17.1. Jethro and His Connection to the Giving of Torah
Yitro, the Torah portion that recounts the events of the giving of the Torah, begins with the words, “Jethro … heard…” This construction, extremely common in Biblical Hebrew, requires the verb to precede the subject; thus, the portion begins with vayishma, “And he heard,” which might also have become the name of the portion itself (quite often, a weekly portion will receive its name from its very first word).
However, when the Sages of the era of the Babylonian Talmud divided the Torah into weekly portions, and chose names for those portions, they named this one for the non-Jew Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. This implies that something very profound connects Jethro with the giving of the Torah.
One interpretation of this connection is as follows. So long as among the nations of the world there is no person like Jethro ready to hear and receive the Torah, even the Jewish people will not be able to receive it. The Torah can be given to the Jews only when people sufficiently mature to understand it have begun to appear even among the general world population.
As the Exodus is unfolding, there are already two groups of non-Jews who are ready to accept the Torah. These are the eirev rav (“the mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Jews), and Jethro and his entourage. Although both groups joined the Jews, they did so in different ways, thus creating two models of connecting the world’s Jews and non-Jews.
The eirev rav is fully integrated into Jewish society, becoming full members of the Jewish nation in every sense.
Jethro, on the other hand, is attracted by religious and philosophical considerations, and by the idea of holiness, but he does not want to lose his own national identity, and he is not interested in becoming a Jew. Nonetheless, his insistence on such “national separation” is not at all a flaw – on the contrary, thanks to this he brings Divine Revelation to his people, and formulates a scheme for transmitting the principles of the Jewish religion to all of humanity.
Just as the idea of holiness advanced by Abraham could appear only after the idea of justice formulated by the laws of Hammurabi appeared in the world, so Moses could undertake to fulfill his mission only after Jethro appeared.
The moral and ethical development of civilization is a necessary condition for the emergence of the Jewish people and their transition to further stages of development. This is because the calling of the Jewish people is to promote all of humanity, and not only itself. The Jews are an instrument through which God influences humanity, and an instrument can be used only when the people who are to benefit from its use are at least minimally prepared for that.