The aged and ailing rabbi exclaimed: “This is the most shocking and astounding phrase in the entire Torah!” These words were uttered, in Hebrew, by Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broida, then dean of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who was visiting Baltimore, where I was serving as a young pulpit rabbi, to receive medical treatment unavailable in Israel at the time.
He was too frail to give a lecture, but he found it invigorating to sit with three or four of us and engage in conversation about religious subjects, his favorite being the weekly Torah portion, which that week was Yitro.
Before identifying the “shocking phrase,” he asked us to participate in the following thought experiment:
“Imagine you are asked to write a biographical sketch of the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meyer HaKohen, the Chofetz Chaim, and you happened to know that his father-in-law had a disreputable past. Would you share the nature of the father-in-law’s past for all to see? Would it not be embarrassing for both the Chofetz Chaim and his father-in-law to publicize the latter’s misdeeds, especially if he had repented of them?”
He then launched into an eloquent and forceful discourse about the ethical prohibitions against publicly disclosing a person’s past or even reminding him of it in private. He quoted this passage from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah: “It is a serious sin to say to a penitent, ‘Remember what you once did,’ or even mention those past actions in his presence, thus embarrassing him…. We are admonished by the Torah not to abuse others verbally….” (Maimonides, Hilhot Teshuva 7:8)
He then drew our attention to the opening verse in Yitro: “And Yitro, the high priest of Midian and the father-in-law of Moses, heard about all the Almighty had done for Moses and Israel.…” (Exodus 18:1)
“In the same breath,” the rabbi exclaimed, “he is referred to as a pagan priest and as the father-in-law of Moses — an idolater and the zayde of Moses’ children. This is as unlikely as the witch doctor of some primitive tribe also being identified as the close personal adviser of the saintly Chofetz Chaim. Are not these juxtapositions astonishing, irreconcilable?”
Rabbi Broida went on to suggest why Yitro (Jethro) is introduced in this week’s portion in terms of his old title, high priest of Midian. After all, at this point he had renounced his idolatrous past and, according to rabbinic tradition, was about to convert to Judaism.
“You see,” taught Rabbi Broida, “our tradition respects the seeker, the person who searches for the truth and never tires of that search, no matter how many blind alleys he encounters and no matter how much frustration he experiences. Yitro is described as an individual who worshiped every idol in the world in search of the truth. As he became disappointed with each faith that he explored and with each religion he practiced, he rejected that path and renewed his search. He retains the title high priest of Midian because it represents the heights he could achieve in the religious hierarchy within which he sought truth.
“That title is symbolic of the degree to which Yitro was a seeker of truth.”
The old man at this point began to show signs of fatigue, and we begged him to rest. But he told us that he refused to rest until he was convinced we had learned the lesson he was trying to teach. “That lesson,” he said, “is best conveyed in the words of Talmud in tractate Gittin 43a: ‘No man truly achieves Torah knowledge without first experiencing error.’” When a person’s errors in life culminate in his finally making proper choices and correct decisions, then those errors are to be publicized and respected, because they are indicators of the degree to which that person was a seeker.
Rabbi Broida, however, did not share with us the following gematria (the system of analyzing the numeric equivalents of Hebrew words to suggest otherwise unpredictable connections): The proper name “Yitro” has the numeric equivalent of 416. Two contradictory Hebrew terms have the exact same numeric equivalent. Those terms are “he was an idolatrous priest” (komer haya lavoda zara) and “the Torah” (haTorah), indicating that this one individual combined within himself two diametrically opposed tendencies. One, haTorah, prevailed, but only because of the lessons learned from his experiences with idolatry.
Every year since then, I look forward to the powerful and practical lesson conveyed by the opening verse of Yitro: Not only must we learn from our mistakes, but it is only by virtue of making those mistakes that we ultimately learn.