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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What’s in a Name?

by Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence (Posted on February 9, 2023)
Topics: Sefer Shemot, Torah, Yitro

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The Mechilta teaches that Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, had seven names: Yeter, Yitro, Chovav, Reuel, Chever, Putiel, and Keni, each corresponding to an aspect of Yitro’s entirety. Yeter, because he was always adding good deeds. Chovav and Reuel, because he was beloved and a friend of God. The list could go on. Rashi adds that the vav at the end Yitro’s name specifically represents Yeter’s conversion to Judaism and acceptance of God and His Torah. This is of particular importance in this week’s parsha, named for Yitro, which includes ma’amad har sinai and the receiving of the Torah.

In the first 15 pesukim of our parsha, Yitro is directly referenced 11 times (Ex. 18:1-15). The majority of these times make reference to Yitro being Moshe’s father in law, which makes sense. His role is that of a schver, a father in law;  he is a haven for Moshe’s wife and children, bringing them when it is determined to be safe for them to join the rest of the Israelites. When settled, Yitro takes on a semi-parental advisory role and lovingly helps Moshe navigate the challenges of daily leadership. This is what a father in law does, and it is for this reason that the Torah put the relationship front and center in referring to Yitro.

There are, however, two consecutive instances where the in-law relationship is not mentioned. We observe that Yitro is referred to only by his first name, not even his title as kohen midian—just him. In these two pesukim his actual personage is also independent, describing moments of Yitro’s internal introspection.

וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כׇּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יקוק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הִצִּיל֖וֹ מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרָֽיִם׃ וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֮ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יקוק אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that Hashem had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be Hashem,” Yitro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians (Ex. 18:9-10).

When he stands in awe before God, he is not described as Choten Moshe, but simply as Yitro, the servant of God who will cast his lots with the Jewish people. He is not joining because he married into them, but because he, of his own volition and consciousness, recognizes the truth in God’s dominion.

When we are in relationship with others, we take on so many different roles and titles. Sometimes we are our partner’s spouse, our student’s teacher or our children’s parent. Sometimes we are our employee’s supervisor, or our supervisor’s employee. We may be our doctor’s 20th patient, or the store clerk’s kindest customer. We may be the person that inadvertently cut someone off on the road, or the kind stranger who helped someone with their groceries to the car. All of these contexts and descriptions contain truth about who we are; it is just not the full picture. 

But like Yitro, when we stand before God, we are not seen in reference to our relationships with others. Our entirety is fully observable.

Shabbat Shalom.