SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, January 21, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Vaera provides some details about Moshe’s family, including information about the children of his brother, Aharon.  We read that Aharon’s third son, Elazar, married “one of the daughters of Putiel” (6:25).  Rashi, citing the Gemara (Sota 43a), explains this to mean that Elazar’s wife descended from two prominent figures: Yosef and Yitro.  Yosef is called Putiel, the Gemara explains, because “pitpeit be-yitzro,” which Rashi (in his commentary to Masekhet Sota) interprets to mean that he disregarded and paid no heed to his sinful inclinations.  When faced with the temptation presented by Potifar’s wife, Yosef ignored his passions and remained committed to his values.  Yitro is called by this name, the Gemara comments, because “piteim agalim la-avoda zara” – he at one point had the practice of fattening cows in preparation for pagan sacrifices.  Yitro had been a pagan priest before embracing monotheism and joining Am Yisrael, and so he was named “Putiel” which alludes to the pagan sacrifices he used to bring.

            Chazal’s incorporation of these two personalities into the same context, and even into the same name, perhaps challenges us to identify the point of comparison between them.  In truth, this comparison is not difficult to identify.  Both Yosef and Yitro thrived as foreigners, joining the nobility of a different nation and receiving great honor and prestige.  Yosef, a foreign slave in Egypt, rose to the second highest position in the country, serving just under the king.  Yitro, a native Midyanite, joined Am Yisrael when they encamped at Mount Sinai, where he was welcomed with a grand display of honor, and he was the father-in-law of their leader, Moshe.  Intriguingly, both Yosef and Yitro offered unsolicited advice to the foreign nation’s ruler, which was emphatically accepted and implemented.  Yosef advised Pharaoh to appoint an official to oversee the storage of grain during the seven years of surplus, and Yitro urged Moshe to appoint a network of judges to assist him in governing the people.  These two men thus serve as inspiring examples of adaptability, showing us that people are capable of succeeding and making important contributions in different settings and contexts.  Even when people find themselves uprooted from their familiar surroundings and thrust into an alien environment, they should not despair, but should instead have the confidence to utilize their talents wherever they can and to the best of their ability, trusting that they can make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

            There is, however, an important difference between Yitro and Yosef, which is perhaps underscored by the ways in which Chazal associate their names with the name “Putiel.”  Although Yosef succeeded in adapting himself in Egypt, he nevertheless remained steadfastly committed to the values and principles which he imbibed as a youngster.  This was most starkly displayed by his refusal to yield to Potifar’s wife, determined as he was to remain loyal to the standards of morality he learned from Yaakov rather than embrace the decadent culture of ancient Egypt.  Yitro, however, did just the opposite.  His adaptability was manifest primarily through his rejection of the beliefs and customs which he had previously held so dear.  As the Gemara describes, Yitro did not merely offer sacrifices to pagan gods, but incurred the expense and went through the trouble to fatten the animals, signifying his passion and emotional investment in these practices.  And yet, he later succeeded in turning his back on his devoutly pagan past and embracing the faith which he was shown to be true.

            Reflecting on the stories of Yosef and Yitro, then, we learn about the delicate nature of change and adaptability.  As we go through life, and enter new circumstances and learn new information which prompts us to grow and change, we need to carefully discern between the aspects of our past which we should steadfastly retain, and those which need to be relinquished.  Yosef is our model of adapting to new circumstances without changing our principles, whereas Yitro is our model of adopting new principles upon recognizing the fallacy of previously-held beliefs.  Together, they teach us of the need for constant, dynamic growth, and to carefully determine which aspects of our life require change and which ought to be stubbornly preserved.