Parashat Yitro: The Juxtaposition of Amalek and Yitro
There are bad things in the world, but there also are things that are very good. Some Jews see the entire non-Jewish world as Amalek, or as something despicable, but those who don’t recognize the righteousness of certain gentiles and the benevolence of world culture are gravely mistaken.
Rabbi Yitzhak Blau, Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
“Now Moses’ father in law, Yitro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1)
What had Yitro heard that prompted his decision to come to the Jewish people? According to the simple interpretation of the verse, he had heard of the wonders that occurred during the exodus from Egypt. Rashi writes that he had heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek. Rashi’s interpretation seems to be influenced by the fact that the story of the war against Amalek appears just before the story of Yitro’s arrival in the Israelite camp.
It is well known that two great commentators, the Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides, take different approaches on how to apply the principle of ein mukdam ve’ein meuchar batorah, i.e. that there is no chronological order in the Torah. The Ibn Ezra (R. Avraham Ibn Ezra) uses this principle quite liberally, claiming that oftentimes, the Torah is arranged thematically, and not chronologically. In contrast, Nahmanides argues that the Torah almost always narrates its stories in chronological order. The two commentators disagree about the beginning of Parashat Yitro as well.
Ibn Ezra explains that Yitro arrived after the Torah was given, even though this defies the chronological order of these chapters. He states that the story told in chapter 17 – the war against Amalek at Refidim – is tied to chapter 18, when the Israelites embarked from Refidim. He also substantiates this argument with a detail from the story of Yitro, which appears in chapter 18. Yitro observes that the Israelites had formed a long line, each person waiting his turn to consult with Moshe. Moshe explains that “…if any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.” We take this to mean that the Israelites already have God’s Torah, so it follows that the story occurred after the giving of the Torah.
Keeping to his ways, Nahmanides disagrees, stating that Yitro arrived before the giving of the Torah, and that the events of chapter 18 truly occurred before those in chapter 19. Nothing in the words “the statutes of God and His teachings” can prove that halachic questions could arise even before the Torah is given. Even before, when the Israelites were encamped at Mara, the Torah recounts that “…there He (God) gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” (Exodus 15:25). This shows that Torah and halacha had already existed before the Torah was given.
Nahmanides provides further evidence in the fact that there is no mention, at the beginning of the chapter, that Yitro had heard about the giving of the Torah. The only thing mentioned in the first chapter is that he had heard of the exodus from Egypt. Later in the chapter, in verse 8, the text states that Moses told his father-in-law about the wonders of the exodus from Egypt, and he does not mention anything about the Torah being received. We infer from this that this story had occurred before the giving of the Torah. Nahmanides mentions an intermediate option; namely, that Yitro had decided to come before the Torah was given, but by the time he had arrived, the awesome event of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai had already occurred. Still, Nahmanides preferred the conclusion that Yitro had come before the giving of the Torah, following the chronological order of the chapters (part of this discussion between the medieval sages is tied to the connection between the story about Yitro that appears in this week’s Parasha, and the story of Yitro appearing in Parashat Beha’alotcha, in chapter 11 of the Book of Numbers).
According to Nahmanides, the order of the chapters does not need to be explained, since they are written in chronological order. According to Ibn Ezra, in practice, chapter 19 occurred before chapter 18, and it is incumbent upon us to understand why the Torah does not relate these stories in chronological order. He explains that the Torah intended to juxtapose the war against Amalek with the story of Yitro. Generations later, Yitro’s descendants would live in proximity to the Amalekites, and it is important to stress that the war against Amalek does not include the descendants of Yitro. As it turns out, King Saul warns the Kenites (Yitro’s great-grandchildren), urging them to separate themselves from the Amalekites before the battle.
We can understand Ibn Ezra’s commentary as words of wisdom, meant to teach us that we must only fight against our real adversaries.
However, there may be a deeper meaning. The Torah wishes to distinguish between Amalek and Yitro in order to shed light on the complexities that arise when the Jewish people encounter the gentile world. There are bad things in the world, but there also are things that are very good. Some hate the Jewish people, but there are also the “righteous among the nations”. Some Jews see the entire non-Jewish world as Amalek, as something despicable, but those who don’t recognize the righteousness of certain gentiles and the benevolence of world culture are gravely mistaken. On the other hand, some only see non-Jews as Yitros, and lack a deep understanding of modern antisemitism and other undesirable phenomena. Those who realize that the world is full of both Yitros and Amalekites reach a more profound and accurate understanding of the world.