The First Convert

The Story of Yithro

For his entire life, Yithro searched for man’s purpose in this world and the meaning of life. There wasn’t a form of idol worship which he hadn’t studied and served with all his soul in the hopes of finding what he was searching for. An extremely wise man, he succeeded in reaching the highest levels in each religion, and eventually was appointed High Priest of all the deities. Upon hearing of his wisdom, he was requested to come to the capitol of the Egyptian empire from Midian, to serve as an important priest and advisor to Pharaoh the King of Egypt. When the difficult decrees against Israel began, Yithro was deeply saddened. However, not knowing how to nullify the orders, he waited quietly to see if he could somehow save the children. Unsuccessful in his efforts, he fled Egypt and returned to Midian, not wanting to be a collaborator in the crime (see Shmot Rabbah 27:6, Sotah 11b).

Upon his arrival in Midian, Yithro was reinstated as priest. However, after all he had seen in Egypt, he eventually became skeptical about his lifelong beliefs in idol worship, to the point where he could no longer deceive himself. “He called the people together and said to them: ‘I have served you up until now. Since I have grown old, it is time for you to choose another priest.’ He took out his idol worship paraphernalia and handed it over to them.” The Midianites realized that the reason for his quitting wasn’t due to his old-age, but rather because he had become doubtful about their idol worship. “They immediately excommunicated him; No one should have anything to do with him; not to do any work for him, and not to graze his sheep. Yithro asked some shepherds to graze his flocks, but they refused; therefore he called upon his daughters to graze his sheep” (Shmot Rabbah 1:32). And even when it was his daughters who came to the well, the shepherds would drive them away. Only after everyone had left did Yithro’s daughters give drink to their fathers’ sheep.

Moses Escapes to Midian

In time, Moshe Rabbeinu left the King’s palace and saw the suffering of his brother’s. Unable to tolerate their misery, he smote and killed the Egyptian slave master. Pharaoh found out and decreed his death. Moshe escaped from Egypt and arrived in Midian. When he saw how the shepherds discriminated Yithro’s daughters, he came to their aid and watered their sheep. Thus, Moshe and Yithro, the two fugitives from Egypt, were united. Moshe desired to marry his daughter Tziporah, however Yithro, aware of Moshe’s distress, feared that he would attempt to endanger his life in order to save Israel by casting upon himself the nearly impossible suicidal mission, and thereby leaving his wife a widow. Therefore, he agreed to their marriage only on the condition that Moshe take an oath not to leave his daughter without his permission (Shmot Rabbah 1:33). Moshe promised Yithro, and married Tziporah. He would graze his father-in-law’s sheep on the edge of the desert, far from the public eye.

Time went by until one day, God appeared to Moshe from within the burning bush, requesting that he take His nation Israel out of Egypt. At this point, Yithro could no longer stop Moshe, and was forced to release him from his oath. Moshe went to Egypt, leaving a fearful wife and father-in-law back in Midian.

Yithro’s Desires and Fears

A year passed, and the astounding news spread throughout the world: God had miraculously taken Israel out of Egypt by his prophet Moshe. Together with the happiness over the rescue of Moshe and Israel, all the yearnings for closeness to God were aroused and rekindled within Yithro. Once again he hoped that, perhaps, in the twilight of his life, after losing hope on all the idol worship, he would accomplish his dream of knowing God, and find the answer to all the questions of his soul. His heart was filled with an urge to approach his son-in-law, Moshe, and to hear about the Heavenly revelations which had been revealed to the nation of Israel. And although it was not easy for a wise man such as him to come and sit before his son-in-law — like a student sitting before his teacher — his longing for faith triumphed.

Yet, Yithro was greatly disturbed: Who knows how he would be accepted. For, behold, he was a foreigner who hadn’t shared their suffering, nor the happiness of their flight to freedom. Perhaps he’ll want to join them, but they’ll distance themselves from him. Maybe they’ll be willing to accept him, but won’t be able to appreciate his wisdom appropriately. He might want to ask questions, but they’ll ignore him. Maybe he’ll want offer advice based on his vast knowledge, but they will ridicule him. True, in the past he had agreed to forgo his positions of advisor to King Pharaoh and High Priest, choosing to retire to his house — but to be a nobody, standing in the distance – this he could not agree to. And although Moshe was married to his daughter – maybe as a result of all the great events that had occurred, his attitude towards him had changed. Perhaps Moshe had chosen a new path for himself, denying his past and his wife’s family.

As a result of these fears, when the Israelite camp approached, Yithro sent a messenger to Moshe with a request: Please, greet me kindly and with honor, and come out to meet me, for I am your father-in-law. And if you don’t want to honor and greet me – come out to greet your wedded-wife, for she has accompanied me. And if you don’t desire to greet her – at least greet your son’s, who are also with us.

Moshe was also concerned, lest Yithro was not coming for the sake of Heaven, but rather, since he had heard about the great salvation, he simply wanted to take part in the important occasion, as the father-in-law of the leader, and as the veteran priest, and nothing would come out of the entire deal except troubles and confusion.

How to Welcome Converts

God appeared to Moshe and said: “‘This man, who has come to Me, has come only for the sake of Heaven! And he has come only to convert! Draw him close, do not distance him!’ Immediately, Moshe went out [to greet his father-in-law]” (Shmot Rabbah 27:2).

Still, Moshe could have gone out to meet him secretly, however, he understood from God’s words that it is fitting to honor the lonely convert.

Moshe visibly went out to greet his father-in-law. And since Moshe went out, his brother Aaron the Kohen and his son’s Nadav and Avihu, also went with him. And since they went out, the seventy elders and a great crowd of people followed. Some say that they even took the Holy Ark with them (Michilta).

The crowd of people didn’t know who they were going out to meet, until they reached Yithro the Midianite, and saw how Moshe bowed-down to him, kissed him, asked about his well-being, and brought him in to his tent. Then, everyone understood that, although through the exodus from Egypt, God had separated Israel from all the nations to be His chosen people, but since Yithro came to convert, Moshe accepted him with all his heart.

From this event, all of Israel, for all generations, learned how to receive converts. Consequently, Israel merited the good advice that Yithro gave them, advice that even God agreed with.

And God, who knows that which is hidden, said to Yithro: You came humbly to greet Moshe and to learn Torah from him, therefore you will merit that your offspring will always be present in the Torah study halls (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 5).

A Converts’ First Motive

Being the first convert to Judaism, it’s interesting to examine the first step which lead to Yithro’s joining the Jewish nation. The Sages said that when Pharaoh began to fear Israel, he called for three wise men: Bil’am, Job, and Yithro, and asked for their advice on how to defeat them. The wicked Bil’am was the one who advised to enslave the Israelites with hard labor, to exploit and destroy them. Job remained silent, and Yithro fled, in order not to be an accomplice – even in silence – to the crime. The Sages said: “Bil’am, who gave the advice, was killed. Job, who remained silent, was sentenced to suffer. Yithro, who fled, merited having his offspring sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone” serving as members of the Great Sanhedrin in the Second Temple (Sotah 11a).

We see, therefore, that morals are the foundation for the receiving of the Torah and joining the Jewish nation. As our Sages have said (Yevamot 79a): “There are three signs in this [Jewish] nation: They are merciful, bashful, and kind.”

Ruth the Moabite was also motivated at first by an act of kindness. She had mercy on her lonely mother-in-law. “And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you: for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge: your people shall be my people, and your God, my God: where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part between us.” God showed Ruth kindness, and she merited seeing her offspring, David and Solomon, rule over Israel.

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