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Yisro’s Escape Hatch

There is a well-known controversy surrounding the chronological timing of when Yisro arrived to visit the Bnei Yisroel in the desert. It revolves around whether he came before Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, or afterwards. Many are inclined towards the position that his arrival was after this momentous event. This, of course, presents the enormous question of why the very spiritual Yisro, who, as Rashi teaches experimented with all of the world’s religions, would miss the momentous and unique opportunity of seeing Hashem at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, it is mystifying how Moshe Rabbeinu did not summon his wife Tzippora and his sons Gershon and Eliezer to partake in this once-in-history incredible holy experience.

Some commentaries tackle this perplexing problem by drawing an analogy to the Gemora that outlines the parameters for those who will witness the rebirth of the Yerushalayim. The Gemora teaches us, “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim, zoche lir’os b’sichasa — Whoever mourns over the destruction of Jerusalem will merit to see its joy.” Of course, the sad implication of this is that those who don’t take time to mourn over the destruction of the Temple and desolation of the Jerusalem of old, will not partake of its future rebirth.

Similarly, the commentators say that only those who suffered through the rigors of bondage in Egypt, along with the stark terror of being pursued by the 9,000,000 murderous Egyptians and the fright of facing the raging Yam Suf, earned the right to partake in the glory of the revelation at Har Sinai. However, Yisro, who lived safe and secure in far away Midian, did not deserve to be a part of this awesome and joyous occasion.

The Birchas Ish offers another fascinating approach to resolving this question. He begins with the fact that a Ben Noach, a Noachide personality – as was Yisro, is punishable with death for the sin of idolatry (for the prohibition of idol worship is one of the seven Noachide Laws). Therefore, he continues, Yisro was liable to a death sentence according to Jewish law for he experienced a wide variety of idolatry. Furthermore, even repentance out of love does not mitigate a death sentence that is supposed to be meted out by the human court.

However, the Gemora in Sanhedrin [78b] informs us that a Ben Noach who commits the heinous crime of blasphemy (which is also punishable by death) and then converts and becomes a ger is exonerated from his death sentence because, “Nishtane dino v’nishtane misoso,” since now, when he is a Jew, he is governed by different law. [Now, he needs to be warned and be seen by two kosher witnesses. He also experiences a change in the death penalty – for a Ben Noach is put to death by the sword for everything while a Jew is stoned for the sin of idolatry.]

With this background information, the Birchas Ish suggests a beautiful resolution for why Yisro did not join the Bnei Yisroel until after the Giving of the Torah. Yisro’s only escape hatch from the death penalty for the sin of idolatry was to convert. However, true conversion, especially with a change of laws and death sentence could only be carried out after Matan Torah. Thus, is was safe for Yisro to arrive at the Israelite camp only after Har Sinai when, as the Targum Yoneson Ben Uziel states, Moshe Rabbeinu immediately converted him – even before formally greeted him.

While many puzzle over how Moshe rushed to convert him without information – even before the customary salutations, this is now obvious since converting him was now a matter of life and death – to spare him from an impending death sentence.

The posuk says, “Vayichad Yisro,” which Rashi explains is simply translated as, “Yisro rejoiced.” (This is probably because of the etymological similarity to the Hebrew word ‘chedva’ which means joy.) The Gemora informs us that ‘vayichad’ also contains in it the word ‘chad’ which means shark, and indicates that, at this juncture, Yisro circumcised himself. According to this beautiful explanation, it is readily apparent why Yisro’s circumcision should be a great moment of joy. It was at this moment that he became exonerated from his crime of idolatry – for a converted proselyte is considered like a newborn babe with a clean slate.

The Chedvas Yaakov wonders how Yisro was able to circumcise himself in the desert. We are taught that the northern wind did not blow in the desert – and the Gemora in Yevamos informs us that it is dangerous to perform a milah without the therapeutic northern wind. However, according to our approach, it was more dangerous for Yisro to remain uncircumcised – and a condemned man. Therefore, under the circumstances, he was permitted to perform the risky operation even in the desert.

This beautiful explanation, with all of its twists and turns, just serves as a small example of how intricate and complex is the episode of our Holy Torah. In the merit of our trying to plummet the Torah’s depths, may we be zoche to good health, happiness and everything wonderful.