“Yitro rejoiced (vayichad) over all the good that Hashem had done for Israel; that He had rescued it from the hand of Egypt.” (Shmot 18:9)
We are all familiar with the historic encounter between Moshe and Yitro. In this article, we will focus on one particular moment during this meeting, when Yitro hears about all the miracles and wonders which Hashem had done for Am Yisrael in Egypt.
The Torah uses the word “vayichad” to describe Yitro’s reaction. In order to understand this term, we must examine Yitro’s complex nature. Although Yitro was a former priest for idol worship, he eventually converted and became Moshe Rabbeinu‘s father-in-law.
Onkelos translates the word vayichad as “v’chadei” – i.e., he rejoiced. Similarly, Targum Yonatan uses the term “u’badach” – i.e., he rejoiced. Rashbam concurs and notes that vayichad is related to the word chedvah – joy. This approach is bolstered by Yitro’s own statement two psukim later, when he refers to the Egyptians:
“For with the thing which they had conspired, upon them.” (Shmot 18:11)
In other words, HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave them the punishment they deserved, or, to put it in modern terms, they had it coming!
Rashi (Shmot 18:9) agrees that the pasuk‘s simple meaning is “he rejoiced”. However, Rashi then cites the Midrash:
“His flesh became covered with goosebumps, [because] he was upset about the destruction of Egypt. This is what is meant by the popular saying, ‘A convert, [even] up to the tenth generation [after the conversion], do not disgrace an Aramean [i.e. a non-Jew] in his presence.'”
This Midrash comes from the Gemara:
“‘Vayichad Yitro.’ (Shmot 18:9) – Rav and Shmuel [disagreed about this pasuk]. Rav said that [Yitro] passed a sharp sword (cherev chadah) over his flesh. And Shmuel said that his flesh became covered with goosebumps. Rav said, ‘This is what is meant by the popular saying: “Do not disgrace an Aramean [or any other non-Jew] in his presence.”‘” (BT Sanhedrin 94a)
The Gemara’s understanding of the word vayichad is based on the fact that the Torah could have used the more accepted wordvayismach (he rejoiced). However, this verb also denotes rejoicing elsewhere in the Tanach. For instance:
“You shall gladden him (t’chadeihu) with joy before You.” (Tehilim 21:7)
Rav Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah, explains that Chazal‘s teaching reflects a comprehensive approach to thepasuk:
“For Moshe’s report to Yitro includes two issues. The first is the good which HaKadosh Baruch Hu did for Yisrael, and the second is that which He did to Par’oh and to Egypt. And immediately afterwards, it is written that Yitro [only] rejoiced over the good which was done for Yisrael, and it does not say that he rejoiced over the second matter, that which was done to Par’oh and to Egypt. And it is clarified from this that over this [second matter] he really did not rejoice, because in his heart, he was upset about the calamity which had befallen them. And they based their teaching on the expression ‘vayichad‘, which is not a common expression.”
Thus, the Gemara’s explanation is not derived from the simple meaning of the word vayichad. Yet, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Shmot 18:9) shows that the word vayichad comes to teach us about Yitro’s mixed emotions:
“Samach (was happy) and sass (rejoiced) are indications of an internal emotion, while chadah (rejoiced) demonstrates, as we have seen, an outward expression of happiness. And hence the view that this term also hints at the pain which the Midianite priest felt in his heart, inside and against his will, over Egypt’s destruction.”
Interestingly, R’ Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan 2:33), in contrast, has a slightly different approach. He agrees that Yitro’s pain was a result of his being a convert but holds that this pain was unrelated to Egypt. R’ Nachman states that although Yitro rejoiced over his soul’s positive end:
“His flesh became covered with goosebumps. Specifically, his flesh – that is, his body, because since he was a convert, his joy was not over his body when he looked towards the end.”
Yitro’s conversion leaves him with mixed emotions – both on a personal level and on a national level – and teaches us about the tremendous sensitivity we must display when interacting with the gerei tzedek who choose to join our Nation.