“Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent” Exodus 18:7


The portion containing the Ten Commandments is named after a non-Israelite, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro, Priest of Midian (Exodus 18:1).

Jethro, like Moses (raised Egyptian but born Israelite), is both insider and outsider. Jethro’s status is also a commentary on the legacy of Torah itself: is Torah a gift for God’s special people Israel? Or a boon for all humankind?

The meeting between Moses and Jethro is depicted such that is it grammatically impossible to tell who greets, bows to, or kisses whom.

Instead we see two important people — a priest of Midian and the leader of the Israelites — meeting as equals and as kin with genuine warmth and mutuality towards one another.

When Moses tells Jethro about all the adventures of the Israelites, “Jethro rejoiced [vayichad Yitro] for all the good which God did for Israel in saving them from Egypt”(18:9). Vayichad Yitro hints at the singularity of God (echad) and when, a few verses later, Jethro offers a sacrifice to the Lord, we might understand that he has converted.

And yet the Talmud paints a much more complicated picture of Jethro’s beliefs and his relationship to the destiny of Israel, offering contrasting opinions from two sages:

Rav says that Jethro passed a blade (chaddah) over his flesh, meaning he circumcised himself and became Jewish.

Shmuel says Jethro felt prickles (chidudim) in his flesh, stressing Jethro’s identification with the plight of the punished Egyptians (Sanhedrin 94a).

Between them, Rav and Shmuel paint Jethro as both a convert to monotheism and as someone who remains attached to his non-Israelite heritage, simultaneously an outsider, and also a close relative of Israel. His character harmonises the parochial and universalistic aspects of the Jewish mission.

And of course, in offering Moses sound advice about governance, he also embodies the ecumenical notion that there is wisdom among the nations.


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