In his biblical commentary, Tzror Hamor, the 15th century scholar, Rabbi Avraham Saba, writes: “Just as we are obligated to erase the name of Amalek, so too we are obligated to honour the name of Jethro.”
Amalek represents an evil that is obstinate and unmoved by any information or experience. For example, Amalek wages war with the Jewish people even after knowing of their miraculous victory over Egypt.
Conversely, Jethro represents the very opposite characteristic. When he heard information that challenged his philosophy and way of life, he courageously acknowledged and incorporated it into his life, at great personal cost.
Perhaps it was in deference to Jethro’s spiritual integrity, that Moses implored his father-in-law to join the Jews on their desert odyssey and link his fate to theirs, saying: “Please do not leave us…for you will be eyes for us,” meaning: You will help the Jewish people maintain a fresh set of eyes and a sense of marvel and mystery throughout their journey (of development) that only an outsider can bring to those raised inside a belief system.
And yet, despite Moses’ entreaties, Jethro refuses, saying, “I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace.”
Amazingly, the words Jethro uses to reject Moses’ plea, are the very same words used to frame the formative journey that Abraham, Judaism’s first spiritual seeker, had been willing to take: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace…”
In the same way that Amalek were defined by their close-mindedness, Jethro was defined by his open-mindedness. He was more committed to the search for truth than he was to truth itself.
Which explains why, even after declaring, “Now I know that [the Jewish] God is greater than all the gods,” he could not bring himself to conclude his search for truth and redirect his need for spiritual seeking into exploring new ways of understanding an infinite God.
Thus Jethro became the first of many who, in their search for the truth in everything, end up finding truth in nothing.
ω Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is executive director of Chabad of Belgravia