One of the most dramatic portions of the Torah – which recounts the encounter between G‑d and the nation of Israel – is named after Jethro, the Midianite priest who was the father-in-law of Moses and who converted to Judaism.

...the Sages discuss the reasons why Jethro made the momentous decision to convert.

Not surprisingly, the Sages discuss the reasons why Jethro made the momentous decision to convert. He had been a worshipper of "every form of idolatry," according to the Midrash, so what exactly convinced him that Judaism was true?

The Midrash records three opinions:

  • Rabbi Yehoshua said that what convinced Jethro was the victory of the Jews over the nation of Amalek.
  • Rabbi Eliezer Modai said the turning point for Jethro was the giving of the Torah.
  • Rabbi Elazar said that it was the splitting of the Red Sea which brought Jethro into the fold.

What accounts for such a vast difference of opinion?

According to Kabbalah, Jethro's soul was from the same root source as that of Cain, the son of Adam, who represented the "nest" (ken) of negative forces opposed to the holy attributes which every Jew is supposed to develop.

Shem miShmuel explains that Jethro, the spiritual descendant of Cain, included in himself all of the negative attributes which were to be found among his people (the Midianites). In this respect, he was the opposite of and the spiritual counterpart to Moses (whose soul is said to be from the same root source as that of Abel), who was the epitome of all of the good spiritual traits which Jews possess.

Specifically, the Tikunei Zohar tells us that Jews fall into one of the following categories; chassidim (pious ones), tzadikim (righteous), or giborim (heroes in battling the evil inclination), Torah scholars, visionaries, prophets, or kings. But, Moses was a "general soul," who embodied all seven of these characteristics. Jethro was also a "general soul," but being spiritually related to Cain, he embodies all of the seven characteristics of impurity, coming from unholy and impure sources. This is why Jethro practiced "every form of idolatry."

When Jethro converted to Judaism, he didn't abandon his long-developed, negative spiritual traits.

When Jethro converted to Judaism, he didn't abandon his long-developed, negative spiritual traits. He did something more difficult – he transformed them into the corresponding traits of holiness. Each form of idol-worship that he mastered now became transformed into the equivalent form of worship of G‑d, from a holy point of view.

This is why the commentaries tell us that Jethro had seven names – one name applied to each of the seven traits which he transformed from the realm of idol-worship into the realm of holiness. A true Hebrew name describes the essence of the person, and since Jethro transformed all of his seven powers of negative spirituality into the seven powers of holiness listed by the Tikunei Zohar, he took on seven names, each corresponding to one of the new paths of holiness which now became his essence.

The Shem miShmuel goes on the say that, for the same reason, Jethro's daughter Tzipora became Moses's true soul-mate. Unlike the Jews, each of whom was characterized by one of the holy traits mentioned above, Tzipora, a convert like her father, included all of them in one package. Also for that reason, the Torah describes Jethro as the "father-in-law" of Moses, even though a convert is formally considered as "reborn," and therefore has no relatives. However, the latter is the case only when the convert "leaves behind" everything with which he was formerly associated and joins the Jewish people. Jethro didn't leave his attributes behind. He took the traits of holiness. Therefore, he wasn't so much "reborn," as "transformed," and was indeed the spiritual counterpart of Moses.

Now, we can understand the difference of opinion among the Sages as to which event convinced Jethro that Judaism was true. All of them agree that it had to be a "general" event – that is, an event which subsumed all of the specific powers of the soul, since Jethro himself was a "general soul." But, they disagree on which event it was.

Thus, Rabbi Yehoshua argued that the general event was Israel's war against Amalek. The seven Canaanite kings the Jews were supposed to eradicate upon their entrance to Israel represented the seven negative powers of the soul, but Amalek represented all of them together. Amalek is called reshit goyim, meaning the "beginning/source" of all the antagonistic, non-Jewish "peoples." That is why the war against Amalek was a war against all of the powers in the world which were opposed to holiness. A victory over Amalek would certainly be construed as the victory of holiness over those powers opposed to anything sacred. And such an event would certainly have convinced Jethro that the Torah was true.

However, Rabbi Eliezer Modai argues that it was the giving of the Torah that convinced Jethro to convert. The Torah is a general master-plan which encompasses all of existence. Therefore, it isn't hard to imagine that the Torah itself convinced Jethro to convert.

Only an event which transcended and shattered the laws of nature could persuade Jethro to convert...

And finally, Rabbi Elazar argues that it was neither the war nor the giving of the Torah which persuaded Jethro, but an event which totally shattered the laws of nature – the splitting of the Red Sea. According to Rabbi Elazar, no event that worked within the bounds of nature (to which idolatry is also subject), could persuade Jethro to convert. As miraculous as they were, the victory over Amalek, and the giving of the Torah still occurred within the bounds of nature. The defeat of Amalek took place at the hands of Jewish warriors using the normal weapons of war. And even though during the giving of the Torah, the Jews "heard the lightening and saw the thunder," this was not a shattering of natural laws so much as a re-ordering of those laws. Only an event which transcended and shattered the laws of nature could persuade Jethro to convert – and that was the splitting of the Red Sea.


[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne.]