Rabbi Goldschmidt

Parshat Yitro

Our Parsha is focused on arguably the seminal moment for Israel, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Beyond the receiving of laws and final formation of our people Israel, it is a moment that has defined us and all western theology ever since:
The communication not with a single select prophet in a cave, vision or dream, but rather with an entire nation.

The Parsha also deals with the relationship between Moshe and his father in law Yitro:
Yitro was considered a priest[1] in Midian[2] and an important person, so much so that he was known by at least seven other names[3] and had already distanced himself from idolatrous practices[4] prior to meeting Moshe. According to our tradition[5] he had already experimented with all the other world religions, reaching a place of prominence within each faith and then ultimately rejecting the surrounding religions.

This had massive ramifications for him and his family: It was decreed that would be banned from living amongst the other Midianites[6] – this is, according to our tradition, is why his daughters were chased away from the well[7]. Midianite religion was complex; according to the Biblical narrative they worshipped in a similar fashion to Moabites as they were directly associated with them[8] and worshipped such deities as Baal-Peor and Ashteroth (also known as the Queen of heaven). Other historical scholars however suggest based on archaeological research that they also worshiped the Egyptian Goddess Hathor[9].

There are a variety of reasons[10] given as to why Yitro came to convert:

The war against the nation of Amalek (which makes more sense when we consider that the Midianite and Amalekite cultures were somewhat intertwined).

The giving of the Torah – although according to our tradition there is a debate as to whether Yitro converted prior or after the receiving of the Torah[11].

The miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds.

What is perhaps fascinating to our narrative is that these are all experiences that occurred indirectly to Yitro (he, according to tradition, had heard about these great events rather than being present himself) and that he was already the father-in-law of Moshe before these events took place. Regardless of how we interpret the narrative, clearly there was something special about Torah in comparison to the religions of the nations of that time.

In the narrative of our Parsha, Yitro gives advice to Moshe on how to interact with our people:
As our Parsha describes[12], Moshe was sitting judging and giving counsel to the people from morning until night – Yitro explains that this will ultimately not work, it is too mammoth a task for a single individual. He proposes that a delegation of smaller courts is created and he appoints[13] “heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens” – on the surface this appears pragmatic and logical, but perhaps we can venture to say it masks a theological and philosophical idea that ties together Yitro’s own search for truth:

Yitro had seen enough of religion to understand a fundamental issue: all too often the rise of charismatic leader, prophet or divine spokesperson becomes the central focus. Sometimes the focus given to such an individual begins to eclipse the Divine itself. Human history is replete with examples of Leaders, Gurus, Priests, Iman, Prophets, Rabbis and Rebbes who have used political savvy, powerful skills of oration and theatrical persona to abuse, mislead and control their congregants, followers and people under their influence – ultimately entire nations can be swayed towards a specific ideology, regardless of how illogical it is. Excellent examples from national dictators quickly come to mind as well as specific cultlike groups that exist unfortunately within all religions and political affiliations.

Perhaps that which drew Yitro to Torah was precisely the opposite of this common issue. He beheld a national religious identity, a “nation of priests”[14], a collective entity in which all strive together to keep the laws of their Creator and create a society to facilitate this based on law and justice. Arguably the exact opposite of this is an autocracy (a system of government in which absolute power over a state is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject neither to external legal restraints nor to regularized mechanisms of popular control). The Torah version of a Messianic King is not a divine incarnate, nor an infallible leader (as some religions and cults may profess) but rather a human King who also answers to the legal system and has rules of governance and accountability, a mortal person who has stipulations and limitations to their power and authority.

We live in an age where our understanding of Jewish leaders and in particular the coming of the Messianic King (may he come speedily) are deeply confused and arguably greatly affected by external ideologies. It is much easier to focus on aloof leaders surrounded with a rich mythology and loud supporters and adherents than the alternative; that we ourselves focus on being the leaders our people and communities so desperately need. Torah is not about the celebration of a single person, but rather the elevation of an entire people, to find a place for every individual to express their unique relationship with Hashem and to work together towards our collective goal of a peaceful and righteous society for all.


Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2023 ©



[1] Exodus/Shemot: 2:16

[2] Scholars suggest that biblical Midian was in the “northwest Arabian Peninsula, on the east shore of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea”, an area which was “never extensively settled until the 8th–7th century B.C – (Dever, W. G. (2006), Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 34, ISBN 978-0-8028-4416-3)

[3] Shemot Rabbah: 4:1

[4] Ibid: 1:32

[5] Sifsei Chachamim on Shemot 2:16 & Talmud Bavli: Sotah 11a.

[6] Shemot Rabbah: 1:32

[7] Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 11.

[8] Number 22: 4-7

[9] Rothenberg, Beno (1972). Timna: Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines. London: Thames and Hudson.

[10] Mechilta D’rabi Yishmael: Yitro 1.

[11] Talmud Bavli, tractate Zevachim 116a

[12] Shemot/Exodus: 18:13

[13] Ibid: 18:25

[14] Ibid 19:6