Believe it or not, it’s less than two months to Passover. We’ve just finished reading about the Exodus, and then less than 8 weeks later we will celebrate the Exodus in all its glory. When we think of the Exodus we may tend to envision a sea of people setting out from Egypt into the wilderness. Cecil B Demille used 14,000 extras and 15,000 live animals to make the sweeping and epic Exodus scene in his movie. But we know precious little about the individuals who start walking into the desert that day except for a few notable names like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
The rest are a group of people who are connected by common ancestry to our patriarchs and matriarchs, but although we have a rough idea of their numbers, we do not know much about them.
But in the days after we leave, we re-encounter Yitro – Jethro – Moses’ father-in-law whom we met earlier when Moses left Egypt the first time. Of all the possible individuals to emphasize at this momentous time, the Torah recognizes Jethro – not an Israelite, a believer in God, but not a member of the tribe.
What makes Jethro’s re-appearance even more confusing is that he appears in the Bible with three different names. Jethro, Re’u’El, and Chovav. The vast throngs of Israelites march as one nameless mass, but the one non-Israelite who plays an important role here has, not one, but 3 names of his own.
The Rabbis describe Jethro as a very self-aware and humble man, much like Moses, a man who knows he is an outsider but also who has a significant message and teaching for Moses himself. Jethro praises God for the wonders done in Egypt before the 600,000 + Israelites do so. He does not rush into the Israelite camp but rather shoots an arrow into the camp with a letter attached to inform Moses he would like to meet.
Jethro perhaps receives his name because he acts the way God wishes each individual Israelite would behave. He is a doogmah, an example for the Israelites to see as a role model, possibly the first friendly non-Israelite anyone has ever met outside Egypt, a non-Israelite who in one stroke helps to reorganize the entire people and make everyone’s life easier. In this way, Jethro is the antithesis to Pharaoh, a leader who only wants to make everyone’s life easier.
As we get re-acquainted with Jethro this Shabbat, let’s give thanks for the way he sets an example for our people at a critical moment. He approaches the nameless mass in blessing and thanksgiving and with help and hope in his heart. The way he sets up the judiciary structure for the Israelites, with judges at all levels, all the way down to the judges who will preside even over the tens – that is over the smallest groups – will help to ensure that the now nameless mass can begin to regain their individual dignity.
The man with 3 names is now helping to make sure that each and every Israelite can preserve his or her one name.
May we seek to raise each other up, to recognize that like Jethro, each of us goes by many names & the best way to get to know each other is by finding out what all those names mean to each of us so that we can all feel we are recognized and valued here in our community.