You Take the Good, You Take the Bad: Why Yitro Waited to Convert

In Honor of Melitta Oppenheim’s Bat Mitzvah

In Shmot 2:16-17, we see that Yitro’s daughters were treated disrespectfully by the shepherds: “The Kohen of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water (from the well) and fill the troughs to water their father’s sheep. Then the shepherds came and chased them away. Moshe got up to their aid and watered their sheep.”


Yitro was a revered Midianite Priest, so why did the shepherds disrespect his daughters?


According to Rashi, Yitro was the most prominent of the Midianite Priests. However, when he abandoned idol worship, the Midianites shunned him.


We see from here that Yitro had already stopped worshipping idols even before he met Moshe yet we only see him speak about God after the exodus from Egypt when Moshe returns in Shmot 18:10-11: “Yitro said: ‘Blessed is God who rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh; who rescued the people from under the hand of Egypt. Now I know that God is greater than all the gods, because the very thing they plotted came upon them.’”


Rashi comments that Yitro was saying: “I was aware of God in the past but now, all the more so.” Yitro was acquainted with all forms of idol worship in the world.


Ramban explains that we see Yitro’s official conversion in Shmot 18:12: “Then Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and peace offerings to God. Aharon and all of the elders of Yisrael came to eat bread with Yitro, Mosh’s father-in-law, before God.”


Why did Yitro, wait until now to convert?


Rashi ties Yitro’s choice to convert to the first words of Parshat Yitro (Shmot 18:1) “And Yitro, Kohen Midian, Moshe’s father in law heard about all that God had done for Moshe and for his people Yisrael, when God brought Israel out of Egypt.” The Mechilta states that he chose to convert after hearing about the splitting of the Red Sea. Rabbi Yehoshua taught that Yitro came because he heard about the war with Amalek (Zevachim 116a).


Rabbi Kazryel Fiszel Tchorz, 1896-1979, a founder of HaPoel HaMizrachi, comments: The splitting of the sea showed the Mesirat Nefersh (martyrdom) of B’nai Yisrael as they jumped into the water up to their necks and saw miracles that even Yechezkel the prophet did not see. The attack by Amalek showed a nation attacking B’nai Yisrael when they were weak, spilling innocent blood. At that time, Yitro took it upon himself to stand with B’nai Yisrael and to join them.


Yitro understood that we will experience miracles but we will also have to fight many wars in order to defend ourselves. He was ready to commit in the good times as well as in the bad times.


Living in Israel is also a mixed bag. We see miracles being performed on a daily basis while at the same time our enemies are attacking innocent men, women and children. Whether one converts to Judaism or makes aliya, they have to understand that there will be easier times as well as more difficult times and that is the reality of being part of the Jewish people.