Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Yitro running commentary, first pass, pt i (18:1)

Yisro begins in Shemos 18:1.

א וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן, חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ: כִּי-הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.

וַיִּשְׁמַע -- the famous question is "what did Yisro hear?" This is closely related to the question of "when did Yisro hear?" This is a peshat concern because the pasuk is ambiguous on the point of exactly what he heard and why this caused him to come. Also, by explaining what he heard, we may fix in time what he heard. Thus, is this before the war with Amalek? Before mattan Torah? After? And we can try to fix it via context.

I have two answers to this question. The first answer is that it does not matter. All the pasuk says is אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ: כִּי-הוֹצִיא ה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם. I would translate ki as "that" rather than "when". And thus, he heard about the Exodus. Does this include miracle X or miracle Y as part of what Hashem did for Moshe and for Israel? It does not matter, at least not for the message trying to be conveyed here on a peshat level. He heard that they succeeded, and so it was a good and safe time to return Tzipporah.

My second answer is that he did not hear anything, until he came with Tzipporah. That is, this may simply be a chapter heading, describing what is to come. Usually, the vav hahippuch advances the narrative. But see pasuk 2. Did Yisro take Tzipporah after Moshe sent her away after hearing of the miracles. Certainly not. Pasuk 2 is background information. Perhaps pasuk 1 is also not in order, but is establishing the theme of the entire story, which actually begins in pasuk 3. And pasuk 1, Yisro's hearing, is fulfilled later in pasuk 8.

יִתְרוֹ -- the other famous question is "who is Yisro?" He is likely the same as Yeser. Rashi considers the possibility that he is different from Reuel, with Reuel being Tzipporah's grandfather, explaining the pasuk calling Reuel her father away. But there are several other names in play. Is he the same as Chovav, for example? Chever, Keni, Putiel?

In some minor way, the general closed-canon approach of Chazal plays into this. But more than this is that the various characters are all called chosein of Moshe. If "chosen" means "father-in-law," then unless Moshe took several different wives in Midian, they all must be the same person. Tzipporah only has one father. Only Vashti had two mothers (see "gam Vashti haMalkah" and the references to "chamas haMelech")!

This has major implications in terms of how we view the actions of Yitro. Did he come to convert? Did he leave afterwards for Midian? Did he settle in Israel afterwards? When we collapse all the stories, a different picture emerges from one which derives from only a single narrative.

But I would say that chotein Moshe only means "male in-law of Moshe." And so it can refer to father-in-law or brother-in-law. If so, various contradictions disappear, and it is only Yitro here. Reuel was the father-in-law of Moshe, and the father of Tzipporah. Yisro was a brother-in-law who looked after Tzipporah after Moshe sent her away. Was he also the brother-in-law Yeter Moshe dwelled with in Midyan? We might wonder, since even in genealogical lists, we sometimes find brothers with extremely close names. But Shemot 4:18 explicitly gives both names, Yeter and Yitro.

The complicating factor is that earlier in Shemot, the one with seven daughters is the "kohen Midian," and here Yisro is also the kohen midian. This is resolvable as shared power or transfer of power. At the most, this complicates the distinction from Reuel, and we have Rashi's answer for this.

כֹהֵן -- we are used to this meaning kohen, priest, and thus would be prone to seeing this here as peshat. Perhaps. But it means "minister" in the general sense. And so too the daughter of Potiphera the kohen (officer) of On. And so too the sons of David who were kohanim (ministers). This is how Onkelos translates it, as an important person in Midian.

Rashi remains silent on the issue in this pasuk. But on pasuk 11 he cites Mechilta that he was an expert in all sorts of idolatry, with an implication that kohen means priest. Earlier in parshat Shemos, in 2:16, he says רב שבהם in translation of kohen midian, but then talks about how he separated from idolatry. The implication of this is that he was a priest.

חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה -- as discussed above, the brother-in-law of Moshe; or even the father-in-law of Moshe, so long as others may be brothers-in-law.

אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה -- and what was that? כִּי-הוֹצִיא ה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם. See Rashi, based on Mechilta, who takes this as a separate item, and the earlier words to other separate items.

כִּי -- that. Alternatively, when. Like the bet in betzeit yisrael mimiztrayim.

לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל -- see Rashi citing Mechilta, that each of equal prominence. The theme of this segment is wonder, on the part of an outsider, at the glory of Hashem and the increased stature of Moshe and the Israelites as a result. The purpose of this narrative is thus in pesukim 9 through 11. It is thus bracketed on both sides, by vayaaminu baHashem uvMoshe avdo by the Reed Sea, and a similar message by mattan Torah. Yitro's purpose is as witness, just as they had hoped Chovav would be in a different segment.

עַמּוֹ -- multivalent. Moshe's nation, as an extension of him; and Hashem's nation, as the nation he has acquired/created.

אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה -- see Baal HaTurim. He connects Elokim to midat haDin, and to the punishment Moshe almost received for delaying the milah, which was not done at Yisro's insistence. An interesting midrashic take, bringing this around full-circle. Does midas hadin inspire people to convert? He also midrashically interprets it as that Hashem made Moshe into an Elohim, to Pharaoh, thus tying in that irregular verse from before. This would fit in with the general theme of the stress on Moshe's rise to prominence, over his lower stature when he was dwelling with Yitro, and the rise of Moshe and Israel to prominence in general, because of the wonders from Hashem.

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