and the answer to this question may be personal. Ishei HaTanach, Yitro quotes a midrash,3 for example, that states that Yitro had some type of connection to the military tribunal of Amalek and it was with their demise that Yitro came to convert.4 Implied in this midrash’s answer is the recognition that another, who did not have this connection, may not have so responded. We, each, respond to news and we each hear the same news differently. Our desire to investigate such a cause-and-effect, thus, must also include a desire to understand this personal connection.
What makes one person to respond to some news in a certain way and what is the reason that another is not so touched by this very same news? In investigating this question in connection to Yitro, the objective must also include a desire to understand what there was in Yitro that led him to be affected by this specific news and what there was in this news item that would touch such an individual. It is too simple to maintain that Yitro came to the Jewish camp upon hearing this news because he was a righteous individual. There was, no doubt, righteousness in his behaviour but it was within the personal parameters of his life that it was developed. It is within the specifics of this three-way disagreement that we see this personal focus. Each opinion sees a different news event as spurring Yitro to travel. Each news event had a different message and, as such, each one is also portraying Yitro as somewhat different.
This distinction in the factors of a message and a response is also found further enunciated in what later occurs within the story. We have already been told that Yitro not only heard this news but also responded by traveling to join the Jewish People yet we are then told that Yitro was told this news again. Shemot 18:8 informs us that Moshe again tells Yitro about everything that happened. This latter time Yitro rejoices over this news. What makes Yitro specifically respond with joy in this particular circumstance?5 It may be that in hearing the news from Moshe, from someone who personally experienced the events, there was a difference. The verse adds that Moshe also included all the troubles that the nation encountered on this journey. Moshe’s recounting was personal; he did not just report on what happened but shared with Yitro the experiences of what happened. The personal element in the message made the message different. It is quite possible that this difference in the message led to a difference in the response of Yitro in that he now rejoiced and praised God.
Shemot 18:9, however, presents a midrash that
would seem demand further contemplation. The midrash states that, rather than feeling joy in response to Moshe’s
presentation of the events, Yitro was mournful over the destruction of
Existence is not black-and-white. The truly feeling individual recognizes the multi-layered nature of life. It was precisely at the time that Yitro is hearing the personal account of what happened from Moshe Rabbeinu, when the story is no longer just a story but clearly takes on a human dimension, that Yitro has the potential to rejoice for those saved and be pained by those who met negative consequences (albeit just). Our recognition of the personal in the message also changes the message.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 It may be interesting to note that Rashi does not mention Yitro’s intent to convert in coming – yet, it may also not be an issue.
2 In comparing the actual words of the gemara with Rashi’s presentation, two questions immediately arise. One is that the gemara actually presents three different possible news events while Rashi only mentions two, leaving out the giving of the Torah. Second, Rashi seems to group the news events that he presents together as one motivator – Yitro heard about these two events and came. The gemara, however, seems to present the variant opinions as distinct, each tanna maintaining a different view of what news event caused Yitro to act. The fact is that Rashi’s overall comments on this verse actually demand further contemplation. In further explaining this verse, he goes on to single out the miracle of Miriam’s Well and the manna and then concludes with the greatest event being the Exodus. How does Rashi actually understand how all these events, distinctly and collectively, affected Yitro? See, further, Mizrachi, Shemot 18:1 and Maharsha, Zevachim 116a. (It should be noted that Rashi’s non-reference to the giving of the Torah as a possible event that affected Yitro’s coming may actually not be such a problem. Rashi may have wished, in explaining these verses, to adopt the general position that Yitro came before Sinai, just as the story is presented chronologically in the text. Rashi thus did not want to mention this opinion that Yitro came in response to the Sinaitic event as that opinion is clearly based on Yitro coming after Sinai. In regard to this issue of when Yitro came, see, further, Ramban, Shemot 18:1).
3 Midrash Shmuel II, 12:2.
4 This would seem to be in line with the view of Rabbi Yehoshua.
5 As one may find it difficult to assume that Yitro did not rejoice previously upon hearing this news, one may wish to re-phrase this question as: what made the Torah only inform us of this rejoicing at this time?
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