Some people become proselytes for religious reasons, some for family reasons and some for a mix of both. Yisro testifies that after having studied all religions (Rashi 18:11), he arrived at the conclusion that G-d was greater than all the deities of his time. So he joined Moshe in the desert in order to convert to Judaism. Nevertheless, the Torah refers to him both as “kohen Midyan” and “chosein Moshe.”
Of course being the father-in-law of Moshe may have given Yisro an extra incentive to convert so as not to split up the family and it would have made it easier for him to be accepted as a Jew. But based on the order of the titles, with kohen Midyan coming first, it is clear that even if he would not have been Moshe’s father-in-law, he would still have converted. The message the Torah is giving us by calling him by both titles is that if one shows initiative, G-d will make it easier to accomplish ones goal in the spirit of “Ha’ba l’ta’heir, mesa’im oso” (One who comes to purify himself, G-d will help him).
Yisro, however, refers to himself only as chosein Moshe (Shemos 18:6). This is because, like our ancestors of old, Yisro were wary of taking credit for anything good he might have done. They were never sure if some ulterior motive might have motivated them, even if they were not aware of one. That is why Rachel and Leah, when told by Yaakov (Bereishis 31:13) that G-d had commanded him to leave Padan Aram and return to Canaan, declared that they agreed to leave because there was no financial incentive for them to stay. Is it possible that our great ancestors would have remained in Padan Aram if it were financially rewarding to do so and disobeyed G-d’s request to leave? Of course not, but they did not want to take credit for the decision to leave just in case there might have even been a subconscious ulterior motive. Yisro too, like Rachel and Leah before him, felt better declaring that he was converting for family reasons rather than claim that his motives were entirely pure.
Those who join the Jewish nation for ideological reasons are to be welcomed, like Moshe welcomed Yisro, and with respect to them we are told that we have been dispersed among the nations of the world “kdei sh’yisvafsu aleihem geirim” (Pesachim 87b), so that more people should convert to Judaism. Those who join for family reasons, we are told, “kashim geirim l’Yisrael k’sapachas,” such converts are as harmful to Israel as an affliction (Yevamos 47b).
What did Yisro see in Judaism that made him convert? It was “Ki hotzi Hashem es Yisrael mi’Miztrayim” (18:1) that G-d took Yisrael out of Egypt. How was it, Yisro asked himself, that after living for hundreds of years in Egypt, in the most prosperous melting pot of the world, they still retained their separate identity as Yisrael and did not become Egyptians? How was it that even though they no longer practiced Judaism and conducted themselves in all respects like assimilated Egyptians, they refused to change their Jewish names, Jewish clothes and Hebrew language? How was it that there still remained a nation called “Yisrael” to take out?
Clearly, Yisro concluded, however far from Judaism a Jew may wander, he still identifies as a Jew. As the prophet Yeshayahu says, “Zeh yomar La’Hashem ani, v’zeh yikra b’shem Yaakov” – for some Judaism is their calling and others just call themselves Jews. But none of them will renounce their identity (Yeshayahu 44:5). There is always a spark of Judaism left in even the most wayward Jew which can be fanned into flames of devotion. And what Yisro also saw was that if the Jews themselves did not find the strength to leave before the spark died out, G-d would intervene to make sure it didn’t. Despite the promise that G-d made to Avraham that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, G-d cut the slavery short by 190 years. Had He not done so, there would not have been a “Yisrael” to redeem. It was the obstinate survival of the Jew, underwritten by G-d Himself, that convinced Yisro, as it did Mark Twain long after him, that there was something supernatural about the Jews.
“Vayesaper Moshe l’chosno…es kol ha’tela’ah asher metzasam baderech” – Moshe told his father-in-law all the travail they had suffered on the way (18:8). Rashi explains that this refers to the splitting of the sea and the battle with Amalek. Why does Rashi pick on these two incidents as examples of suffering? Weren’t they both events with happy endings? Ultimately they were, but they mixed with great anxiety. The Jews did not know in real time that the Egyptians were drowning in the sea behind them. They worried that the Egyptian army might have circumvented the sea to trap them and attack them as they emerged at the other end (Rashi, Shemos 14:30). And there were lots of ups and downs in the battle with Amalek, as we are told, “when Moshe held up his hand Yisrael prevailed, and when he let down his hand Amalek prevailed” (17:11).
Moshe could not allow Yisro to join the Jewish nation until he made full disclosure of the downside of being Jewish. “Why do you want to convert?” the court must ask the candidate for conversion. “Don’t you know the Jewish people are afflicted and harassed?” If the gentile responds, “Nevertheless I would like to belong to the Jewish people,” he is accepted as a conversion candidate immediately\ (Yevamos 47a). This is exactly how Yisro responded: “Vayichad Yisro” – he rejoiced (18:9). Like Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17) after him, Yisro was happy to suffer the pain of being a Jew in this world in order to reap the returns in the world to come.
Another aspect of Judaism that impressed Yisro was that justice prevailed over might. “Ki badavar asher zadu aleihem” – in the very matter that the Egyptians had conspired against them, they were punished (18:11). The punishment was commensurate with, but not greater than, the crime. The Egyptians who drowned the Jewish children suffered the same fate. Divine power lies in restraint.
“Vayachanu bamidbar vayichan sham Yisrael neged ha’har” – they camped in the desert and they camped opposite the mountain (19:2). Rashi explains why the Hebrew word for camping is used both in the plural and the singular. All the other encampments were riddled with strife and dissent, but here they encamped as one man with one heart. They had recently sojourned in Mara where they were given a sampling of mitzvos (15: 23-26 and Rashi 25) and they all thirsted for more. Moreover they demonstrated that they understood what Hillel told the gentile who asked to be converted to Judaism while standing on one foot. The essence of the Torah is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Shabbos 31a).
“Vayisyatzvu b’tachtis ha’har” – they stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain (19:17). Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Shabbos 88a) explains that G-d suspended the mountain over their heads and issued an ultimatum, “Either you accept the Torah or this will be your burial place.” And the Talmud concludes from this “Mikahn moda’ah rabbah l’Oraisah,” that if G-d would ever question why the Jews were not keeping the Torah, they could reply that they were coerced into it.
There was another time in history where one might argue that agreeing to accept the Torah was the result of coercion. That was the time of Haman when, in response to being delivered from the threat of annihilation, “kiymu v’kiblu haYehudim aleihem” – the Jews reaffirmed their acceptance of the Torah and waived the defense of coercion (Esther 9:27).
What was the difference between the coercion at Sinai and the coercion at the time of Haman? In both cases they were threatened with extinction? One obvious difference was that in Haman’s time the Jews were first saved and then they reaffirmed their commitment to the Torah, whereas at Sinai they were threatened with extinction unless they accepted the Torah.
But there is more to it than that. The coercion at Sinai was not physical coercion. It was spiritual coercion. The spectacle at revelation was so blinding and overpowering that it left one with no choice but to accept the existence of G-d and the Divine revelation of His Torah. But when life returned to normal and the fiery presence of G-d faded, it took only forty days for the Jews to fall off the wagon and revert to idol worship. In the time of Haman, the threat was physical. The Jews understood that their only guarantee of physical survival was to reaffirm their allegiance to the Torah. The inexorable link between keeping the Torah and survival of the Jews became a fact of life. The Jews cannot survive without the Torah as little as fish can survive out of water.