Sanctifying God's Name
Shemot, 18:1: "Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard everything that God did to Moses and to Israel, His people - that God had taken Israel out of Egypt."
Rashi, Shemot, 18:1, sv. And Yitro heard: "What news did he hear that he came? The splitting of the Yam Suf and the war against Amalek."
Rashi points out two events that played a defining role in Yitro's momentous decision to join the Jewish people; Kriat Yam Suf (the splitting of the Sea of Reeds) and the war against Amalek. The Be'er Yosef asks that it is understandable that Kriat Yam Suf inspired Yitro to convert. It was a momentous occasion in which God's presence was revealed through open miracles. However, the battle with Amalek was far less inspiring - although Divine Providence was apparent, it was far less earth-shattering than the other miracles. Moreover, there were times in the battle when Amalek was on the ascendancy, with the result that this battle seemed more 'natural' than the other events of the Exodus (Yetsiat Mitzrayim). If they were insufficient to arouse Yitro to convert, how could this battle achieve anything more?!
He begins his answer by acknowledging that it was not the miraculous nature of the battle with Amalek that inspired Yitro. In fact it was the detrimental effect this battle had that prompted him to join the Jewish people: The nations of the world were greatly moved by the miracles of Yetsiat Mitzrayim, as it says in the Song of the Sea, "Then the chieftains of Edom were confounded, trembling gripped the powers of Moab, all the dwellers of Canaan dissolved." (1) However, when Amalek attacked, they reduced the feelings of awe that the world had towards the Jewish nation. They now did not see the Jews as invincible, and their respect for God's people cooled down. This is expressed by the Sages in their analogy of a boiling hot bath that no-one will jump into. Suddenly a man jumps in and gets burnt, but he cools down the water.(2) Even though Amalek were defeated, they did have moments when they were successful, and seeing such a regular kind of battle succeeded in diluting the effects of the miracles of Yetsiat Mitzrayim. Thus the attack of Amalek had the opposite effect of the miracles.
How did that prompt Yitro to convert? The Be'er Yosef continues that Yitro's overriding consideration was the effect that the battle with Amalek would have on God's name in the world. Had Amalek not attacked then Yisto may have sufficed with being a Noachide Jew (Ben Noach) and observing the Jews with admiration and he surely hoped that the rest of the world would do the same. However, after this attack Yitro felt the need to publicly join the Jewish people to demonstrate that the nations should still have great awe for the Jewish nation. He was a very well-known figure in the world and he realized that his journey from Midian to the desert would be widely viewed. In addition the Sages tell us that he went to great lengths to publicize his joining the Jews.(3) The Medrash says us that HaShem Himself told Moshe that Yitro's intentions were totally pure. The Be'er Yosef explains that the purity of his intentions was manifest by his desire to counter the negative effect of Amalek.
The question remains; did Yitro succeed in all his efforts to sanctify God's name among the nations of the world. The Zohar answers this: "When Yitro, who was the high priest of idolatry, said, 'Now I know that God is greater than all gods,'(4) the honor of the Holy One, Blessed is He, rose and was given dominion over all. Because [Yitro] served the Holy One, Blessed is He, everyone immediately distanced themselves from their idolatry, [for they] realized that there was no truth in it. Then the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, was sanctified throughout the world." (5)
Yitro taught us a great lesson in his journey to becoming a Jew. It is not enough to think about one's own relationship with God but how one can effect others as well. In this vein Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes that in the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashana we say that Hashem judges the "maaseh ish upekudato". Maaseh ish means a person's own actions, but what does 'pekudato' refer to? He explains that each person has a sphere of influence beyond himself, which includes his family, his students, and any people that come into contact with him. The way he influences these people through his own actions is 'pekudato' and he is judged in that area as well. If, by observing his behavior, they learn to improve their avodat Hashem then he will receive much reward but if the opposite occurs then he will be judged for his part in their sins just as he is judged for his own.(6) A person's actions do not take place in a vacuum, we are always being noticed by others, consequently we must constantly be aware of the possible effect we can have on others without even directly communicating with them. Yitro recognized this fact and acted upon it - thus he stands as a shining example to us all.
1. Shemot, 15:15.
2. Sifri, 296, quoted by Rashi, Devarim, 25:18.
3. Rashi, Shemot, 18:6.
4. Shemot, 18:11.
5. Zohar, 2:69a.
6. Quoted in Sefer Cerem HaTzvi of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Farber, Nitzavim, quoted in Meorey Tefilla of Rav Immanuel Bernstein, p. 207.