“Now I (Jethro) know that Hashem is greater than all gods. . . “ (Exodus 18:11)
Is it not strange that the very Biblical portion which records God’s revelation to the Israelites – indeed, the religio-legal covenant between the Almighty and His chosen people – begins with, and is named in honor of, a Midianite priest?
Moreover, why did God choose Mount Sinai, which is a desert mountain outside of the boundaries of the Land of Israel, a galut (exile) location for His Revelation? Would it not have been far more fitting for God to have presented the revelation on the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah, which is the place of the binding of Isaac, in the Holy City of Jerusalem?
The Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, the Midrash Bahodesh (Lauterbach edition, p. 198), provides a fascinating response to our second query: “Had the Torah been given in the Land of Israel, the Israelites would have told the rest of the nations that they have no portion in the Torah. Now that the Revelation was given in the desert, in an open, ownerless, public space, which is accessible to every human being, let anyone who wishes to accept it, come and take it.”
Another Midrash cited by the commentator Rashi takes an even more active approach to conversion in his interpretation of Moses’ final blessing to the Israelites at the end of the Pentateuch, towards the beginning of the portion “VeZot HaBerakha” (Deut 33:1,2). The Midrash pictures the Lord on His way to Sinai, first approaching the descendants of Esau (Seir) and then the descendants of Yishmael (Mount Paran), offering them the Torah first! It was only after these Gentiles rejected the moral laws prohibiting theft and adultery, and after Israel accepted all the laws unconditionally, that it became Israel’s Torah.
And since our God is the Lord of the universe and not only the Lord of Israel; and since every human being – and not only the Hebrews – was created in the Divine image, God’s hope, and ultimate guarantee, is that every citizen of the world will eventually accept the seven Noahide laws of morality and perhaps even the entire Torah. That is the significance of Isaiah’s picture of the end of the days, when “the Mountain of the Temple of the Lord will stand secure and all of the nations will rush to the Temple and they shall declare, ‘Let us learn from (Israel’s) ways and let us walk in (Israel’s) paths, for from Zion shall come forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” – Torah for the entire world! (Isaiah 2: 3).
Similarly, the prophet Zephaniah prophesies: “At that time, I shall turn around the nations (and bring to them) a clear and universal language which will call out to all of them in the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder” (Zephaniah 3:9). And one of our most ancient prayers, which our Talmudic Sages have ordained must be said at the conclusion of each and every statutory prayer service, declares our faithful hope that “idols will be completely cut off, the world will be perfected under the Kingship of the Almighty, all mortal children of flesh will call upon Your Name, all the wicked of the earth will be turned to You,…and everyone will accept the yoke of Your Kingship” (Aleynu, Al Ken).
To be sure, the great legal codifier and philosopher of the 11-12th centuries, Maimonides (the Rambam) ordained that Moses was only to teach the 613 commandments to the Israelites and to those who wished to convert to Judaism. Jews are commanded to convert – and even to coerce – Gentiles into the acceptance of the seven Noahide laws of morality, not into the acceptance of the entire package of Jewish law and traditions (Laws of Kings, 8,10). Any Gentile who accepts these seven laws of morality (not to murder, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to drink the blood or eat a limb of a living animal, not to blaspheme God, not to serve idols and to establish law courts for the expedition of these laws.), is entitled to a share in the world to come.
However, Maimonides does rule that at the end of days, everyone will, of their own volition, turn to the true religion, refrain from robbery and destruction, and eat only permitted (kosher) foods like the Israelites” (ibid 12).
Since the Torah is meant to spread throughout the world, it is understandable why Yitro – a Midianite Priest who came to accept and praise the God of Israel and His laws – is a fitting hero for the portion of our Revelation at Sinai.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.