Balaam, Job and Jethro

Discerning friend from foe is as important as ever for the Jewish people, but is as old as the Bible.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WHO IS a genuine friend to Israel and to the Jewish people? Who is a closeted or an outspoken anti-Semite? These are questions we should be asking ourselves regularly, especially regarding our political leaders. These questions concern us in the current political situation, but they certainly are not a product of modernity. They are as old as the Bible.
The Book of Exodus introduces us to several strong leaders and politicians. Generally, their position on the Jewish people is easy to discern. Moses and Aaron support the Jewish people; Pharaoh plans to destroy them. Next the Torah introduces Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, but his stance is not as clear. Jethro was the High Priest of Midian. His status as a leader is apparent, but what about his attitude toward the Jewish people?
A Talmudic passage in Tractate Sotah (11a) sheds light on Jethro’s personality and his political and social leanings. It tells us that when Pharaoh wanted to deal with the problem of the large and rapidly growing Jewish population, he took the counsel of three advisers: Balaam, Job and Jethro. Their suggestions varied greatly. Balaam advised the killing of Jewish babies. Job remained silent, in effect consenting to Balaam’s plan for infanticide. Jethro responded by fleeing from Egypt. This piece tells us of three possible reactions for non-Jews toward Jews – blatant anti-Semitism and hatred leading to violence; ambivalence leading to acquiescence; and support for the Jewish people leading to personal, social and political exile.
Does this passage prove that Jethro was a true friend to the Jewish nation? The Torah tells us Moses gave his father-in-law a firsthand account of all God had done for the Jewish people, including the destruction of Egypt and the redemption of the slaves. Yet Jethro has a strange reaction to Moses’ description. The Hebrew says “vayichad Yitro” (Ex. 18:9). But what exactly does vayichad mean? This unusual word occurs only once in the entire Torah! Rashi gives two interpretations based on Midrashic sources. The first is Jethro was happy for the Jewish people. Rashi’s second reading is that Jethro got goosebumps and was set on edge, made uneasy by the devastation of the Egyptian empire.
Rashi tries to encapsulate the feelings of Jethro. On the one hand, Jethro was a well-respected religious and political figure. He served as the High Priest of Midian as well as being a close adviser to Pharaoh. However, Jethro fled into self-imposed exile when he realized the value system of his society was antithetical to his own. Jethro refused to participate in a world where the strong got stronger on the back-breaking work of the weak.
As a result of his action, Jethro and his family were apparently scorned by everyone around them. The severity of his loss of status was illustrated when Moses found it necessary to rescue Jethro’s daughters from nearby shepherds (Ex. 2:16-20). Despite Jethro’s rejection of Egypt’s value system which led to his diminished social status, he was nonetheless deeply disturbed by the death and destruction throughout the land. Jethro still felt sympathy in his heart toward the people of Egypt. He was a true humanitarian who cared about all lives.
The medieval commentator Baal Haturim explains Jethro’s experience differently. At the moment of hearing of all the great miracles God executed for the Jewish people, Jethro decided to convert to Judaism. This third option is perhaps an extension of Rashi’s first answer. Jethro’s joy for the Jewish people led him to take the next step on his spiritual journey. He went from being happy for the Jewish people to joining them himself, accepting the Lord as his one and only God. His love for God and the Jewish people was so strong, he saw no future for himself other than being Jewish.
Was Jethro a humanitarian, first pitying the enslaved Jews, then the decimated Egyptians? Or was he so deeply moved by God’s might and lovingkindness as expressed in his rescue of the Jewish people, he converted straightaway? Jethro is a perplexing character. Despite the Torah being vague as to whether or not he converted or only had Jewish descendants through his daughter, it is clear Jethro was genuinely happy for and supported the Jewish people.
Although today we still must be mindful and cautious of the Balaams and Jobs in our world, we can rest assured many Jethros also exist who feel genuine joy at the abundant blessings and success of the Jewish people and our State of Israel. May we merit to have more Jethros in our world.
Rabbi Ben Hassan is the spiritual leader of the Sephardi Bikur Holim congregation in Seattle, Washington.