Jethro the Shaman

“Moses said to Chovav son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law: We are setting out for the place of which the Eternal has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will be good to you, for the Eternal has promised goodness to Israel.’ ‘I will not go,’ he replied to him, ‘but will go back to my birthplace and my land.’ He said, ‘Please do not leave us, for you know our campgrounds in the wilderness, and you are our eyes.’ If you come with us, the good that the Divine does for us, you will receive as well.” Numbers 10:29-32

Jethro, or Yitro (also called Yeter, Chovav or Reuel), priest of Midian, does several good turns for the Hebrew people. First, he adopts the lonely stranger Moses and arranges a marriage between Moses and Tziporah, Jethro’s daughter. Second, Jethro makes Moses a shepherd, so that Moses goes into the wilderness. There, Moses meets God and receives his mission, and Jethro is gracious when Moses requests to return to Egypt. Third, he brings Moses his wife Tziporah and her two children when the people are in the wilderness. Fourth, Jethro listens to Moses tell the story of his people and celebrates their liberation. Fifth, he suggests that Moses set up a system of judges to aid in governing the people, and helps Moses learn when to rest and delegate to others. Jethro inspires the Jewish system of rabbis and courts that continues to this day. And sixth, he is a guide through the many camps the Israelites set up in the wilderness.

Jethro is not an Israelite, yet he is a priest and a religious man, and he honors the Divine revelation to the Israelites with prayers and sacrifices. He is not a leader of the Hebrews, yet his advice structures their government for the future. He is not Moses’ father, yet Moses seems more attached to him than to any other person. He is a mysterious and undefinable figure who helps guide the Israelites through the desert. He has many names, and some of his names mean “honored one.” Midrash imagines him as a magician-advisor to Pharaoh and also as a wise sage who keeps the sacred staff that was passed down from Adam to Noah to Abraham at his house, until Moses comes to claim it. Moses tells us Jethro is the people’s “eyes.” He has wisdom about the sacred and about community. We might call him a shaman.

In the end, we do not know what happens to Jethro. He announces he will go home to his own people, and Moses pleads with him to stay and guide the people into their new land. We never hear the outcome of this conversation. It is as if Jethro stays and does not stay. He is part of our consciousness, yet always separate.

To this day, there are caves in Arabia known as the caves of Shu’aib, another name for Jethro. The Druze people, an ethnic group living in Israel, have the tradition that they are descended from Jethro. And characters in the Bible such as Yael have ancestry stretching back to Jethro. The Torah views Jethro as so important that the Torah portion containing the Ten Commandments is called Parashat Yitro. He is part of our myth and history and the history of the region of Israel.

One wonders, these days, if Jethro might not be one of the patrons of earth-based Judaism. A man who respects God, he is also respectful of his own native tradition. He is knowledgeable about the land. His daughter Tziporah is given a name that means “bird,” suggesting that he and his family are messengers to the spirit world. Perhaps, as we tell the story of the Exodus through the Torah portions of this month, we should reserve some time to honor Jethro, the shamanic mentor of our people.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the co-founder and director of Tel Shemesh, and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women. This article was written in collaboration with Shoshana Jedwab, co-founder, shamanic drummer, and sacred clown of Tel Shemesh.

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