The Torah says (Shemos 18:1), “And Yisro, the priest of Midyan, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard about everything G-d did for Moshe and His nation Israel, for G-d took them out of Egypt.”
Why does the verse repeat the fact that Yisro was Moshe’s father-in-law and that he was a priest of Midyan? All this has already been mentioned previously (ibid. 3:1). And why does the Torah mention Yisro’s past at all? According to Rashi, (ibid. 2:16) by the time Moshe met Yisro, he already abandoned the priesthood of the avodah zara. According to the Gemara and Rambam, it is forbidden to remind a convert about his worshipping idols in the past. So why does the Torah mention it now, after Yisro has shown so much mesiras nefesh in leaving behind his past life and joining the Jewish people? It is even more incongruous to refer to Yisro’s priesthood at the idol cults in the same breath as his son-in-law Moshe is mentioned.
The verse states that Yisro heard everything Hashem did for the Jewish people. Why is the redemption from Egypt mentioned separately? Another discrepancy is in the two words used for Hashem’s name. The first part of the verse uses the word Elok-im, which refers to the attribute of Judgment, and the second part of the verse uses the word Hashem, which refers to the attribute of Mercy.
Rashi asks, “What did Yisro hear that he came?” It seems odd for Rashi to ask such a question when the answer is found explicitly in the verse: Yisro heard everything Hashem did for the Jewish people. The commentators clarify that Rashi is asking which event convinced Yisro to come join the Jewish people. Rashi replies to his own question: “He heard of the splitting of the sea and of the war with Amalek.” Why did these two events convince Yisro more than all of the other wonders?
Our final question is how come Yisro was accepted as a convert. Throughout the ages, countless converts joined the Jewish people in their suffering; it was clear to all that they were driven by a sincere desire to serve Hashem and accept the yoke of Torah. These converts were welcomed with love and respect.
In contrast, the Jewish people did not accept converts in the times of Shlomo Hamelech, when Israel was at the pinnacle of success, with tremendous riches and power. Since the Jewish people enjoyed peace and prosperity, there was no way to know if a convert is sincere or merely interested in material riches and fame. The same will be true after the coming of Moshiach, when converts will not be accepted. “Where were you until now?” they will be asked. “Where were you when the Jewish people suffered in exile? Do you think you can join them only in freedom?”
In view of this, it is surprising that Yisro was accepted. After all, he came to join the Jewish people after Hashem displayed the most marvelous wonders in their favor and performed mighty miracles in their honor. Why wasn’t he rejected with the “where were you until now” refrain?
To explain all this, let us examine Yisro’s actions. Yisro wanted to convert for a long time, even when the Jewish people were still enslaved, but he felt disqualified from joining them due to his past. He worshipped every single idol cult of his time, and this made him fear rejection. He was certain the Jewish people would not accept such a passionate idol worshipper.
After the Exodus, Yisro once again wanted to fulfill his dream of joining the Jewish people, but his friends told him, “What makes you think they’ll accept you? So many people from among the nations wanted to join them, but they are not accepting any converts. Don’t even try to go near them; they’ll reject you right away.”
This is the meaning of the verse, “And Yisro heard, ‘the priest of Midyan, Moshe’s father-in-law’.” He kept on hearing from everyone that he will be rejected as a priest of Midyan and because of the Jewish people’s rise to fame. “They’ll throw you out of there,” his friends told him. “They’ll say you worshipped idols, and that you should have come previously when they were in slavery. Now you’re coming, just to get the glory of being Moshe’s father-in-law?”
So Rashi asks, “What did he hear that he came?” What persuaded Yisro in the end to come anyway? He heard of the splitting of the sea, when even the lowest of the Jews were elevated to the heights of prophecy. At first the sea refused to split, saying that the Jews worshipped idols in Egypt, but in the end they witnessed the most awesome display of miracles in all of history. This reassured Yisro that his past priesthood will not prevent him from joining Klal Yisroel.
On the other hand, Yisro also heard of the attack of Amalek against the Jewish people. The entire world feared the Jews, yet Amalek brazenly attacked and broke the spell that surrounded them. Since that first attack in the desert, the Jewish people were exposed to further attacks by the nations. When Yisro heard that the Jewish people suffered a setback to their previous greatness, he grabbed this opportunity to join them. This was his chance to prove that he was sincere, and not merely in search of honor.
Ironically, Yisro was always shunned in Midyan because he abandoned the avoda zara. Now when his friends heard that he was preparing to depart for the desert, they began to shower him with honors, begging him to stay. So if Yisro would have meant fame and honor, he would have received it by staying in Midyan. But he left all that behind and joined the Jewish people. This is why Yisro was accepted.
The verse uses at first the Name of Judgment, to indicate that Yisro understood from Amalek’s attack that Hashem judges the Jewish people severely. Yet he joined, because he sincerely wanted to serve Hashem. The verse later uses the Name of Mercy, because Yisro understood from Hashem’s redeeming the Jewish people despite their low spiritual standing that he too would be accepted with mercy and love, despite his past.