The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Yitro: The Prototypes of Very Different Gentiles
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“And Jethro the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and his people; that He had taken Israel out of Egypt.” [Exodus 18:1]
This Torah portion records how Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father- in-law, heard of God’s great wonders in redeeming the Israelites from Egypt and came to Moses amidst great praise to the Lord. Upon witnessing Moses’ difficult workload in rendering judgments from dawn to night, Jethro gave sage advice in organizing and delegating a graduated judicial system, with only the most complex cases to come before Moses. One of the issues dealt with by the biblical commentaries is the exact time when Jethro arrived on the scene: Was it before or after the Sinaitic revelation?
In terms of the chronological sequence of the biblical account, it would appear that Jethro came to Moses immediately after the split- ting of the Reed Sea and before the commandments were given at Sinai.
However, both Nahmanides and Ibn Ezra point out that since Moses could not have been occupied to the point of exhaustion with rendering biblical rulings before the Bible had been given, logic dictates that Jethro arrived and made his wise suggestion after the revelation at Sinai. But if so, why does the Torah record the advent and advice of Jethro before the account of the revelation, and why name the portion which includes the content of the divine words after a Midianite priest, especially since he came on the scene after that revelation took place?!
Ibn Ezra explains:
“Since the Bible has just mentioned the evil which Amalek did to the Israelites [at the end of Exodus Chapter 17 as the conclusion of the previous portion of Beshalach], the Bible must [immediately thereafter] mention in contrast the good advice which Jethro gave to the Israelites [at the beginning of Chapter 18 in the opening of the portion of Yitro].”
I would add that the Bible is contrasting two very opposite reactions to the miracle of the Exodus. In general, the nations of the world heard of the stunning rebellion of the Hebrews and became terrified:
“Nations heard and shuddered; terror gripped the inhabitants of Philistia…Fear and dread fell upon them; at the greatness of Your Arm they fell silent as stone.” [Exodus 15:14–16]
Two peoples, however, do not merely respond by panicking. Amalek, “first among the gentiles” (Num. 24:20), set out to make war against this emerging new star with the intent of heading them off at the pass. And Amalek played “dirty”:
“Remember what Amalek did to you…when they encountered you…when you were tired and exhausted, and they cut off those who were lagging to your rear [the old, the young and the infirm].” [Deut. 25:17, 18]
Jethro, on the other hand, is filled with admiration and praise: “And Jethro was overjoyed at all of the good which the Lord accomplished for the Israelites in saving them from the hand of Egypt. And Jethro said, ‘Praised be the Lord who has saved you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that the Lord is the greatest of all of the gods…’” (Ex. 18:9–11).
In effect, the biblical juxtaposition is teaching us that all gentiles should not be seen in the same light: there is the gentile who is jealous and aggressive (Amalek), but there is also the gentile who is admiring and willing to be of help (Jethro).
We are still left with the question as to why the biblical portion of the divine revelation should be referred to by the name of a Midianite priest – and I believe that herein lies one of the most profound truths of the Jewish faith. Undoubtedly the Torah was given to the Jewish people, as Maimonides teaches, “Moses our Teacher bequeathed the Torah and the commandments only to Israel, as it is written, ‘a heritage to the congregation of Jacob,’ as well as to anyone who may wish to convert [to Judaism]…”
But in the very same breath Maimonides continues to legislate:
“And similarly Moses was commanded by the Almighty to enforce upon the gentile world for everyone to accept the seven Noahide laws of morality.” [Laws of Governments 8:10]
Maimonides concludes his religio-legal magnum opus Mishneh Torah with the “Laws of Governments,” (Lit., hilkhot melakhim, Laws of Kings) which climax in an optimistic description of the messianic age, a period of unusual peace and harmony when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war anymore” (Laws of Governments, Chapters 11, 12). Jewish redemption is seen within the context of world redemption; the God of justice, compassion and peace must rule the world, with Israel accepting the 613 commandments and every nation accepting His seven commandments of morality, especially “Thou shalt not murder.”
The paradigm for redemption, indeed the first example of Israel’s liberation, was our exodus from Egypt. There are a number of lessons which must be extracted from this prototype. First of all, the Israelites must win the war against oppression; the God of Israel will only be respected if His people succeed. Second, the message of Israel must be a moral one: “I am the Lord thy God who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Israel is entitled to live in freedom – and must be willing to wage battle against autocratic, Amalek-like governments which themselves utilize terrorism against innocent citizens and which harbor, aid and abet terrorists. And Israel must establish Jethro- like partnerships with those who – although they may still follow their individual religions – recognize the over-arching rule of the God of justice, compassion and peace.
The portion of the revelation at Sinai is called Yitro (Jethro); only if the Jethros of the nations of the world accept fealty to the God of peace will the ultimate vision of Torah become a reality for Israel and will the world as we know it be able to survive and prosper.