Jethro made the long trek from Midian to the Sinai desert, to join his son-in-law and the people of Israel. Not only did he undertake a hard physical journey but a spiritual one too.
At the beginning of the parasha we read about: “Jethro, the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses.” Subsequently, he is simply called “the father-in-law of Moses.” His title, “Priest of Midian,” has been dropped. From this point on, in the bible, Jethro is never referred to as “the Priest of Midian” again.
Jethro enjoyed a very important position as leader of a pagan cult. He had rank. He had prestige. He had power. He gave all of this up to become a member of the Jewish people. In using his title, Priest of Midian, at the beginning of the parasha, the Torah wants us to appreciate where Jethro has come from and the enormous sacrifice he had to make in order to join our people.
Yet, in dropping the title subsequently, the Torah is teaching us a powerful message about ethics. When a person makes a fresh start in life, it is forbidden to remind them of their previous existence. Massechet Gerim teaches: “We may not say to a convert, ‘it’s not so long since you worshipped idols and ate pork.’ On the contrary, someone who sincerely converts and occupies himself with Torah is like a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest!” (4:1) Jethro is never called, “the ex-Priest of Midian.” He is allowed to enjoy the dignity of the new title, “father-in-law of Moses” with no reference, anymore, to his former life.
This may not be an easy message to implement in our society where a person’s digital footprint in cyberspace remains for all to see. But the Torah challenges us to rise above this. Even if we are aware of negative aspects of a person’s earlier life, it is not our place to bring this up in our present dealings with them. The Torah expects us to put down the past and to respect an individual’s new choices and support them.