Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Yitro 5777

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What Brings You to Judaism?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Any time that a potential convert comes into a Rabbi’s office one of the first things that you want to know is, what brought you here? Why are you interested in Judaism? What is it that you find appealing?

I have had that conversation numerous times and I think that it has helped me make sense of the first Midrash on this week’s parsha.

The first verse tells how Yitro heard about all of the things that Hashem did for the Jews. The second verse then describes how Yitro picks himself up and takes Moshe’s wife and children to join the Jewish people.

The Midrash asks a very famous question: “What did Yitro hear that made him come?” Although many answers are given to this question the classic Midrash offers 3 possibilities:

  • Yitro heard about the victory over Amalek, which is the story immediately preceding this in the Torah.
  • Yitro heard about the splitting of the sea.
  • Yitro heard about Matan torah.

I always assumed that this was an argument about what convinces people that Judaism is correct? Is it the fact that Jewish history has demonstrated that we have survived against all odds, Amalek or yam suf, or is it the beauty and depth of the Torah- or Matan torah.

This year I believe that my assumption was incorrect, at least in this version of the Midrash.

When you go to the source and look at the original Midrash, not only how it is quoted by later commentators you notice two very interesting things.

  • While explaining the opinion of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai that Yitro heard about Matan Torah and came, the Midrash says as follows: “at the time when God gave the Jews the Torah, all of the kings of the earth shook in their palaces. They came to the wicked Bilam and asked him, maybe God is punishing us like he punished the generation of the flood? Bilam responds, God has already promised not to bring another flood to this earth, rather God is giving the Torah to his people and the ones close to him.”
    This is a description of the miraculous events providing the context for the giving of the Torah; it has nothing to do with the content or depth of the Torah itself. Yitro might be intrigued by the miracle or the fact that there was a revelation at all but his coming seems to have little to do with the profound truth of the Torah.
  • There is another version of this same Midrash and in that version the question that the Midrash poses is not “what did Yitro hear and come?” but what did Yitro come hear and convert?

That latter version seems to be in line with what I had originally thought- what causes you to believe that Judaism is true and convert, but maybe the first version “what did Yitro hear and come” is actually a different question–maybe it really means “what intrigued him?” Or “what enticed him?”

In other words “what caused him to come” and then gave him the opportunity to really see what Judaism is all about?

That would explain the specific language of the Midrash, “what did he hear that caused him to come” and it would explain why Rabbi Elazar focused on the miraculous nature of the revelation and not the content of the Torah itself.

A similar message seems to appear in the text as well. In the very first verse of the Parsha we are told that Yitro heard that God had taken the Jews out of Egypt. He then brings Moshe’s family along. A few verse later we read the following:

8. And Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the hardship that had come upon them by the way, and how the Lord saved them.

  1. And Jethro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered from the hand of the Egyptians.
  2. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who has saved you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of Pharaoh, who has saved the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
  3. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods;

Let us ask the obvious question? If he had heard about the exodus before why does Moshe have to tell him again and why only now does he know that the Lord is greater than all others, isn’t that why he came?

Apparently that is not why he came. Maybe he came because he was intrigued by the exodus story or maybe it was something as mundane as after hearing about the exodus, he realized that it was time to reunite Moshe with his family so he brought them to Moshe. Once he met Moshe and began to listen and learn until he realized that this was truly divine and that God was actually the greatest.

In this sense Yitro is in a very real sense the first convert. He came either because something grabbed his interest or because of a relationship and once he came he began to learn and appreciate the depth of Judaism and finally embraced Judaism.

Although the overwhelming majority of us in this room were born as Jews many of us are not all that different from Yitro. There are things that appeal to us about our Judaism and other things we do because we were born Jewish and raised to do them. Nevertheless there is so much about our Judaism that we do not know and are unaware of. Judaism is a religion of profound wisdom, and great complexity, depth and beauty! How many of us really appreciate it as such? And how many of us are still at the intrigued stage?

The challenge that Yitro presents to us and the challenge that the serious committed convert present to us is to not take our Judaism for granted. Don’t be satisfied with knowing a little bit about being Jewish and never moving beyond that point. Study, read and learn so that we can live as committed Jews with a real understanding of our religion.