Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1
This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love. One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):
And Yitro heard
The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it? The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!
The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:
Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!
Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!
Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?
Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!) – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!
The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.
The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.
Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.
For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.
It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.
I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.