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Emerging from darkness – Yitro’s legacy

  • IlanHerrmann
In the portion we read this week called Yitro, the most significant historical event of all time takes place: G-d’s revelation at Sinai; the giving of the Torah. The portion is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro.
by Rav Ilan Herrmann, The JLI Congregation | Jan 24, 2019

Why is this portion – in many respects the most auspicious of the entire Torah – called by Yitro’s name? Surely not just because he’s Moses’ father-in-law? The Torah is the source of all ethics, and for Yitro to get favoured for being related to Moses smacks of nepotism. Judaism also asserts very clearly that one is judged by and rewarded on one’s own merits.

Maybe it’s because Yitro chose to convert and join the Israelites in the desert that he is given special mention? But then again, so had many other Egyptians tagged along (the eirev rav) joining the band of Israelites as they marched out of slavery to triumphant redemption.

The question is intensified when we consider Yitro’s dark past. Not only was he steeped in idolatry for the duration of his life until that point, as the high priest and minister, he was in fact the leader of his time in idol worship. He himself declares that he was familiar with “all the g-ds”. So of all converts, why is he chosen to have the portion named after him?

The answer lies in the verse in Talmud Berachot: “In the place where baalei teshuvah (returnees; penitents) stand, utter tzaddikim (the righteous and holy) cannot stand.”

As great a standing as the righteous and holy have – and by that we mean even the most holy of individuals, tzaddikim – there is yet a higher reckoning, the one who turns from the path of being disconnected from Judaism and chooses to come “under the wings of the shechinah (the divine presence)”.

Yitro was an iconic leader in his time. He enjoyed adulation, was revered, and wielded power. By choosing to join the Jewish nation and turn his back on everything he had stood for and built up, he risked losing everything. He did it because he could not deny the truth he’d recognised in the G-d that had wrought the exodus and displayed his total dominion over all creation.

Thus, Yitro was honoured with the naming of this portion, because he demonstrated the courage and willingness to choose the path of truth in spite of the discomfort and sacrifice that came with it.

The Kabbalists explain that in negating that deep, dark impurity he’d been involved with and embracing G-d and Judaism, Yitro was able to transform a level of darkness of this world that only he could, because he was immersed in it and rejected it! Hence, his name is Yitro, which means “to add”. He added a powerful G-dly light through his choice.

A further lesson that extends from this idea is that even if you have been immersed in darkness for a long time, you can change in a moment and, like Yitro, attain the highest level of divine approval and reward.

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