October 17, 2021 |

Yitro as a Ba'al Teshuva

There is a group of Jews known as ba'alei teshuva, or masters of return. They are men and women who have relinquished a less- or non-religious past and have embraced a more active and committed Jewish life. A phenomenon often associated with them is their extreme optimism and joy about getting 'more' Jewish. They are excited, perky, and enthusiastic about each new morsel of knowledge they acquire. Each new observance and insight is a sweet triumph for them. Everything is new. Everything is illuminated.

I once knew a group of young returnees who learned the Aramaic words (in their beginning Talmud study) for there ("hasam") and here (" hacha"). Quickly, they replaced the English words with these and could amuse themselves every single time by saying "He's right over hasam" or "Hacha I am!" The act of (being able to) joke around in ancient Aramaic was a kind of sweet religious celebration, an expression of joy in reaching new frontiers.

It is the ba'alei teshuva who will wake up early Shabbat morning and start shlepping everyone else to shul. It is the ba'al teshuva who wants to go to every single class that is offered so that they can quickly catch up on a Jewish education they never had. Ba'alei teshuva sing louder and longer, study harder, and celebrate more fiercely every moment of a Jewish life. For these and other reasons, there is a Rabbinic saying that "in the place where ba'alei teshuva stand, even the completely righteous do not stand." (Berachot 34b)

Understandably, other Jews look with some perplexity at these newly-awakened Jews. The parents of the ba'al teshuva (henceforth BT) are either swept along into the current (and sometimes join them!) or are horror-stricken at the Frankenstein that their child has become. They wonder what was missing in their parenting that led their child to "religious extremism" or why their own milquetoast religious values hold no appeal. Some even privately wonder whether they would rather their child have rebelled in some more 'normal' way, like going to rehab, becoming a stripper, or a Buddhist.

The former friends of the BT hide their discomfort by gossiping only behind their friends' back and/or teasing them relentlessly about what a "rabbi" they've become. They may be supportive or concerned, try to bring them back to their senses or admit a grudging respect for principled choice. "Hey, it's a free country" or "Deep down, you're still the same guy we always knew, even if you go by your Hebrew name now."

Even rabbis don't always know what to make of BT's. Meteoric shifts in behavior - six months from learning the letter "alef" to moving to Williamsburg - can arouse concern that things are being done for the wrong reasons or that there will be some huge flame-out down the road. We are concerned that BT's are not running towards the Torah, but away from some other nightmare in their lives for which they hope Judaism is the right pharmaceutical. (Of course, Torah can be a wonderful cure for troubled people, but not if the yearning is all 'away', or negative, and not also 'towards', positive.)

But all of us -- without exception - have to stand in some amazement and awe at the ba'al teshuva. Their purpose and passion, dedication and drive, wonder and wishing, are impressive. I hope never to be cynical enough not to be inspired by some fresh-faced new devotee haranguing me about how Shabbat, which they have now celebrated all of twice in their life, is the most awesome thing ever.

I see the spirit of the b'aal teshuva in Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro. It is true that Yitro was a non-Jew (and, according to the rabbis, a practicing pagan priest[1]) but non-Jews who willingly endure the grueling conversion process to become gerei tzedek (righteous proselytes) share many of the same characteristics as Jews who are awakened to their spiritual heritage. Many of them feel that they were destined to be Jews - born as Jewish souls - but given the greater challenge of having to become Jewish as well.

The first verse of our Torah portion says : "And Yitro (priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moshe) heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people, when Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt." (Ex. 18:1)

Rabbi Ovadia S'forno comments that Yitro heard from a distance many of the wonderful things that had happened to the Jews, from the plagues and the Exodus, to the splitting of the sea and the amazing victory over the Amalekhites. (Read Exodus 7-17 for more on all of these.) However, he did not feel a part of them. It was all happening to other people in other places and he only "heard" about it, but could not see it or feel it. This is a common feeling for many Jews who are not active participants in their religion. They may hear about Jewish things being done and even rumors about the upsurge in religiosity ad spirituality, but it is as if it is all happening to someone else, even if it's right next door. A Jew could live on 86th street and walk by the door of MJE a thousand times to get to the subway without stopping once to walk in, because the reality of a Jewish community just inside that door,a community that they might want to be a part of, is far away, in a foreign country.

But at some point, Yitro (who had a BT daughter and, to be honest, Moshe was kind of a BT too) cannot relegate the Jewish white noise to the margins anymore. He has a moment when he hears about the Exodus that changes his life and, S'forno says, his heart moved him to go join the Jewish people in the desert. Though he was an important personage and could have sent a messenger (or AP correspondent) to find out the news[2], he felt compelled to go see it himself. Moreover, he went not out of morbid curiosity or as a tourist, but "because he desired to seek out God".

This is borne out in the enthusiastic way that he behaves when he finally arrives. Moshe gives him a personal and detailed account of all the miracles that God had done for the Jewish people and Yitro responds as follows:

"And Yitro rejoiced over all the good that Hashem had done to Israel, that He had saved them from the hands of Egypt, and Yitro said "Blessed is God (baruch hashem) who saved you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Par'oh, Who saved the nation from under the hands of Par'oh[3]. Now I know that Hashem is greater than any other power..." (Ex. 18:9-11)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a)says that Yitro's enthusiasm and blessing were a disgrace to the Jewish people. They, who had actually experienced the Exodus and the splitting of the sea et. al., had often failed to recognize the miraculous kindnesses God was doing for them and had not stopped to simply say "baruch hashem". Certainly, there were many struggles and challenges for them, and they complained when the going got tough. Also, they did sing a beautiful song of praise to God at the splitting of the sea, but the Torah records no simple joyous blessing of "thank God" until Yitro's arrival. He is the one who gets the credit for being thankful and joyous about God's miracles and kindnesses.

Yitro brought a simple joy and appreciation to the Jewish people camped around Mt. Sinai. He brought an unencumbered outsider's perspective, a perspective that had been forgotten or overlooked by the children of Israel themselves, possibly even Moshe.

According to a chronological reading of the Torah, Yitro's visit to Moshe happened before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The giving of the Torah was probably a week or so away and the Israelites were about to begin their physical and spiritual preparations. This is a fantastic moment for a real live BT to show up and remind everyone how they should feel and prepare themselves for the receiving of the Torah. The excitement of BT's can be infectious and, hopefully, Yitro's energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on the children of Israel as well.

In a way, each day of our lives is another opportunity for us to receive the Torah. On Exodus 19:1 ("this very day"), Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 10th century France) comments that the words of the Torah should be new for you as if they were given today. In the Sh'ma prayer, we celebrate "the mitzvot that I have commanded you today" and the Talmud suggests that we should focus on them "today and not tomorrow" that is, to experience them in the moment. Something that is new today and has just been given to us is exciting and new. This is how a BT feels, that they have been given a new and precious gift that must be celebrated . The rest of us can take a lesson from the BT's and Yitro and learn also to sing a little louder and longer, study a little harder, and celebrate more fiercely every moment of a Jewish life.

I have now, for a long time, considered myself (proudly) a BT and am always looking for some new way to help me earn the title as time goes by. This week, it will be Yitro. Shabbat shalom!

[1] The Talmud brings opinions that Yitro converted to Judaism and possible converted other family members as well.
[2] And to return Moshe's wife and children, who had been staying with him.
[3] The repetition refers to the splitting of the sea. (Ibn Ezra)


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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