The Torah briefly describes the descent of the Israelites to slavery but does not provide answers to the following questions:
- How did Pharaoh change his mind about the Israelites?
- Who were the advisers to the plan of slavery?
- What roles did they play in the enslavement?
- What relevance does this story have on the present?
This article will address these questions using the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. In addition this article will follow Pharaoh’s advisers after the Exodus and then develop character types which apply throughout history. The end of this article will analyze these character types during the holocaust and after the war to provide Torah insights to understanding man’s inhumanity to man and especially anti-Semitism.
(Note: Due to the size of this article and to facilitate quick reference to the discussion a table of contents is provided at the beginning of the article.)
Literal Meaning – פשט
The Torah is very terse in the conditions leading to the slavery of the Israelites. The children of Israel increased enormously and filled the land (Exodus 1:7). The next verse states that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. This king, fearing the increase in the population of the Israelites, planned to enslave them to reduce their numbers (ibid. 9-11).
Exegesis – דרש
Talmud Sotah 11a and Exodus Rabbah 1:8 offer the following answers to the question of how did Pharaoh change his mind?
- A new king arose who literally did not know Joseph (Talmud and Midrash).
- The same king, on his own, changed his policies towards the Israelites and made it appear that he did not know Joseph (Talmud and Midrash).
- The same king was deposed by his council, in effect a coup, until he changed his policies under pressure, and pretended not to know Joseph (Midrash).
The above sources teach a valuable lesson in history and politics to the Israelites, namely to be wary of dealing with foreign governments as stated in Avot 2:3, “Beware of the government, for they befriend someone for their own benefit, they act favourably when it benefits them, but do not stand by in the other’s time of need.” Certainly the Israelites, throughout history, must deal with foreign governments. However the sages are offering time proven, pragmatic advice of how to deal with governments.
In addition to traditional sources, Egyptologists strive to provide a historical rationale for Pharaoh’s decision. Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, chief Rabbi of the British Empire from 1913-1946, writes in his commentary on the Torah Exodus 1:8 (Soncino Press, London 1987, 1067 pages) that the Hyksos, a Semitic tribe, ruled Egypt at the time of the Joseph. He further states that after the native Egyptians drove out the Hyksos their policy towards the Israelites changed from welcoming to fear and hostility providing a rationale to the verse (ibid.), “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The author would like to point out that:
- This theory is not mentioned in any of the classical rabbinic sources, although Josephus does mention this tribe.
- According to the Egyptologists, the Hyskos were driven out around 1550 BCE which is about the time that the sons of Jacob entered Egypt hence the transition in power occurred long before the death of Joseph. (It is possible that the secular dates could be off several decades thus providing an overlap between their reign and the life of Joseph.)
Pharaoh’s Advisers – Balaam, Job, and Jethro
This section of the article will analyze the role of Pharaoh’s advisers, both during the slavery in Egypt and after the exodus from Egypt, to determine the different types of leaders who confront evil and deal with the aftermath with lessons for our time.
Slavery in Egypt
The progression of evil was facilitated by Pharaoh’s advisers as described in the ensuing discussion in the Talmud. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Simai (Talmud Sotah 11a and identical text in Sanhedrin 106a), “Three people were involved in the counsel to Pharaoh (to drown the Israelite male babies)” as shown in the following table:
|Drown the babies
|Killed (Numbers 31:8)
|Afflictions (Job 1:15 and 19)
|Line of Torah Scholars (1 Chronicles 2:55)
The Talmud (ibid.) proceeds to discuss the fate of the three advisers. Balaam who counseled this evil plan was later put to death by the Israelites, at the battle against Midian, when he sought reward for advising the Midianite women to entice the Israelite men to immorality and idolatry (Sanhedrin 106a).
Job who abstained on this plan was punished with afflictions as a corrective action from Hashem for allowing the Israelites to physically suffer and lose their property. He should have spoken up and voted against this plan thereby securing a majority against this evil. By abstaining, Pharaoh did not see a clear majority either way and proceeded.
According to the Talmud Sotah 11a, Job remained silent when confronted with Pharaoh’s plans. However the Zohar (2:33a) indicates that Job initiated the plan of confiscation of the Israelites’ property and subsequent slavery rather than killing the Israelites, which Pharaoh had initially suggested. Job felt that his alternative was the lesser of evils. Even though Job was sincere, upright, and feared Hashem (Job 1:1) his advice, offered under pressure, did not meet with divine approval and he was punished measure for measure. He lost his property (ibid. 15 and 19) as punishment for his advice of confiscation and suffered afflictions (ibid. 2:7) for his advice of slavery. As a reward for advising Pharaoh not to kill the Israelites he was similarly protected from murder by Satan (ibid. 1:12).
Jethro stood his moral ground and voted against the plan. Seeing that his advice was not followed, he fled to Midian for his safety and later converted to Judaism (Zevachim 116a). Hashem rewarded him for his courage and conviction through a line of Torah scholars that descended from him and would advise the Israelites on many matters.
Identity of Advisers
The Talmudic commentators debate the actual identity of these advisers in the face of conflicting texts about their lives. For example Balaam is identified as an adviser before the birth of Moses which is more than 120 years before his death at the war against Midian. However the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106b) states that Balaam did not live longer than 34 years. Similarly Genesis Rabbah 57:4 and Talmud Bava Bathra 15a,b provide different opinions about the time when Job lived, starting from the days of Abraham (Midrash) or days of Jacob (Talmud ibid. 15b) and ending at the time of Mordechai and Esther (Midrash and Talmud ibid. 15b), a period of over 1,300 years. In addition the Talmud Bava Bathra 15a considers the possibility that the story of Job is not literal but a parable about divine justice. Even though this opinion is rejected by the Talmud, Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 3:22) accepts the thesis that the story of Job is a parable in view of the wide range of historical dates of Job’s life. By contrast there are no conflicting opinions about Jethro’s life and therefore his life should be interpreted literally. To resolve the apparent contradictions in lifespan the Talmud commentators opine that Balaam and Job may not be the actual advisers at the time of Pharaoh, rather their names are meant to imply:
- Similar character types.
- Descendants of their namesakes.
- Transmigration of souls of their name sakes גלגול.
In any event, the Talmud wishes to convey that there are three primary responses that men of power can take in the face of evil (i.e. for, abstain, or against). In addition to their power, these men also serve as role models for society and are therefore held accountable, in terms of divine justice, for the results of their decisions. Furthermore these character types run throughout history and provide a Torah view of understanding the dynamics of man’s inhumanity to man.
Reaction to the Exodus
The previous section examined the three protagonists in reference to confronting evil (viz. the decrees of Pharaoh). This section examines the same protagonists in terms of their reaction to the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent events (viz. defeat of Amalek and giving of the Torah).
The Talmud Zevachim 116a records that when Hashem gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the divine voice went from one end of the world to the other to inform the world of this momentous event. The kings of the world were overcome with trembling and gathered around Balaam to seek his advice. He told then that Hashem was giving the Torah to His people, the Israelites, and the matter did not concern the rest of the nations. Balaam turned his back to Hashem, effectively voted against the Torah, and misled his generation.
It is interesting to note that the Talmud does not record the reaction of Job to these events. It is possible that Job had passed away before the Israelites left Egypt, as mentioned in Seder Olam (2nd century chronology detailing dates from creation to Alexander the Great, written by Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta) chapter 3 . However there is an opinion (Bava Batra 15a) that Job was alive when Moses sent the spies to search out the land of Israel which occurred one year after the Exodus. Since there is no mention of his conversion to Judaism, we can assume, as in Egypt, he abstained on these matters and similarly his descendants did not accept the Torah. In effect he and his family abstained on the vote for Torah.
Unlike the other two advisers, Jethro changed his life and converted to Judaism based upon these events. The Torah states (Exodus 18:1),”Jethro, the minister of Midian, heard everything that Hashem did to Moses and to Israel.” The Talmud (Zevachim 116a) debates, “What did Jethro hear that he came and converted (at this time) and not immediately after the Israelites left Egypt?” The Talmud offers the following answers:
- Splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:26-15:21).
- Defeat of Amalek (ibid. 17:8-13).
- Giving of the Torah (ibid. 20:1-15).
The Talmudic commentator the Maharsha explains the connection of these events in terms of the verse (Exodus 18:1) that Jethro heard. For example Exodus 15:14 relates, “People heard and they were agitated (about the splitting of the sea). The narrative of the defeat of Amalek immediately precedes Jetrho’s hearing of 18:1, linking the two events. As mentioned above the giving of the Torah was accompanied by a loud divine voice that anyone could hear. The Talmud (ibid.) adds the following verses as proof to the splitting of the Seas of Reeds as a determining factor:
Joshua 2:10 – “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds before you.”
Rahab, the harlot said this to the two spies that Joshua sent before the battle of Jericho. She recognized the power of Hashem, converted to Judaism, and even married Joshua himself (Megillah 14b). From this union came eight prophets, as descendants, including the prophet Jeremiah (ibid.). Like Jethro she heard the message and changed her life and that of the Israelites as well.
Joshua 5:1 –“And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, who were on the side of the Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan from before the children of Israel, until they had passed over, that their heart melted, nor was there spirit in them anymore, because of the children of Israel.”
Although the verse speaks of the crossing of the Jordan the same concept applies, namely the news of a divine miracle caused a change in man’s perception. In the case of Jethro this led to conversion to Judaism. In the case of the kings of the Amorites their reaction was one of fear but not a change in their religious outlook.
The Biblical and Talmudic commentators debate whether these answers are mutually exclusive or are supportive of one another. In addition the Talmud itself (ibid.) debates whether Jethro came to Moses before (in which case reason 3 would not apply) or after the giving of the Torah. Nachmanides on Exodus 18:1 similarly provides a number of arguments for and against the idea that Jethro came before the giving of the Torah and favours the former view since it follows the chronological order of the Torah (e.g. Jethro meeting Moses, then the giving of the Torah). Although the Torah does not always follow in historical sequence Nachmanides holds that in general it does, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.
From the point of view of this article these debates are moot points because these three reasons apply throughout time for people who are searching for the truth and follow their convictions. Hence depending upon a person’s nature any or all of these reasons may apply as follows:
- Splitting of the Sea of Reeds – current events of the world.
- Defeat of Amalek – current events that affect the person.
- Giving of the Torah – moral code and instruction.
Some people may find Hashem by interpreting current events as part of the divine plan for the world. Others may find Hashem when these events affect them directly especially when accompanied by events that appear miraculous (e.g. modern state of Israel). In the case of Jethro, the splitting of the Sea convinced him that Hashem punished the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites. However this reason may not have been sufficient because he did not live in Egypt. The second reason, defeat of Amalek, was more convincing to Jethro because he was initially allied with Amalek and when he heard of their defeat he decided to convert (Exodus Rabbah 27:3 and 6). The third reason, giving of the Torah, is the most compelling because a person needs a moral code based upon divine instruction to connect with Hashem.
Personalities – Psychological
Up to this point, this article looked at Pharaoh’s advisers from an historical viewpoint. This section will analyze these character types from a personality viewpoint.
The nature of Balaam is not well defined in the written Torah. He is not mentioned at all in the book of Exodus but is described in the latter half of the book of Numbers as a soothsayer who is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites before they enter the land of Israel (Numbers 22:5-6). Hashem thwarted his plans by placing an angel with a sword to confront him (ibid. 22-30). Enraptured by the riches offered by Balak, Balaam did not see the angel rather his donkey did (ibid.25 and 31). Hashem did not allow him to curse the Israelites after three attempts (ibid. 23:7-10, 8-14, and 24:1-9, respectively). Finally, Balaam realized that he cannot curse the Israelites and prophesized about the nations of the world and then the messianic era (ibid. 24:14-24).
The oral Torah provides a number of sources to delineate Balaam’s characteristics. For example the following table illustrates the character traits of Balaam based upon Avot 5:19, linked to vices of Avot 4:21 which destroy a person, and the supporting verses from the book of Numbers. (Note: there are different ways to numerate the mishnayot in Avot. For example in the Artscroll Siddur these mishnayot are listed as 5:22 and 4:28 respectively.)
In verse 22:18, Balaam said to the servants of Balak, “If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem”, with the implication that he was jealous of Balak’s wealth. Balaam boasted of himself saying (24:16), “The one who hears the sayings of Hashem and knows the mind of the Supreme One.” In addition Balaam was driven by his lusts since he advised the Midianite women to seduce the Israelites. Only one familiar with these drives would conceive of such a scheme. In fact the Talmud Sanhedrin 105 a/b suggests that he had relations with his donkey based on Numbers 22:5 and 22:30, respectively. Hashem commanded Moses to avenge the outrage of Midian who sent their women to ensnare the Israelites in promiscuity and idolatry (ibid. 31:2). When the commanders of the army returned after the successful campaign, Moses said to them ibid. (31:15-16), “Did you let the every female live? They caused the Israelites, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor (idolatry)”. The Zohar 3:206a-207a lists eleven sins that could lead to the divine plague of tzaraat which may appear as a skin affliction (Leviticus 13:1-44), discolouration of clothes (ibid. 47-59), or affliction on houses (ibid. 14: 34-49). These sins, all of which applied to Balaam, include idolatry, forbidden relations, theft, blasphemy, and slander.
At this point the reader may think that Balaam was a complete low life. However the sages identify the following exceptional characteristics of Balaam:
- Prophet to non-Jews (Bava Batra15b).
- Scholar (Numbers Rabbah 22:7).
- Born circumcised (Avot of Rabbi Natan 2:5).
- Comparable to Moses (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 34:10)!
- Special knowledge of Hashem (Sanhedrin 105b on Numbers 24:16).
Balaam was endowed with prophetic abilities due to his great intelligence and to allow non-Jews to connect with Hashem. The Talmud Sanhedrin 106a states that Balaam was a prophet of Hashem. When he advised the Moabites to turn their daughters to harlots he was stripped of his powers and became a mere sorcerer as the verse says (Joshua 13:22), “And Balaam the son of Beor the sorcerer, the children of Israel slew with the sword.” Rashi understands this passage of the Talmud indicates that Balaam was a prophet for some time before his downfall. Nachmanides disagrees (Numbers 23:31 and 24:1) and opines that Balaam was only a prophet for this incident with the Israelites and reached a high level of prophecy when he agreed to abandon his sorcery and bless the Israelites (ibid. 24:1). As a result the next verse states that the spirit of Hashem (high level of prophecy) was upon him. However prior to these events, according to Nachmanides, he was a mere sorcerer. The Talmud likens Balaam to a failed woman who while married to princes or rulers (i.e. a prophetic connection with Hashem) consorted with menial labourers (i.e. sorcery). In a similar vein Numbers Rabbah 20:7 states that Balaam was initially an interpreter of dreams (his first experience with predicting the future), then a prophet, and in the end a mere sorcerer.
Numbers Rabbah 22:7 identifies three gifts that distinguish a person – wisdom, power, and wealth, when the person realizes that these gifts are bestowed by Hashem and used for the benefit of mankind. If not, the person will lose these gifts and suffer an untimely death. This Midrash identifies Balaam as a prime example of misused scholarship.
Balaam was one of the five or six non-Jews who were born circumcised (viz. Adam, his son Seth, Noah, his son Shem, Balaam, and Job). (The Talmud Bava Batra 15b debates whether or not Job was Jewish). Rashi on Numbers 24:4 comments that Balaam was not circumcised and therefore could not bear Hashem’ s presence in a standing position. The commentator Eitz Yosef opines that Rashi was quoting a dissenting Midrash or that Balaam covered up his circumcision. In any event Balaam misused these gifts and was destroyed.
Comparable to Moses
The Sifrei observes that the verse in Deuteronomy (34:10) states, “Never again has there arisen a prophet in Israel, whom Hashem had known face to face”, implying that this verse applied only in Israel. Consequently, among non-Jews there was a prophet comparable to Moses, namely Balaam. Certainly, there were significant differences between Moses and Balaam in terms of the moral content and outcome of their prophecies. Numbers Rabbah 20:1 points out these differences as follows:
The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 52:5) also points the difference between prophets of the Israelites and the idolaters in terms of the nature of their prophecies as follows:
The difference between the two messages (i.e. complete and incomplete) is reflected in a subtle distinction between two Hebrew words, ויקרא (and He called – Leviticus 1:1) and ויקר (and He happened – Numbers 23:4). These words differ in only one letter א, showing the distinction between a complete and incomplete message. In addition the letter א with a numerical value of 1 represents the One Above showing the depth of the message. (From the point of view of Kabbalah the letter א is composed of components י,י,ו which have a gematria of 26 corresponding to the tetragrammaton ה-ו-ה-י.) This Midrash also uses the analogy of a drawn curtain when Hashem speaks to a prophet of the Israelites (i.e. clarity) and a closed curtain (i.e. muffled message) when speaking to prophets of the idolaters. In addition the Midrash adds the colourful analogy of a husband meeting his wife (former case) vs. meeting his concubine (latter case). The source of the prophecy is also reflected in the difference between the same words ויקרא and ויקר. The former expression is a sign of holiness because the angels uses this term in their devotion to Hashem as the verse states (Isaiah 6:3), “And one (angel) would call (וקרא) to the other (angel) and say holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory.” By contrast the latter term (ויקר) indicates impurity, literally a seminal discharge without a marital relation, as in the following verse (Deuteronomy 23:11), “A man who is not clean because of a nocturnal occurrence shall go outside the camp.” Hence the difference between Moses and Balaam is the source of their prophecies, in the case of Moses holiness and angelic in the case of Balaam impurity and animalistic. The Zohar (2:69b) relates the impurity of Balaam to his following the teachings of the occult, especially sorcery, whereas as Moses derived his teaching from Hashem and His Torah.
It is interesting to note that this Midrash did not elaborate on the case of a gentile prophet who was a true believer in Hashem whose prophecy would be presumably clearer and from a source of holiness. In fact, a convert may become a prophet as in the case of Obadiah the prophet mentioned in 1 Kings 18:4 who saved one hundred prophets from the wicked queen Jezebel and sustained with his own money. As a result, Hashem awarded him the gift of prophecy (Sanhedrin 39b).
Special Knowledge of Hashem
Balaam claimed to have the knowledge of the Supreme One (Numbers 24:16) which meant he knew the time that Hashem may judge the world according to strict justice (i.e. the letter of the law). Although he had planned to curse the Israelites during this moment, Hashem refused to listen to his curse and in fact changed his words into blessings (Deuteronomy 23:5-6).
The comparison of Balaam’s action to his potential seems striking but may be explained in terms of the Kabbalistic principle of correspondence זה לעמת זה (Ecclesiastes 7:14). This means that whatever exists in the realm of holiness (Moses attached to the divine) must have a counterpart in the realm of impurity (Balaam attached to the “other side”). It is both appropriate and ironic that Hashem commanded Moses to avenge the honour of the Israelites in a war against Midian (Numbers 31:2) in which Balaam was killed (ibid. 8).
Unlike Balaam, Job is called, “A wholesome and upright man who fears (reveres) Hashem and shuns evil (Job 1:1 and 8).” The sages identify the following exceptional characteristics of Job:
- Prophet to non-Jews (Bava Batra 15b).
- Scholar (Zohar 2:69a).
- Born circumcised (Avot of Rabbi Natan 2:5).
- Comparable to Abraham (Bava Batra 15b)!
Job was similarly endowed with prophetic abilities due to his intelligence and to allow non-Jews to connect with Hashem. However he did not reach the level of Balaam in prophecy. Similar to Balaam he was born circumcised.
Fear of Hashem
The Talmud Bava Batra 15b notes that the praises of Job (1:1 and 1:8) appear to exceed what is mentioned in the Torah about Abraham. In Job (1:8) the verse declares, “For there is none like him on earth, a sincere and upright man, fearing Hashem and shunning evil.” By contrast, in Genesis 22:12, after the attempted offering of Isaac to Hashem, the angel says to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear (revere) Hashem”. However the angel did not mention that Abraham was wholesome, upright, and shunned evil. It could be argued that the term wholesome was applied earlier to Abraham (Genesis 17:1) in view of his pending circumcision. However the other two praises were not mentioned. Certainly Abraham was greater than Job because the former was the father of the Jewish people and the progenitor of two other faiths that are based upon the bible. In addition Genesis Rabbah 12:9 states that the heavens and earth were created in the merit of Abraham. This anomaly of praises may be explained as follows:
- Figure of speech – The Talmud’s comparison is based upon the literal text but does not reflect Abraham’s actual greatness (Maharsha on Sanhedrin 39b).
- Limit of praise – One should mention part of a person’s praise in his presence and all of his praise in his absence (Eruvin 18b). In the case of Abraham the angel spoke directly to him (i.e. in his presence). By contrast in both verses (Job 1:1 and 1:8) Job was not present.
- Avoid excessive praise – One should avoid excessive praise. For example even in the prayers one should not add praises to Hashem in the amidah prayer unless approved by the sages (Berachot 33b).
- Humility – The Torah wishes to teach the Israelites humility even when describing their leaders. For example the Torah rarely describes the qualities of Moses and except when mentioned in a reference to a moral teaching. For example the Torah attests to the fact that Moses was the most humble of men (Numbers 12:3) to teach that one should avoid arguments and remain silent where possible even though Miriam and Aaron spoke negatively about Moses. Similarly the Torah states (Deuteronomy 34:10) that Moses was the supreme prophet in Israel to establish the Torah, as taught by Moses, as the authoritative word of Hashem.
The Rabbis of the Talmud debate whether Job served Hashem out of reverence יראה, as the verse indicates or out of love אהבה (Sotah 27b) as well. The Talmud (ibid. 31a) concludes that Job served Hashem out of love by noting that both Abraham and Job served Hashem with reverence. In addition Abraham served Hashem with love, as it is written (Isaiah 41:8),”The offspring of Abraham who loved me.” Therefore the Talmud equates the service of Job to that of Abraham (i.e. reverence and love).
The Zohar (2:181a) makes the following distinctions between the trials of Abraham and Job.
|Tested (Genesis 22:1)
|Afflicted (Job 1:12)
|Gave his son (Genesis 22:3)
|Taken by Hashem (Job 1:21)
Hashem tested Abraham, without any intention of harming him or his son Isaac thereby actualizing his potential goodness. By contrast Hashem’s intention, through Satan, was to harm Job and his family. Similarly Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son though his great love of Hashem to fulfill His commandment in an active manner. By contrast Hashem took Job’s possessions with Job acting passively. In contrast to the Talmud, the Zohar (2:69a) concludes that Job acted primarily out of reverence to Hashem. Perhaps the Zohar holds Job to a higher standard based upon his potential and therefore regards his actions as primarily motivated by reverence and not sufficient love of Hashem. The Midrash Exodus 12:2 also focuses on Job’s reverence of Hashem by noting that he took in his cattle during the plague of hail as the verse states(Exodus 9:20) ,” Whoever feared the word of Hashem, particularly Job, (after the warning of Moses) chased his servants and livestock to the houses (to protect them from hail).” Job protected his property but did not make an effort to help the Israelites.
Unlike the previous two advisers, Jethro was not a prophet or born circumcised. However he was a scholar (Zohar 2:69a opines he was the most scholarly of the three advisers, perhaps in a moral sense) and according to our custom of annual Torah reading was privileged to have a Torah portion named after him. Jethro’s personality and life followed these characteristics:
- Searcher of truth.
- Wise but skeptical.
- Willing to change – converted to Judaism.
- Wishes to influence others.
Searcher of Truth
Originally Jethro was an idolater and served as an idolatrous priest in Pharaoh’s court (Zohar 2:67b) and later in his native Midian (Exodus 2:16). As a searcher of the truth, he became disenchanted with idolatry and abandoned his position as priest in effect using his age as an excuse to retire from the position (Exodus Rabbah 1:32). As a result of his change the people of Midian excommunicated Jethro and his own daughters now had to tend to the flocks (ibid.)
Wise but Skeptical
Although Jethro was wise and a searcher of the truth he did not consider joining the Israelites while they were still slaves (ibid.). He reasoned that if Hashem truly rules the word he should reveal himself through redemption of his people and by revealing His Torah. When Jethro found out that Moses was a fugitive from Pharaoh he threw him in a dungeon because he still feared Egyptian power. Zipporah, who later became the wife of Moses, fed him secretly for ten years (Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Exodus 2:21). Jethro eventually relented and allowed Moses to marry his daughter (Exodus 2:21). Despite spending time with Moses, Jethro was not yet convinced to join the Israelites. He needed a clear confirmation from Hashem that goodness triumphs over evil especially after he protested Pharaoh’s injustice against the Israelites and saw that nothing had changed. In addition without support from the other advisers he had to flee to save his own life.
Willing to Change – Converted to Judaism
The turning point came after the Exodus from Egypt as the Torah relates (Exodus 18:1),”Jethro, priest of Midian, father in law of Moses, heard everything that G-d (this name ם-י-ה-ל-א implies within nature) did to Moses and Israel His people -that Hashem (this name ה-ו-ה-י implies beyond nature meaning transcendence) took Israel out of Egypt.” The Zohar (2:68a) explains that the first phrase “G-d did to Moses and Israel” relates to Hashem’s protection of the Israelites and their extraordinary increase in numbers in Egypt despite their hardships. The second phrase refers to the open miracles of ten plagues and splitting of the sea where Hashem punished the Egyptians for their wickedness. At last Jethro saw the divine retribution that he had waited so long to see. Jethro then realized (Exodus 18:11), “Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all deities for with the plan that they (Egyptians) plotted they were (in turn punished)”. The Mechilta comments on this verse, “I (Jethro) recognized Hashem in the past but now even more.” In addition the Mechilta comments on the phrase “greatest of all deities”, “This phrase teaches us that Jethro (at one time or another) had worshipped all idolatry of the world (and was not satisfied) and therefore could later justifiably say that Hashem is the sole deity of the world.
The Talmud Sotah 11a comments on the Egyptian intention to punish the Israelites without receiving divine retribution. They reasoned that since Hashem had promised to not to bring a flood upon the world they could drown the Israelite babies with impunity. However the Egyptians were incorrect because Hashem will not bring a flood upon the entire world but may bring it on a single nation. Alternatively Hashem will not bring a flood upon an entire nation but will allow an army to fall into the waters themselves. When Jethro heard of the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds he was truly impressed because he now realized that divine justice entails punishing the wicked and rewarding the innocent on the principle of measure for measure, in this case water vs. water, albeit with a long delay (over 80 years) between the crime and retribution.
As discussed above the Talmud Zevachim 116a provides three reasons for Jethro’s conversion to Judaism (i.e. splitting of Sea of Reeds, defeat of Amalek, and giving of the Torah at Sinai). According to the second reason (i.e. defeat of Amalek), he may have been impressed by the splitting of the sea but required additional confirmation to overcome his residual skepticism. Exodus Rabbah 27:6 makes this exact point and quotes Proverbs 21:11, “When a scorner is punished (then even) a fool gains wisdom, but when a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge”, implying that the defeat of Amalek, both a former ally of Jethro and scorner of Israelites, led him to reconsider his previous beliefs. Midrash Tanchuma 9 on parshat Ki Teitzei states that the warriors of Amalek would degrade the Israelites by sodomizing them and cutting their male members thereby scorning circumcision. The second part of the verse (Proverbs 21:11) referring to instructing wise men relates to the giving of the Torah completing Jethro’s transformation.
In summary Jethro’s convincing was in stages:
- Divine fight against injustice – deliverance of Israelites and punishment of Egyptians (ibid. 18:1).
- Hashem is the true G-d – there are no others (ibid.11).
- Divine justice – measure for measure (ibid.11).
Willing to Change
In contrast to the other two advisers, Jethro was privileged to receive a total of seven different names in scripture, reflecting his transformation from an idolater, then skeptic, and finally a true believer in Hashem. A name, original or added, when recorded in scripture reflects a person’s essence, actions, or destiny (e.g. Berachot 7b expounding upon the names of Reuben, Judah, and Ruth), even if the some of the names are not used in practice. The following table lists the names of Jethro in English and Hebrew, explains the meaning of each name and provides the first verse in scripture where mentioned (based upon Mechilta on Exodus 18:1 and Exodus Rabbah 27:8).
|Converted to Judaism (Extra letter)
|Beloved of Hashem, Loved the Torah
|Neighbour of Hashem
|Friend of Hashem
|Abandoned Idol Worship
The Midrash (ibid.) notes that an extra letter was added to his name to account for the extra passage of the Torah about his suggestion to appoint judges (Exodus 18:13-26).
Wishes to influence others
Jethro as a seeker of the truth wished to influence others for the benefit of society by following the ways of Hashem. For example (Exodus 18:13-26), Jethro saw long lines of people waiting to meet with Moses to seek instruction, resolve disputes, or receive his blessings. Jethro felt that these delays were an affront to the nation and would lead to the burn out of Moses. He advised Moses to delegate authority by appointing judges to handle the easier cases with the difficult ones reserved for Moses with the stipulation that Hashem will agree to this plan. Moses was certainly aware of the concept of delegation but felt that the Israelites needed more time to study the Torah to become judges. However Jethro felt that this situation was unsustainable and Hashem agreed with Jethro as the verse says (ibid. 24), “Moses heeded the voice of his father in law and did everything that he said.”
In addition to helping the Israelites, Jethro who was now convinced of the truth of Torah and empowered by the studying it, returned to Midian to convert his family to Judaism (Mechilta on Exodus 18:27). We see that the Jethro after changing himself wants to influence the world around him.
Hints and allusions – רמז
The names of the advisers and the associated numerology (gematria) provide additional insights to their fates as shown in the table below.
|Standing (with sword) (Numbers 22:23 and 31)
|Enemy (Psalms 106:10)
|The Torah (Deuteronomy 17:11)
As mentioned above, Balaam was put to death by the Israelites with a sword. It is interesting to note that the numerical value of Balaam (142) is identical to נצב (standing). This word is used twice with reference to Balaam where the angel of Hashem was standing with a sword to kill Balaam. The donkey saw the angel and veered off the road saving Balaam’s life. The implication is that Balaam was destined to die by the sword unless he changed his path in life. Since he did not change he met his fate.
The letters of Job איוב are exactly the same as אויב (enemy) implying that even a moral person can indirectly become an enemy of the Israelites, in the eyes of Hashem, by not standing up for morality and then “turning a blind eye” to injustice. This especially applies in the case of Job who feared Hashem and served as a role model for his generation. The Egyptians may have reasoned if the moral figures did not oppose these evil decrees then why should we, the people, get involved? In addition the Egyptians may not have believed the reports of man’s inhumanity to man reasoning that these reports must be exaggerated because Job and his followers were not protesting. The Psalmist (106:10) when speaking of the redemption from Egypt says, “He (Hashem) saved them from the hand of those that hate and He (Hashem) redeemed them from the hand of the enemy (אויב).”The verse mentions two types of foes, starting with hatred and then leading to enemies that put hatred into action, implying the need to confront evil quickly when it rears its ugly head.
The numerical value of Jethro is 616 the same as התורה (the Torah) corresponding to his way of life as seeker of the truth and his destiny as a progenitor of Torah scholars. His sons settled in the fertile land in Jericho (Sifrei on Numbers 10:32) and then moved to study Torah under the great Torah scholar and first judge after Joshua, Atneil ben Kenaz also called Yabetz (Temurah 16a). Later their descendants became members of the Sanhedrin. The verse (Deuteronomy 17:11) speaks of the Sanhedrin who teach and rule on Torah application to daily life התורה פי על.
Heard – וישמע
As discussed above, Jethro heard וישמע the great events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and as a result converted to Judaism (Exodus 18:1). The word וישמע literally means he heard but may be expounded upon in the following ways:
- Different meanings of the verb.
- First mention in the Torah.
- Permutation of letters.
Using Deuteronomy 6:4 the verb שמע as in ישראל שמע may also mean to reflect, understand, and internalize leading to acceptance of Hashem and his commandments. The Talmud Berachot 13a calls this realization, acceptance of the yoke of heaven שמים מלכות עול קבלת. It is interesting to note that the first letters of the yoke of heaven when rearranged spell the verb שמע. Similarly Jethro heard several events which influenced him to accept the yoke of heaven.
The first mention of a word in the Torah sets a connotation for that word. The first instance of the word וישמע occurs in Genesis 14:14 when Abram heard that his nephew Lot was taken captive. He armed his disciples to wage war and rescue Lot. In this case we see that the word וישמע leads to action to help others. Similarly Jethro heard several events which lead to action (i.e. his conversion) to the benefit of others (i.e. his advice to Moses to appoint judges to handle the many cases before the court – Exodus 18:14-24).
Permutation of Letters
By rearranging the letters of the word וישמע we obtain the word מעשיו, his actions which may refer to a person’s action or those of Hashem. It is interesting to note that this word occurs 9 times in scripture but only once in the Torah, with 8 instances referring to Hashem’s actions and only to those of man. Hashem’s actions influenced Jethro along the lines of verse (Deuteronomy 11:3), “(You have seen) His (divine) signs and deeds מעשיו that he performed in midst of Egypt to Pharaoh King of Egypt and to all his land.” Taking this to heart Jethro changed his own actions מעשיו and converted to Judaism.
At this point the reader may ask, “What is the relevance of the analysis of these three advisers of the distant past?” The answer to this question relates to the understanding of events leading to man’s inhumanity to man, especially when these events occur in apparently civilized and advanced nations. Even though mankind has advanced technologically, basic human nature has not changed over the ages. Hashem who has created man fully understands human nature and its foibles as the verse states (Psalms 33:15), “He (Hashem) fashions their hearts together; He (Hashem) comprehends all their deeds.”In addition Hashem has given man the ability to understand these natures through His (divine) wisdom as contained in scripture. Therefore by studying the biblical texts and its commentaries we can better understand human nature and trends in human behavior.
In terms of evil, Hashem has granted mankind free will to do good or evil (Maimonides Laws of Repentance Chapter 5) and will not immediately intervene. However when the threshold of evil is reached (known only to Hashem), divine intervention is mandated to preserve justice in the world (Sotah 9a). In addition no matter how desperate any situation may appear, Hashem has guaranteed the survival and eventual thriving of the Jewish people. In the first admonition, the Torah predicts very difficult times for the Israelites (Leviticus 26:14-41). However at the conclusion of this admonition (ibid. 44) Hashem promises, “But despite all this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them (phrase 1) or spurn them to obliterate them (phrase 2), to annul my covenant with them (phrase 3), because I am Hashem their G-d (phrase 4).” The Talmud Megillah 11a identifies these four phrases with the four exiles and their respective leaders (i.e. Babylon – Daniel, Persia – Mordechai and Esther, Syrian Greeks – Hashmonean fighters, Romans – Rabbi Yehudah the prince and later the Messiah). In each case the Israelites survived their exiles as Jeremiah (46:28) quotes Hashem saying, “Be not afraid my servant Jacob for I am with you; though I shall make an end of the (evil) nations where I have scattered, of you I shall not make an end.” The prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel provide many verses describing a utopian state in Israel under the rule of the messiah at the end of the current exile when the Israelites will attain peace, prosperity, and connection with the divine presence.
Drawing upon the detailed descriptions of Pharaoh’s advisers and applying the character types to the 20th and 21st century we may obtain the following political/psychological types:
- Balaam – evil genius.
- Job – silent majority.
- Jethro – righteous gentile.
This section of the article will examine each of these character types. The first paragraph of each character will explain their role in the war years. The second or last paragraph of each section will follow these personality types after the war especially in face of the public knowledge of the holocaust and the emergence of the modern state of Israel.
Balaam – evil genius
This character type represents some of the leaders in the dark days of Germany who through their intelligence, hatred of Jews, and propaganda sought to demonize and dehumanize the Jews. Like Balaam the power of speech (using radio and movies) was a significant factor in their evil plans. In addition many of these evil people were only advisers and did not directly commit acts of violence or murder, like Balaam they were hands off. The powerful leaders of this evil regime met the same fate as Balaam, namely premature death, either by execution (e.g. Nuremberg Trials) or suicide.
After the war, this character type persists in evil in the form of holocaust deniers or promoters of virulent anti-Semitism especially in regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. As has been pointed out by many newspaper commentators there is a world of difference between legitimate criticism of the government of Israel, which is common amongst Israelis themselves, and violent attacks on Jews. Fortunately, at the moment, this group does not control any major power nor are their leaders intellectually respected. However we must always be vigilant to the growth of this group.
Job – silent majority
This character type represents the silent majority. Like Job these were basically moral people who would normally avoid evil. However like Job they will not necessarily fight evil and may turn a blind eye to the many injustices committed against the Jews. This type of person will not jeopardize their position or profession to challenge a dictatorial government and prefer to remain silent. It is interesting to note that the Talmud Sanhedrin 74b debates whether or not a non-Jew is required to give his/her life to avoid transgressing one of the seven Noahide laws. The Talmud leaves the matter unresolved but indicates there may be a difference between public (required) and private (not required) acts of defiance leading to martyrdom. Maimonides (Laws of Kings 10:2) rules definitively that a non-Jew may transgress these laws to save his/her life. However civil disobedience or mere protests could have saved many lives during the holocaust.
For example the Rosenstrasse protest of 1943 saved thousands of Jewish men from deportation to death camps. During the months of February and March 1943 thousands of gentiles, namely German women protested in Berlin against the arrest and eventual deportation of their Jewish husbands. The German authorities were taken back and debated which course of action to follow. Since some of the women came from prominent German families they relented and let the men free. This was the only mass public protest in Germany during the war against the evils of Nazi Germany. (Admittedly from a halachic viewpoint intermarriage with gentiles is problematic. However the action of these women acting out of love for their husbands saved thousands of lives.)
For those who followed the indifference of Job, they suffered the same, namely death of family members, loss of property and physical afflictions, whether from the western Allied attacks on Germany or on the east front from Russian revenge against the German civilian population. In the first few years after the war, this group suffered from the ensuing dislocation of the German economy.
Following the war this group remained somewhat indifferent to the horrors of the holocaust and their involvement. They do not deny the holocaust but are evasive about their involvement in the atrocities and prefer to avoid the subject entirely.
Jethro – righteous gentile
This character type represents the minority who protested the barbarity and injustice of this evil regime. Some followed the path of Jethro, fled their native Germany, settled in Allied countries (especially the United States), and contributed to the Allied war effort. Others remained in Europe and risked their own lives to protect the Jewish people. In fact Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial museum, honours more than 27,000 righteous gentiles from over 50 different countries. Unlike Jethro, they did not convert to Judaism but still were active in promoting human rights.
After the war this group, especially in the United States, actively supports Israel and condemns anti-Semitic acts of violence.
This article examined man’s humanity to man through different historical perspectives starting from the slavery in Egypt which was the first national anti-Semitism in history to the present day. This article focused on three different character types, as elaborated in the written and oral Torahs, and how they react to evil (i.e. for, abstain, or against). In this manner even if only 1/3 of the population supports evil policies and 1/3 abstain, in effect an evil party can claim a majority. For example, in the last free election in Germany before the war (March 1933), the Nazi party only gained 44% of the popular vote. Through intimidation this party led the silent majority to turn a blind eye and evil prevailed.
Even though mankind has significantly progressed, in terms of technology and democracy, from the days of Pharaohs in Egypt basic human nature has not changed. Therefore the biblical model of these advisers is applicable to the present day and may play a role in the turbulent pre-messianic times before we reach the messianic era where peace and goodness will prevail.