There is a well-known controversy surrounding when Yisro visited Bnei Yisrael in the desert. Did he come before or after Matan Torah?
Many are inclined toward the position that he came after. But why would the very spiritual Yisro who, as Rashi writes, experimented with all of the world’s religions, miss the unique opportunity of seeing Hashem at Mount Sinai? Furthermore, why didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu summon his wife Tzippora and his sons Gershon and Eliezer to experience this once-in-history moment?
Some commentaries tackle this problem by citing the Gemara, which states regarding Yerushalayim’s rebirth, “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim, zoche lir’os b’sichasa – Whoever mourns over the destruction of Jerusalem will merit to see its joy.” Of course, the sad implication of this statement is that those who don’t take time to mourn over the destruction of the desolation of Jerusalem will not be part of its future rebirth.
So these commentators suggest that only those who suffered through the rigors of bondage in Egypt, along with the stark terror of being pursued by the murderous Egyptians and the fright of facing the raging Yam Suf, earned the right to partake in the glory of the revelation at Har Sinai. Yisro, who lived securely in faraway Midian, did not deserve to be part of this awesome revelation.
The Birchas Ish suggests another answer, and a fascinating one at that. He begins with the fact that idolatry is a sin punishable by death for a Ben Noach like Yisro. Even repentance out of love doesn’t allow one to escape this punishment, which is supposed to be meted out by a human court.
However, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 78b) informs us that a Ben Noach who commits blasphemy (which is also punishable by death) and converts is exonerated because “nishtane dino v’nishtane misoso.” Once a Jew, he is governed by different law (e.g., a Ben Noach is put to death by the sword while a Jew is stoned for the sin of idolatry).
With this background information, the Birchas Ish suggests a beautiful resolution for why Yisro didn’t join Bnei Yisrael until after Matan Torah. Yisro’s only escape hatch from the death penalty for serving idols was to convert. However, true conversion, could only be carried out after Matan Torah. Thus, it was safe for Yisro to arrive at the Israelite camp only subsequent to Matan Torah, after which, as the Targum Yoneson Ben Uziel states, Moshe Rabbeinu immediately converted him – even before formally greeting him.
How could Moshe rush to convert him so quickly?
Because it was a matter of life and death.
The Torah says, “Vayichad Yisro,” which Rashi explains means, “Yisro rejoiced.” The Gemara tells us, however, that “vayichad” also indicates that Yisro circumcised himself at this juncture. According to the Birchas Ish’s beautiful explanation, it is readily apparent why Yisro’s circumcision would be a great moment of joy for it was at this moment that he became exonerated from his crime of idolatry (for a new convert is considered like a newborn baby, who has a clean slate).
The Chedvas Yaakov wonders how Yisro was able to circumcise himself in the desert. The northern wind didn’t blow in the desert, and the Gemara (Yevamos) informs us that it’s dangerous to perform a milah without the therapeutic northern wind. However, according to the above explanation, it was even more dangerous for Yisro to remain uncircumcised and a condemned man. Therefore, under the circumstances, he was permitted to perform the risky operation.
This explanation, with all of its twists and turns, is just a small example of how intricate and complex the stories of our Holy Torah are. In the merit of our trying to plummet the Torah’s depths, may we be zocheh to good health, happiness, and everything wonderful.