Moses’ father-in-law appears for the first time in this week’s parshah, Parshat Shemot.
We read in the third aliyah, “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come back so soon today?’ They answered, ‘An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.’”
Remarkably, to the Midianite women Moses seems entirely Egyptian. After being raised in Pharoah’s house, presumably he is of assimilated appearance, language and demeanor. Is this a case of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” or is Mosheh Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, still on a journey Jewishly? Both interpretations are meaningful, and worthy of consideration. But whatever his appearance or practice, Moses is Jewish through and through.
But what of “Reuel,” the father of these women? We are clearly told that the women are the daughters of the Priest of Midian, that he invites Moses to come home with them, and that he gives Moses his daughter Tzipporah as a wife. Moses marries a Midianite.
Yet we also read in the fourth aliyah, “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God…”
If “Yitro” is the father of Tzipporah, then why is he called “Reuel” in the third reading?
And to make matters even more confusing, in Judges 4:11, we have “Hovav, father-in-law of Moses.” In fact, Rashi (on 4:18) quotes him as having 7 different names: Reuel, Yeter, Yitro, Kenite, Hovav, Hever, and Putiel!
An interesting solution to this quandary is the idea that Yitro converted to Judaism. Rashi, commenting on verse 2:16 says, “The Priest of Midian – that is, their chief. But he had abandoned idolatry, and they had excommunicated him.”
The idea here is that the name “Reuel” should be understand as a verb more than as a name. “Re’u” means “They saw,” much as Jacob’s firstborn is named “Re’uven” or “they saw a son.” In this case, “Reuel” would mean, “they saw God.”
So a mighty chieften, Yitro the Priest of Midian, had a vision or experience of the One true God, and as such became distant from his people. Marginalized, he lived yet on the outskirts of his society, in the Sinai, with his daughters who had to endure the abuse of the other natives daily at the well. Without power these women followed their father in adopting a pure belief in Adonai.
Ramban adds another idea, teaching (on 2:16) that, “after Yitro converted to Judaism he was called Hovav… For it is the way of converts to call themselves by a different name when they become Jews.”
Further support for this idea comes from the meaning of “Hovav,” a Hebrew root word meaning “Loves.” After all, conversion is essentially an act of Love for God, Torah and Israel.
It is interesting that such effort was made to prove the Jewishness of Yitro. Yet the family unity which ensues can not be understated. After all, it is Tzipporah who circumcises their son in 4:24-26, thereby saving Moses’ life. And it is Yitro who meets the children of Israel on their way to Mt. Sinai and aids Moses in his leadership of the people in 18:17-27. Moses’ success is in part made possible by their having joined him on the Jewish Journey.
In fact, in the beginning of this story neither the Jewishness of Moses nor that of Yitro is by any means clear. But by the end of the week’s parshah all is as it should be.
In our day, the question of welcoming converts has become political beyond belief. I believe, as shown in the Torah, that all are welcome on this Jewish Journey, and that we will be only better for having them with us.