The Truth Seekers

February 3, 2021

7 min read


Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

Moshe and his wife Tzipporah, the daughter of Yisro, had two sons. The names of the children tell the story of his wandering before he returned to Egypt as Hashem's messenger to redeem the Jewish people (Shemos 18:3-4). "The name of the first was Gershom, because he said, 'I was a stranger in a strange land.' The name of the other was Eliezer, because 'the Lord of my father helped me and rescued me from Pharaoh's sword.'"

The origin of Eliezer's name is given directly, "because 'the Lord of my father helped me and rescued me from Pharaoh's sword.'" But the origin of Gershom's name - "because he said, 'I was a stranger in a strange land'" - features the seemingly extraneous words "he said." Why couldn't the Torah have simply stated "because 'I was a stranger in a strange land'"?

The Baal Haturim explains that these words allude to a Midrash in Parashas Shemos. The Midrash states that Yisro gave Moshe permission to marry Tzipporah only on the condition that he deliver his firstborn son to be trained for the priesthood of avodah zarah. Moshe had no choice but to comply and allow Yisro to have his firstborn son, who turned out to be Gershom. The words "because he said" allude to Yisro. Why did Moshe have to give Gershom to Yisro? Because Yisro had reminded him that he was a stranger in a strange land and was not in a position to reject his prospective father-in-law's conditions to the marriage.

The Baal Haturim further explains that Moshe believed this was the right thing to do. He wanted to bring Yisro close to Hashem and the Jewish people, and he felt he could accomplish this by marrying Tzipporah. Even though he had to agree to Yisro's terrible condition, Moshe believed his father-in-law would ultimately come around.

The truly puzzling question is: What was Yisro thinking?

According to the Midrash, Yisro was a real truth seeker. He came to the realization that the avodah zarah of Midian was nonsense. He then traveled all over the world to investigate the cults of different kinds of avodah zarah, and he rejected all of them. Then he returned to Midian, resigned his high office in the indigenous cult and renounced avodah zarah altogether.

Yet here is the mystery. He placed the condition on Moshe's marriage to Tzipporah after he renounced all avodah zarah. Why would he insist that his grandson be trained for the priesthood of the Midianite avodah zarah when he had already determined it was worthless? It makes no sense!

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, Rosh Yeshivah of the Mirrer Yeshivah in Jerusalem, offers a penetrating insight into Yisro's mentality. Apparently, Yisro was the ancient counterpart of a 60's flower child. He believed that the best way to arrive at the truth was through a journey of discovery, just as he had done. Yisro believed that the Torah was definitely the truth. But he had learned this important information by experiencing what all other cultures had to offer and determining that the Torah was superior.

This was also how he wanted his grandson to discover the truth. He did not want him brought up in one narrow ideology, sheltered from all other cultures and ideologies. Better that he should use the inquiring mind he would inherit from his grandfather and then follow in his grandfather's footsteps, starting in the priesthood of Midian and then eliminating one false ideology after the other until he discovered the truth of the Torah. This would be intellectually fulfilling and satisfying. His grandson would know he had made his own decision, and he would be comfortable with it.

But this is not the way of the Torah. We do mitzvot because we are obligated to do them, because we are servants of Hashem obligated to obey Him, not because we choose to do these things because we have decided they represent the truth. If Gershom was the son of Moshe, he did not have the luxury of going on a journey of discovery, even it were somehow guaranteed that he would arrive at the appropriate destiny at the end of his journey. Jewish children cannot nibble at the smorgasbord of the ideologies of the world. They have a duty to serve Hashem. This was something Yisro simply did not understand.

Let us take this thought a little further. The Torah introduces (Shemos 20:1) the Ten Commandments with the words, "And the Lord spoke all these things, saying." Rashi cites a Midrash that at first Hashem spoke "all these things" simultaneously, something that the human brain cannot absorb or comprehend. Only afterward did He articulate the Commandments individually.

What was Hashem's purpose in first speaking them all at once if no one could understand what He was saying anyway?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik points to the difference between the first five commandments and the second five. The first five relate to bein adam laMakom, the relationship between man and his Creator. Everyone understands that these decrees are of Divine origin. But the second five, the set that relates to bein adam lachaveiro, the relationship of man to his fellow man, may not seem to be Divine in origin. "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not lie. You shall not covet." We think we understand these Commandments on a different level. They appear to be the rational attempts of society to regulate and protect itself. Do we need a Divine decree to tell us these things? They seem self-explanatory and self-evident. After all, what kind of society would sanction murder and adultery?

Although they may seem logical to us, that logic is not the rationale for these Commandments. We do not refrain from murder and adultery only because it makes sense to us. We refrain because Hashem has forbidden these things. That is why Hashem first spoke all the Commandments at once. It was to impress upon us that they are all the same, that they are all unfathomable Divine decrees that we must obey without question because such is the will of Hashem.

In today's society we see clearly the difference between a secular prohibition of murder and a Divine one. If murder is forbidden because we consider it logical, then changing attitudes can permit abortion, euthanasia and even infanticide, which is not unheard of in certain societies. But when the prohibition is Divine, it is absolute. We do not obey because it makes sense to us. We obey because we bow to Hashem's will.

Yisro came to Judaism through rational investigation. Therefore, he made the serious error of directing his grandson toward the priesthood of the Midianite cult. He wanted him to investigate for himself, to find the system that appealed to his reason. That is not the way of the Torah. We only apply reason to recognizing Hashem. Afterwards, it is all obedience


Both of Moshe's sons were named as reminders of the trials and tribulations he had experienced during his lifetime (Shemos 18:3-4). "The name of the first was Gershom, because he said, 'I was a stranger in a strange land.' The name of the other was Eliezer, because the Lord of my father helped me and rescued me from Pharaoh's sword."

Why did Moshe choose these names?

The Pardes Yosef explains that Moshe wanted to ensure that his children grew up with a sense of reality. Growing up in the placid environment of Midian, they could easily have developed a false sense of security. What were these children lacking? They lived with their parents in comfort and peace. They had grandparents. They were respected and honored. Their lives were as near to perfect as could be, but there are no guarantees in life. Jewish children have to be prepared. They have to be aware that they are always in exile, that persecution, hunger, chaos, terror can appear suddenly out of nowhere. Everything can change in one day.

By choosing these names for his children, Moshe was reinforcing this message in their hearts. Look at me, he was saying. I used to be a prince in Pharaoh's palace. I had everything imaginable. I was a child of privilege. Then everything turned over, and I had to flee for my life, and if the Lord of my father had not rescued me, Pharaoh's executioner would have killed me.

The Pardes Yosef brings the story of the Jews of Spain as an illustration. There was a time when the lives of the Jews in Spain were close to perfect, a true golden age. They were secure, respected and prosperous. They lived in a warm and beautiful land. Their leaders, such as Rav Shmuel Hanagid, were the honored advisers of kings and sultans. The Torah flourished in their midst. And then things changed. Forces hostile to the Jewish people gained supremacy. The Jews lost favor. Terrible pogroms broke out, and a century of turbulence ended with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 on Tishah b'Av. Could anyone living during the golden age have imagined it would come to this?

Had the Pardes Yosef lived to see the Holocaust, he could have brought an even better illustration of the tables turning on the Jewish people. Things may have been very good for Jews in Germany in the 19th century, but they were still in exile, as time would so painfully tell.

Here in America, we also live under the illusion that we are no longer in exile. This is truly a wonderful country, a merciful country, a blessed country, and may Hashem protect and watch over this country forever. My father, Mr. David Frand, of blessed memory, a true and honest Jew, would buy United States Savings Bonds when they were paying 3.5 percent. "Can't you get a better return on your money?" I once asked him when I was still a youngster. My father told me that the United States took him in when he was running away from Frankfort in 1939, and he felt obligated to acknowledge the favor by buying government bonds even at rates as low as 3.5 percent. That is how we must feel about this country. And yet, there are no guarantees.

The Talmud relates (Bava Basra 73b) in the name of Rabbah bar bar Channah, "We were once traveling on a boat and saw what turned out to be a fish. It was so huge that sand collected on its back, and we thought it was an island. We got off the boat and stepped onto this supposed island. We baked and cooked. But when it got too hot for the fish, he rolled over, and we fell off. Had we not been close to the boat, we all would have drowned."

According to the Maharsha, this story is a parable. We are all adrift on the stormy sea of exile, and suddenly we see an island. We think we have found a safe haven. We cook and bake and buy houses and made weddings and bar mitzvahs. We have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and everything is wonderful. And we say, "We are no longer in exile. We are in a land flowing with milk and honey." And then the island turns over and we realize we have been sitting on the back of a fish all along. And now we consider ourselves fortunate if only we do not drown in the sea of our exile.

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