Our parsha begins with a surprising change of scene. Following the dramatic showdown at the Red Sea and the exultant triumph against Amalek at Rephidim, the Torah now zooms in on Moshe’s intimate reunion with his father-in-law, Yitro, who shows up with his wife Tziporah and two children. When we last encountered Yitro, Moshe was taking his leave following the burning bush episode, in response to God’s command to return to Egypt. Now he joins Moshe in the wilderness and offers sacrifices to God. Why does Yitro appear at this point in the narrative, between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah? What is his role at this crucial point in the history of the Jewish people, in that brief window between redemption and revelation?
The Talmudic rabbis disagree about what Yitro heard that motivated him to leave Midian and come join the Israelites in the desert. Was it the story of the Exodus? Or the story of the revelation at Sinai, which according to some rabbis, who hold that the Torah is not written in chronological order, had in fact already happened? Rabbi Eliezer argues the former, and indeed, this seems to be the straightforward reading: The first verse of our parsha states, “Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt” (18:1). And yet this answer, too, is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, because if Yitro heard all about the Exodus, why did Moshe then have to tell him about it? As the Torah goes on to relate, “Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (18:8). Why did Moshe have to repeat what Yitro had already heard?
Perhaps the point is not what Yitro heard, but rather what Moshe recounted. Even if Yitro already knew about the Exodus, the story needed to be told. As God told Moshe on the very day they went forth from Egypt, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (13:8). Twice a day Jews must recite the Shema, which identifies God as the One who took the Israelites out of Egypt, as do the Ten Commandments. The Passover Haggadah teaches that “the more one tells about the Exodus of Egypt, behold this is praiseworthy.” This is a story that we are commanded to tell and to retell. And yet in order to tell the story, there needs to be someone to listen. That is why Yitro comes on the scene.
Yitro appears in the Torah between the Exodus and the revelation because he is the ideal audience. He is sympathetic to the Israelites – his daughter, after all, is married to their new leader – but he was not with them in Egypt and he did not experience the Exodus first-hand. Like all of us alive today, he was not an eyewitness, and so he relies on the stories. He hears about what he did not see with his own eyes. His arrival is the occasion for the first retelling of the narrative we are commanded to tell and retell for all subsequent generations.
Yitro’s reaction serves as an important model for all of us, who struggle each year to view ourselves as if we have gone out of Egypt – as if it is all happening to us for the first time. Yitro has a genuine religious response, and he speaks words that no Jew had spoken before that point: “Baruch Hashem!” (18:10). He also rejoices—“vayichad Yitro”—a term which the Talmudic sages interpret in two ways (Sanhedrin 94a). According to Rav, Yitro passed a sword over his body, implying that he circumcised himself and converted. According to Shmuel, the news gave him goosebumps. Either way, Yitro has a physical reaction to the news – it gets underneath his skin. This is all the more remarkable if we assume that Yitro had already heard about the Exodus, and was hearing it all for the second time.
Yitro’s visceral response to the Exodus makes sense when we consider that he is a religious figure – he is a Midianite priest. He is sensitive to the spiritual dimension of experience, and perhaps he prompts Moshe to frame the Exodus in these terms. When Moshe shares the Exodus story with his father-in-law the priest, it becomes not just a story of political liberation, but also one of divine redemption. Perhaps this is why we are commanded to reference the story of the Exodus as part of our daily prayers – we recite the Shema to remember that the Exodus from Egypt was not just a historical event, but a foundational moment in our covenantal relationship with God. And so it is not just Yitro’s reaction that is a model for us, but also Moshe’ recounting. Moshe’ encounter with Yitro teaches us that sometimes we need to step back to reflect and recount to others so as to become sensitive to the spiritual dimension – to those moments in life when we, too, might get goosebumps.