“Moses’ father in law, Yitro (Jethro), the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people, that the L-rd had taken Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 18:1).
Jethro “heard” what G-d had done for the Jews. Rashi asks, what exactly did Jethro hear that prompted him to travel to the desert and join the Jews, instead of just sending his daughter and grandchildren? Rashi answers that he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war that the Jews had fought with Amalek.
One part of this answer makes perfect sense, while the other seems troubling. G-d splitting a sea and allowing the Jews to walk through on dry land is something spectacular, and makes for a good reason for someone to come and join the nation. (The sages even tell us that every body of water in the world split on a smaller scale to give the world a glimpse of the miracle!) But the fact that they had fought a war with Amalek and won doesn’t seem to be such a great reason for a person to uproot himself from a land where he is well respected and travel to the desert to join a new nation. It would have seemed reasonable if Jethro’s motivation to join the Jews was based on the splitting sea and the ten plagues, or the splitting sea and the exodus from Egypt. But what was so significant about the war with Amalek that caused Jethro to radically change his life?
It wasn’t the victory over Amalek that inspired Jethro, but the attack itself. Jethro wondered how it was possible that after the splitting of the sea, a miracle of gargantuan proportions that rocked the entire world, someone could dare attack the Jews. Egypt, the superpower of the world, was brought to its knees by ten terrible plagues, but still they did not stop persecuting the Jews. They followed them to the sea and were thoroughly vanquished by the raging waters. Wouldn’t that be enough to keep everyone away from the Jews?
Shortly after the splitting of the sea, Amalek came with an army to attack the Jews. This taught Jethro that even when someone sees a huge miracle, it doesn’t necessarily change him, it merely provides an impetus for change. And if one doesn’t seize the moment, the power of that moment diminishes. This is how the nation of Amalek was able to attack. They let the miracles they saw slide right off their backs and blithely continued with their evil plans. Jethro didn’t want this to happen to him, so he seized the moment and traveled to the desert to join the Jews.
Many times we experience powerful moments in our life that leave us feeling inspired. What Amalek and Jethro teach us is that if we spring from experience into action, we can elevate ourselves dramatically; if we don’t, we can lose the power of the moment forever.
By: Rabbi Leiby Burnham