In this week’s parasha, Jethro travels from Midian to the Sinai desert. But if we look carefully, we will see that it’s not just a physical journey that Jethro undertakes. It seems that there is a spiritual journey happening as well. Let me explain.
At the beginning of the parasha he is referred to as: “Jethro, the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses.” Subsequently, he is simply called “the father-in-law of Moses.” The title, “Priest of Midian,” has been dropped. Indeed from now on, in the bible, Jethro is never referred to anymore as “the Priest of Midian.”
As Priest of Midian, Jethro enjoyed a very important position as leader of a pagan cult. He had rank. He had prestige. He gave up all of this to become a member of the Jewish people. In describing his title as Priest of Midian at the beginning of the portion the Torah wants us to appreciate where Jethro has come from and the enormous sacrifice he is making in order to join our people.
Yet, in dropping the title subsequently, the Torah is teaching us a powerful lesson in ethics. When a person abandons a path of wrongdoing and makes a fresh start in life, we are forbidden to remind them of their previous existence. As we learn in Massechet Gerim (4:1): “We may not say to a convert, ‘only recently you were an idolater and a consumer of pork’, our attitude should be that one who sincerely converts and occupies himself with Torah is like a Cohen Gadol – a High Priest!” Jethro is never called, “the ex-Priest of Midian.” He is allowed to enjoy, subsequently, the dignity of the title, “father-in-law of Moses” with no reference, anymore, to his former life.
This may not an easy message to implement in today’s society where a person’s digital footprint in cyberspace can be there for all to see. However, even if we are aware of a person’s less than perfect earlier life, it is not our place to bring this up in our dealings with them. The Torah expects us to respect an individual’s new choices and support them, rather remind them of their past.