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Jethro and Moses

Throughout history, the Jews have not had many friends

Faced with a hostile world, when they came across a truly righteous gentile, it was a bit of a surprise. Rare indeed was the gentile who would be kind not only to his fellows but also to the Jew. Thus, when the Jews met a highly righteous gentile, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he or she would want to convert.


Human history aside, however, the Bible gives us another type of righteous gentile.  As opposed to his historical counterpart, this one sometimes maintained his distinct non-Jewish identity. Yitro appears to be the prototype of just such a character.

A straightforward reading of the Biblical text would lead us to believe that Yitro never became a Jew. In talking with Moshe, he is always identified as someone apart from the Jewish people. Thus, there is nothing unusual for Moshe to send him away after Yitro brings Moshe his wife and children. His leaving Moshe was a foregone conclusion and Moshe’s sending him away is simply another way of saying that he escorted his father-in-law in a way becoming his importance. Moreover, when Moshe tries to convince Yitro to stay with the Jews later on in the Torah, he explicitly refuses saying that he wants to go back to his people. (It should be remembered that this is in contrast with Rut, who in converting, proclaims her new allegiance to the Jewish people.) This simple reading seems to be in line with the great teacher R. Yehoshua, who in the Mechilta, states, that not only did Yitro not convert, he actually remained an idol-worshipping priest (at least up until his meeting Moshe in Parashat Yitro).

So who was this Yitro who insisted on treating Moshe so well before he even knew who he was? His benevolent concern for the stranger reminds us of Avraham. But there is another parallel even more striking – the one with Lavan. Indeed, the rabbis in Shemot Rabba make this comparison and yet the contrast is more remarkable than the comparison, for if Lavan is a son-in-law’s nightmare, Yitro seems to be a son-in-law’s dream. But even more than his congenial treatment of outsiders is Yitro’s willingness to try to help even when he does not have a direct stake in the matter.

In this vein, we see him identifying a problem that everyone else must have not seen or been too intimidated by Moshe’s stature to critique. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out our problems.

Historical misfortunes notwithstanding, Yitro teaches us that we need to listen to what others have to say. Yitro also shows us the type of other to whom we need to listen. Just like we have high standards for the Jews to whom we listen, we should have high standards for gentiles as well. When they show the righteousness and sensitivity of a Yitro, it is time for us to hear their critique as well as their counsel. And an important part of that sensitivity is Yitro’s awareness that any critique must meet our religious norms. This he shows when he tells Moshe that his suggestion is subject to approval by God. Though such a test is not one we can readily administer today, the point remains.

The person who seeks to improve loves rebuke. Should it be different for a nation? It is said that no one is at a level to offer rebuke in our times. That may be the case, but it doesn’t exonerate us for seeking it nonetheless.


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.