Reading the story of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law and a convert to Judaism, is a serious challenge. For sensitive souls it is not just a meaningful narrative but above all a painful confrontation with one’s own Jewishness.
After many years of separation Moshe and Yitro meet again. Moshe has just taken the Jews out of Egypt and miraculously led them across the Red Sea. Yitro, together with his daughter, Moshe‘s wife Tzippora, and their children, were left behind when Moshe took on this great and almost impossible task. But now that the exodus has become a reality, it is possible for them to meet again. The text tells us that this meeting took place in the wilderness:
“Yitro, the father in law of Moshe came to Moshe with his sons and wife to the wilderness where he was encamped…..” (Shemoth 18:5)
This piece of information seems to be superfluous since as earlier on we were informed that Moshe and the people were in the wilderness. Rashi recognizing the problem explains that this is a reference to the tremendous sacrifice Yitro made when he decided to become a Jew:
“He lived in the world of glory. Still his heart moved him to leave it all behind and to go to the wilderness and hear the words of the Torah” (ad loc)
Indeed Yitro was a man of great wealth. He had occupied the prestigious position of the high priest in Midian ( see Rashi on 18:1), which is not unlike the position of the pope in Rome today. He was surrounded with servants, glory and abundance. The verse now informs us that he gave all this up to go to a “desert”, a place which would no longer give him any of these glories. As a Jew he would become one of the many, no longer a man in his own right but just “the father-in-law of Moshe”.
In fact we are informed that Yitro had become an outcast. He had rejected all forms of religion and philosophies known in his days and had been banned and abandoned by the societies in which he lived. He had turned into a “lonely man of faith” and ended up in the empty desert. His love for Torah and the Jewish people made everything else seem of secondary importance. Only this and nothing else moved him: To be part of the Jewish people and participate in its mitzvoth.
Yitro confronts us, for the first time after the exodus, with a new phenomenon: To be a Jew by choice. And by doing so he confronts all Jews with a major challenge: How to become a Jew by choice even when we have been born in the fold. How to feel the same “brenn” the burning need to live as a committed Jew as he did. This is only possible when we are able to re-enact and experience Yitro’s way to Judaism in our own lives. No doubt it must have been a long and difficult road. It must have been a heart-rending challenge in which there were moments of ascent and descent before arriving at the top. To do so, Yitro must have invented a most important device: A ladder of observance, a step-by-step involvement with the world of mitzvoth. Like a baby, which takes its first steps, he must have tried to engage the world of Halacha. To feel its touch, to integrate it in his life and to feel absorbed by its spirit, like a man who swims in water and is touched at all points and conscious everywhere.
We Jews born in the fold must try to do the same, to build our own ladder of observance, to start all over again, to re-engage with a mitzvah as if we had never done it before and as such to become “Jews by choice”. This does not mean that we should drop all the mitzvoth which we have been involved in up till now and keep only a few, as no doubt Yitro must have done at the beginning of his road to become Jewish. Rather we should begin a process by which we take hold of every mitzvah, which we are observing and transform it into something radically new as if we had never observed it before.
It is told of the great Jewish philosopher and “ba’al teshuva” Franz Rosenzweig that he, in his earlier days, was once asked whether he put on tefillin. “Not yet” was his answer. Although he may not have felt ready at the time to take on this great mitzvah he made it clear that he looked forward to the day when wearing tefillin would become a real possibility. This does not mean that he should have been waiting till he was fully ready. After al,l “it is in the deed that one hears”, as he often used to say later. Only when one actually does a mitzvah can one hear and feel its profundity and not the other way round. But what it does mean is that when one puts on tefillin, one has not yet performed the mitzvah as one should. Only when one comes to the mitzvah as a novice, like Yitro, can one experience its full power. Not out of tradition or habit but out of a genuine desire to fulfill the word of God.
This is the road which Yitro took and because of this he was prepared to give everything up. As such he challenges each one of us. How much of Yitro lives within us? How much are we Jews by choice? If we would not have been born into the fold but in a world as far removed from anything Jewish as Yitro was, would we have moved to the desert and given up all our glory just to be Jewish? This is the ultimate question. And it requires our honest response.