Yitro is one of the most enigmatic figures in the entire Torah. He is introduced to us as an adviser to Pharaoh (Sotah 11a) who was told about a plan to enslave and kill members of the Hebrew nation living in Egypt. In that meeting, Yitro counseled the Egyptian monarch not to harm the Hebrews. His first appearance in the lines of the written Torah occurs in parashat Shemos, as the father of Tziporah, who would marry Moshe Rabbeinu.
In this week’s parshah, Yitro comes with his daughter and grandsons and meets up with Moshe in the wilderness. Though warmly welcomed and revered, he remains but for a short while and then returns home. That is the last we hear of him. Yet despite Yitro’s limited role in the lines of the Torah, his impact on Jewish thinking and practice has been significant, during his lifetime and for all subsequent generations.
The first instance of Yitro’s influence occurred in Midian. As a pre-condition for giving his daughter’s hand in marriage, Yitro made of Moshe a most unusual demand.
When Moshe asked Yitro to give him his daughter Tziporah as a wife, Yitro said, “Accept one thing I will tell you and I will give her to you.” “What is it?” asked Moshe. Yitro replied, “The first son who will be born to you should be designated for idolatry; from then on, for Heaven.” [Moshe] accepted this. Yitro said, “Take an oath on it,” and he took an oath, as it says, “vayoel Moshe” (Shemos 2:21); the word “vayoel” always means an oath. [Mechilta, Parashat Yitro]
This midrash is quite difficult to understand. We know that Yitro had been ostracized in Midian following his rejection of idolatry (see Rashi’s commentary to Shemos 2:16-17). Although Yitro himself had been an idolatrous priest for many years, he eventually came to the realization that religious truth lay elsewhere. It was this realization that allowed him to fully appreciate the splitting of the Yam Suf and the giving of the Torah in a manner that other people could or would not hear (see Shemos 18:1 and Rashi’s commentary).
How is it then that this same Yitro would require his future son-in-law Moshe to dedicate his firstborn son to the same idolatry he himself had rejected? In addition, how is it that Moshe, the future leader of the Jewish people and the greatest prophet who ever lived, could have consented to such a seemingly preposterous precondition?
Rav Shimon Schwab suggests that in effect there was a great philosophical debate between Moshe and Yitro. Moshe had been raised as an observant Jew since birth. From the day he was born he had been the recipient of a tradition that stressed Torah study and proper Jewish values. Concepts basic to our religion permeated his very essence. It was this pure mesorah that Moshe wished to pass on to his own children.
Yitro, on the other hand, arrived at the truth through a very different set of circumstances. He had devoted his entire life to idolatry, only to later realize the futility of his efforts. Even though he now recognized Judaism as the Ultimate Truth, he still wanted his grandchildren to be able to be subjected to the same process of being exposed to and rejecting falsehood that he himself experienced. It was only after such a search for truth, he felt, that they could truly appreciate what it was that Judaism had to offer.
As a result of this debate, Moshe and Yitro arrived at a compromise. Moshe, in the end, never committed his firstborn son to idolatry. Neither did Yitro really request that his first grandson be groomed in that direction. Instead, they agreed that Moshe’s first son would be given the option to choose between good and evil. He would be exposed to external ideas and values, with the hope he would emerge with a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of Hashem and the Torah.