Yisro the Truth-Seeker

Vayishma Yisro (Shemos 18:1)

Parashas Yisro contains the details of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which cemented our relationship as Hashem’s chosen nation. While one would expect the parashah containing such a pivotal and lofty event in Jewish history to open on an inspirational note, it instead begins by discussing the arrival of Yisro to join the Jewish people in the wilderness. Why was this event selected to serve as the introduction to the giving of the Torah?

Further, in introducing us to Yisro, the Torah refers to him as a priest for idol-worship in Midian. After Yisro abandoned his idolatrous past and displayed great self-sacrifice in coming to convert and join the Jewish people, why would the Torah denigrate him by emphasizing his ignoble history? Moreover, Rashi writes (18:11) that Yisro was able to say with certainty that Hashem is superior to all other gods because he had previously served every idol in the world. What is this pejorative statement intended to teach us?

Harav Yosef Elefant of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim explains that Yisro was a truth-seeker, and in his quest for emes, he relentlessly explored and experimented with every idolatrous practice and religion in the world. After recognizing the falsehood of one idol, he would move on to the next, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of meaning and answers. No matter how many wrong turns he took, Yisro never despaired in his search for the truth, and he maintained his intellectual honesty and integrity to acknowledge when yet another attempt was in vain.

One of the names by which the Torah refers to Yisro is Putiel (6:25), which Rashi explains is a reference to the fact that he used to fatten calves to sacrifice them as a form of idol-worship. The Torah’s allusion to Yisro’s heathen past, along with the fact that he formerly served as an idolatrous priest in Midian, is not a contradiction to the concept that one should not remind a sinner who has repented of his earlier ways.

This information is conveyed as a way of praising Yisro for his relentless determination in his quest. The Torah tells us that when Yisro explored a new belief system, he didn’t do it half-heartedly. His integrity obligated him to go all-out in his service of each idol in his ongoing pursuit of emes. Harav Ephraim Wachsman explains that for this reason, the Torah emphasizes that there was something unique about Yisro’s hearing — vayishma Yisro — as even after serving every idol in the world, his ears and mind remained open to hearing and discovering the truth.

Rav Elefant notes that Yisro’s pursuit of the truth didn’t cease when he arrived in the wilderness to join the Jewish people and finally found the answers he had been desperately seeking for so long. Shortly after his arrival, he approached Moshe and rebuked him (18:13–26) regarding his system for judging and resolving disputes, which Yisro felt was unsustainable in the long-term. Although one would expect a newcomer to refrain from offering an unsolicited opinion, and certainly not to the leader of the entire nation, Yisro’s dedication to emes mandated that when he saw something that needed to be changed, he felt compelled to speak up about it.

With this introduction, we can now appreciate why Yisro’s arrival, which demonstrates a burning passion for truth, was selected as an appropriate introduction to the giving of the Torah, which is the epitome of emes. The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) teaches that the seal of Hashem is emes, and the giving of the Torah enables us to access the world of Divine wisdom and unadulterated truth.

The paradigm for reaching that level is Yisro, who serves as a role model for us in his unquenchable desire for truth, which enabled him to repeatedly reexamine his beliefs until he ultimately discovered the one and only Truth.

Q: Moshe named his first son Gershom to commemorate the fact that he was a sojourner in Midian, a strange land (18:3). He called his second son Eliezer to express his gratitude to Hashem for rescuing him from Pharaoh’s sword (18:4). As he fled to Midian only after being saved from Pharaoh, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to reverse the names to reflect the order in which the events occurred?

Q: Rashi writes (19:3) that Hashem instructed Moshe to speak to the women about accepting the Torah before the men. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to discuss it first with the men?

A: The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh suggests that the “strange land” to which Moshe referred wasn’t the land of Midian, but rather Olam Hazeh, which felt foreign to his lofty soul, and in which he merely dwelled without allowing himself to feel too comfortable. Since he arrived in this world long before he was saved from Pharaoh, the names were, in fact, given in chronological order.

Harav Moshe Feinstein suggests that in naming his first son Gershom, Moshe was thanking Hashem for giving him the strength and intelligence to remain only a dweller in the land of Midian and not a permanent resident. In giving this name first, Moshe was expressing that this merit (of remaining only a temporary dweller) justified his miraculous salvation from Pharaoh’s sword.

Had Moshe not done so, he would have felt no joy from the fact that he was saved. He therefore gave the names in a non-chronological order in order to hint that only as a result of this merit was he also excited to express his gratitude for his salvation.

A: The Midrash gives three explanations for asking the women first: because women perform mitzvos with more alacrity; so that they should send their sons to study Torah and educate them properly; and because destruction resulted when Hashem commanded Adam before Chavah regarding the forbidden fruit, He elected to reverse the order this time.

The Beis Halevi answers based on the Gemara in Gittin (55b), which rules that if a person purchases land first from a man and then from his wife, the purchase is invalid because of a fear that the woman’s agreement was only to please her husband and wasn’t genuine. Similarly, if the men accepted the Torah first, there would be concern that the subsequent acceptance of the women was insincere and was done only to make the men happy.

Harav Shmaryahu Arieli suggests that Moshe spoke to the women first because the Midrash teaches (Bereishis Rabbah 17:7) that the spiritual level of a home is determined by the woman.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.