It is often asked what was it that helped Yitro merit becoming the father-in-law of our greatest leader and teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu. Which of his character traits defined who he was, and thus propelled him to raising a daughter who would marry Moshe? Furthermore, why did he merit to have the parsha with the ma’amad Har Sinai (standing at Sinai) have his name for its title?
The Gemara (Sotah 11a) tells us: “Rabbi Chiya bar Abba says that Rabbi Simai says: Three were consulted by Pharaoh: Bilam, Iyov and Yitro. Bilam, who advised, was killed. Iyov, who was silent, was punished by suffering. Yitro, who ran away, merited that some of his children’s children sat in the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.”
When Bilam advised Pharaoh to throw the Jewish boys into the Nile, Iyov was silent, while Yitro ran away. What made him flee? He was not specifically known as a friend of the Jews. After all, he fled to Midian where he became a priest to avodah zarah. So what was it that made him run?
Maybe the secret can be found by analyzing the first words of Yitro recorded in the Torah. As his daughters return home unusually early from the communal well, he asked them the reason for their early arrival. After relaying the news of the Egyptian stranger who helped them, he cries out “ve’ayo, lama zeh azavten et ha’ish, kiren lo veyochal lachem.” Why did you leave him outside? He did you such a service, how can we not repay his kindness by inviting him home? Yitro was a man of principle, a man of hakarat hatov—gratitude. He couldn’t and wouldn’t stand by if an injustice of repayment or lack of gratitude was being perpetrated. He expressed that to his daughters in the clearest of terms. Maybe this is why he couldn’t stomach staying in Egypt. “After what Yosef and his family did for the Egyptian civilization, how can we agree to murder instead of kindness, ingratitude and denial instead of graciousness and benevolence.” Thus, he ran away and was later instrumental in helping build the family of Moshe Rabbeinu, the one who was known for hakarat hatov even to inanimate objects (as Rashi describes in the first three plagues).
We are Yehudim, Jews, due to Leah’s recognition of her being granted more than her rightful share. We must always follow that lead, in the path of Leah, in the path of Yitro and in the path of Moshe. This is one of the roots of spiritual perfection, and the name of our parsha helps us appreciate this message.
Rabbi Shalom Rosner is a rebbe at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and rabbi of the Nofei HaShemesh community. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).