What a grand reunion does our Torah portion, Yitro, describe. After a year away from his family while busy at work, Moshe finally gets to see his family again–his wife Tzipporah, his sons Gershom and Eliezer, and his revered father-in-law, Yitro. In fact, most of the excitement, and all of the conversation, centers on the dynamic between those two powerhouse men.
Mano el mano, Moshe can’t wait to tell Yitro all of the wonders he’s witnessed. “Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them” (Exodus 18:8).
Yitro’s reaction is fascinating, in that the Torah uses an uncommon word to describe it. “Vayihad Yitro,” says the Torah. What does Vayihad mean? What is its root? Many traditional interpreters see the similarity with ehad, “one.” And they imagine that Yitro, having already given his daughter and the grandsons she bears him over to monotheism, in this moment affirms the oneness of God. This would be a big step for the priest of Midian, but that’s the way some see it. Yitro has a spiritual transformation when he hears of the miracles wrought by the God of his family, the God of Israel, the One God.
The most simple explanation, and the JPS translation, is “Jethro rejoiced,” which makes sense, since the verse continues “over all the kindness that the LORD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians.” Rashi (1040-1105) offers this interpretation, but interestingly, he doesn’t leave it at that. He also includes an earlier rabbinic midrashic tradition that suggests the word vayihad means “na’asah besaro hidudin hidudin–his flesh became full of prickles.” Instead of seeing the root a-h-d, the midrash suggests it should he h-d-d, which denotes something sharp. Yitro, by this reading, feels his skin creep with horror at the news Moshe has shared. That seems way out of context; why would the rabbis suggest this reading?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll try to understand this comment, what motivated it, and what we can learn from their assumption about Yitro (and perhaps others like him).