Parashat Yithro

פתח רבי נחמיה בכבוד אכסניא ודרש מאי דכתיב ויאמר שאול אל הקיני לכו סרו רדו מתוך עמלקי פן אוספך עמו ואתה עשיתה חסד עם כל בני ישראל והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה יתרו שלא קרב את משה אלא לכבוד עצמו כך המארח תלמיד חכם בתוך ביתו ומאכילו ומשקהו ומהנהו מנכסיו על אחת כמה וכמה

Rabbi Nechemia opened the sermon with a homily in honor of his hosts. He expounded, “Why is it written ‘Saul said to the Kenites: Go, separate and leave from the midsts of the Amalekites, lest you be gathered with them, but you have done a kindness with all of Israel…’ Yithro never came close to Moshe, except for his own benefit [and yet this was his reward!] All the more so, someone who welcomes in a Torah scholar into his house, and feeds him and provides for him with his own possessions…

Yithro, as Rabbi Bassous would say, won the spiritual jackpot. He managed to join his fate to the Jewish people. That alliance provided endless benefit, until the Mekhilta writes his descendants, the Rekhabites, secured a promise from Gd that even King David could not. Of David, it was written “If your children guard my covenant and my testimony that I teach them, then even their children and their descendants forevermore will sit on your throne.” (Psalms 132) But if the children are not righteous and break the Torah, presumably nothing is promised about them. They could lose that throne, as indeed happened. Not so the Rakhabites. They are are told unconditionally that there will always be a descendant of their “who ministers before Gd forever.” (Jeremiah 35) Some say this means that there would always be descendants of Yithro ministering the people and teaching Torah, and some say this means that their descendants married into families of Kohanim, and those Kohanim would always have a role in the Jewish people, Temple or not. But either way, it seems a great promise.

How did this promise come about? The Rekhabites were rewarded for following in the footsteps of their father Yehonadab, and he in turn was following in the footsteps of his family. Chronicles tells us that the ancestors of the family of Rekhab left their allotted portion in Israel to go live with Yaavetz, who our sages write was blessed with Torah knowledge. They in turn became scholars. That allotted home in Jericho was given in the first place because they were the children of Yithro, who taught a new law to Moshe.

Yithro himself became Moshe’s father in law and gave him that advice because of a simple favor he had done. When Moshe was running away from Pharaoh into the wilderness, he happened upon a group of women who were looking to get water from their flock, but were being harassed by the other shepherds. So Moshe helped them and gave them water. They went back and told their father about that helpful “Egyptian man” they had seen by the well, and Yithro reacted the same way that any father of seven single women would do when told about a helpful, strapping young gentleman. “Go get him. Invite him in!”

Yithro did not know that lost Egyptian man was Our Teacher, Moshe, who would grow up to be the greatest prophet in history. All he saw was a man who needed food and hospitality. As Rabbi Nechemia said, this was even in Yithro’s self-interest, as Moshe was clearly a man he saw as helpful around the house and a good match for one of his daughters. He probably didn’t think much of it on that day. But Gd saw, and Gd took note. That simple act of bringing Moshe into his house and getting him some food in his hour of need forever changed Yithro’s fate.

As Radak writes, “Yithro did kindness for Israel, and was happy at their success, and further helped them with his advice, and Gd guarded that goodness for him until the end of time.” In each generation, the merit of that kindness sustained them, and in each generation, his descendants added to it until it became an everlasting merit.

The Talmud in Sota goes farther back. Yithro was one of Pharoah’s advisors, but when Pharaoh wanted to enslave the Jews, Yithro fled from Pharaoh. When Moshe fled from Pharaoh  and “randomly” bumped into Yithro’s daughters, that was Yithro’s reward for fleeing himself, arranged from Heaven so that Yithro would gain his ultimate reward: that his descendants, the ones who gathered around Yaavetz and their descendants the Rekhabites would ultimately become leaders in the Sanhedrin. He risked his life so that he wouldn’t be part of the suffering of an innocent people, and Gd bound him to the fate of that people. An entire dynasty was started with a single act.

The Mishna in Pirke Avot states that שכר מצוה מצוה, the reward for doing a mitzvah is the opportunity to do another. When people choose to make a positive difference in the world, Heaven gives more such opportunities, and these choices and opportunities reverberate throughout all the generations. When I look at my own life and the events leading up to my wedding Tu Bishvat this week, I see all the ways that our families were influenced by the positive choices of our ancestors. Now while we are looking to start our own dynasty, I look forward to all of the mitzvoth we will have the opportunity to perform. May they sustain our descendants forever!

I invite everyone to step into this outlook. What choices have we all made to connect ourselves to the Jewish people and to Hashem? What choices do we want to make to deepen those connections?