An Invitation

Just before the Israelites departed from Sinai, Moses invited his father-in-law to join them.1 Jethro wasn’t an Israelite from birth; he was a heathen priest who had converted first to monotheism and later to Judaism. Moses was somewhat hesitant about his invitation, as apparent from the following text:

Then Moses said to Hobab,2 son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place about which the L‑rd said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us, and we will be good to you.”

Leaving the Heart Behind

Note that Moses said that the Israelites would journey to Israel, whereas Jethro was invited to go to Israel. The difference between “going” and “journeying” is that going can mean to travel physically but remain emotionally unwilling. The body moves along, but the heart remains in place. Journeying means to go physically and mentally—the entire person journeys to the destination.

It is possible to go without journeying. One can board a plane and travel with reluctance. Your heart and spirit are with your family, but you have no choice, because circumstances force you to make the trip.

Moses told Jethro that for the Israelites, this trip would be a journey. They would be moving with both body and spirit. They had no ties to Egypt, their point of departure, and would give it no second thought. Yet it seemed that Moses worried that for Jethro, this trip would be marred by a reluctance to leave his homeland and family. Moses acknowledged this difficulty in his invitation, saying in effect, “I know this might be hard for you, but I beg you to join us; it will be good for you.”

Jethro was taken aback by this insinuation, as evident from his reply: “I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace.” In effect, he was saying, “Moses, I wouldn’t be ‘going’ if I went with you. This wouldn’t be a trip of reluctance. Do you want to know what kind of trip I would make with reluctance? The one I am about to make to my land and my birthplace. I need to go because I want to introduce my family to the joy and wonder of Judaism,3 but though circumstances force me to go home, I am reluctant, for I would much rather travel directly to Israel.”

Appreciate the Gems

Moses hastened to reframe his concern: “Please don’t leave us, because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert, and you will be our guide.”

Moses was saying, “I don’t suspect that once you leave us, you will forget us out of love for the climate and social milieu of your homeland. My concern is that once you leave us to teach your family, you might not want to join us because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert. You watched my people do nothing but complain every time they made camp in this fearsome desert. They grumbled about lack of food, moaned about lack of water, and turned against G‑d when I didn’t return from Mount Sinai at the time they expected. You might join us because you want to go to Israel, but you might feel out of place with our stiff-necked grumblers. You might pine for your homeland, where people seem happier, more cordial and more peaceful.

“Yet I beg you to join us, for with you at our side, the people will have a proper guide. They will look at you and think, ‘Jethro left his friends and homeland for the privilege of studying the Torah and observing its commandments. How can we complain about trivial things when we see how much he gave up just to receive a portion of what we have?’

“In your sacrifice, the people will learn the value of their religion; and in your presence, they will be uplifted. When they see that what is theirs by birthright is highly desirable to those who weren’t born with it, they will never take it lightly again. They will stop taking it for granted. They will stop complaining about trivial grievances. They will begin to truly appreciate what they have.

“More than just journeying from Egypt—to which they have no ties—they will be actively journeying and connecting to Israel, appreciating and cherishing the sacred gem G‑d gave them.”

Learning From the Convert

As we read these lines, we can reflect on our own lives. Those of us privileged to be born into Judaism are in possession of a gem we don’t fully value. It is incumbent on us to learn from righteous proselytes 4 how to value the privilege of Judaism.

It is not easy to leave family, friends, and an entire way of life behind. It is not a simple matter to learn a new way of life and adapt to the innumerable difficulties inherent in Jewish living. It is not easy to adopt a slate of new holidays that require exasperating labor at home and vacation days from work. It is surely not easy to break into a pre-existing community, learn a new language, adopt new values, acclimate to new social etiquette, and develop new friendships.

Yet the proselyte does all this with joy. If we take a moment to reflect, we might realize how much we can learn from the proselyte. We attend synagogue, but do we “go” there, or “journey”? We fast on Yom Kippur, but do we do it with reluctance or joy? Do we love the Torah like the proselyte does?

The Torah tells us not to discriminate against the proselyte. Forget discrimination. Converts should be put on a pedestal, so we can all learn from them. If only some of their enchantment with Torah would rub off on us, some of their joy affect us, some of their commitment inspire us—then we would be a much better people.

Live Every Moment

This is all with respect to religion, but there is a broader lesson for life. Life is a road that is traveled over time. Things are never static; they inevitably change as our circumstances evolve. We have two options: we can journey along the road of life, or make a go of it.

We look back with fondness at the best parts of our past, but we cannot remain mired there if we want to enjoy the future. Every part of our road holds undiscovered delights and untold rewards, but we find them only if we seek them. We can’t seek them if our minds and hearts are focused on the past stretches of road. You can’t just go through life. You have to appreciate the journey.5