The central event of parashat Yitro is the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. All the events recorded in the Torah, beginning with the creation of the world, have been leading up to this point. Through giving the Torah, God is about to fulfill the purpose for which He created the world: to make it into His home.

Yet, before God gives the Torah to the Jewish people, one more event must occur—and according to the Zohar,1 had it not occurred God could not have given the Torah: Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, prince and high priest of Midian, must convert and join the Jewish people.

What was so special about Jethro, and what was so significant about his conversion that it served as the final, critical prerequisite for the giving of the Torah?

In this parashah, Jethro tells Moses that "now I know that God is greater than all other deities."2 The sages tell us that this means that Jethro was acquainted with all forms of idolatry (for otherwise he could not have made such a statement). As we have explained previously,3 idolatry arose out of the erroneous belief that since God chose to delegate some of His powers to the forces of nature, it is proper to revere these forces. Eventually, people came to worship these intermediary forces themselves and, in most cases, forgot about God. Thus, Jethro's acquaintance with all forms of idolatry was the result of having studied all the forces of creation—from the physical forces of nature up to and including the most abstract and subtle spiritual powers and energies. He had worshipped all of these as intermediaries between God and creation.

If Jethro was so smart, why didn't he realize on his own that all these intermediaries have no power of their own but are rather just tools in God's hand?

In fact, the nature of reality in Jethro's time was more conducive to the pagan outlook than to the truth. Ever since the primordial sin in the Garden of Eden, the world had become increasingly hostile to holiness and God's presence had been further and further banished from the world; it seemed that God really had given His powers over to the forces of nature.

Abraham and his successors reversed this trend, and their work was now about to be consummated. The breach that had developed between Divinity and worldly reality was about to be healed, enabling Godliness to permeate all reality and enabling all reality to sense Divinity.

This was why the ten plagues and their culmination, the Splitting of the Sea, were a necessary precursor to the Giving of the Torah. When the sea split, the hidden, spiritual dimension of reality (evinced by the sea, which hides all forms of life within it) became revealed; Divinity became temporarily obvious and self-evident throughout all creation.

But the Splitting of the Sea was not enough. True, the power of evil—the denial of God's omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence—was temporarily neutralized. But it was not uprooted entirely, since the philosophical underpinnings of idolatry still existed. As soon as the sea reverted to its natural state, it was once again possible to live under the delusion that God's power extends only throughout the realms of holiness but that nature is somehow beyond His control.

This is why Amalek could attack Israel even after the Splitting of the Sea, when "all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away [from fear]." The nation of Amalek is the personification of doubt and its resulting apathy. As long as there is room to think that God and life are two separate compartments of reality, we can entertain the notion that we can live life without God's full involvement. This undermines our natural enthusiasm for Judaism; the Torah and its commandments become a burden to be discharged so that we can get on with the business of living. Certainly there is no point in giving the Torah to the Jewish people in this kind of climate.

Only when Jethro—the embodiment of anti-Torah philosophy and spiritualism—concedes that "God is greater than all other gods," thereby crowning Him king over all aspects of life down to the most mundane and seemingly natural details, is the stage set for the Torah to descend from heaven.

This is also why Jethro waited to join the Jewish people until the sea had been split and Amalek had been deterred. The Splitting of the Sea demonstrated that the time had come for the breach between Divinity and worldly reality to be healed. But the only partially-successful battle with Amalek showed that the world was still not completely ready, that reality retained lingering doubts about the extent to which this would be possible. Jethro therefore realized that now was the time for him to do what only he could do.

Being the arch-idolater he was, Jethro was in a unique position to negate the belief that any natural force or process, physical or spiritual, is independent of God. By acknowledging that God's providence pervades all corners of creation, that there is no aspect of life that can possibly be construed to be void of Him, Jethro readied the world for the consciousness of God's omnipresence that was achieved by the Giving of the Torah.

It is therefore fitting that the parashah that describes the giving of the Torah be named after Jethro, the idolatrous priest, for it is his conversion that expresses most eloquently the power of the Torah to permeate and transform all reality into God's chosen home.


The lessons to be learned from the above are applicable to each of us in our daily lives, and are reflected in the way in which Jewish practice requires us to organize our daily affairs:

God gives us the Torah anew each day: each day, if we make the proper efforts, we can glean new and higher insights into life from the inexhaustible well of the Torah. But before this can be, we must ensure that we are willing to let the Torah influence every recess of our lives. This requires us to subdue the Amalek within us by silencing our doubts about Divine providence and convert the Jethro within us by convincing the part of us that, despite what we knows to be the truth, still prefers to serve the idols of material desires, to abandon its wanton animalistic pursuits and truly accept the Godly path of Torah and its commandments.

But in order to do this, we must first immerse ourselves—totally, if only temporarily—in holiness. Experiencing the undiluted consciousness of Divinity in our morning prayers and regular Torah study enables us to tackle the materialism of the world afterwards. Once we have planted ourselves firmly on this grounding, we can safely bring Divine awareness into all aspects of our material lives: eating, earning a living, interacting with other people, and so on. Then, when we make time throughout the day to study Torah, we will be able to uncover the new insights that make it eternally relevant, so that we may hear God's voice from Sinai on a day-to-day basis.4