Yitro: A Friend of Israel

tenThe Torah Portion for this week, Yitro, can be separated into five sections.

  • Yitro arrives and gives Moshe advise[1].
  • The Children of Israel prepare for Matan Torah [the giving of the Torah][2].
  • Matan Torah[3].
  • The people declare Moshe to be the sole ear to Hashem’s voice[4].
  • A slight return to the second commandment and rules regarding the altar[5].

The narrative surrounding Yitro produces a few questions and just many opportunities for mussar.

<Question One>

When Yitro arrives it says, “And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for G-d, and Aaron and the elders of Israel came to eat bread with Moshe’s father-in-law before G-d.[6].” What animals were used in the sacrifices? Looking back at the plague of darkness, Pharaoh feigns as if he is ready to let us leave Egypt in peace but makes the stipulation that all the animals must stay behind. Moshe responds, “You must also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to Hashem our G-d. Our cattle shall go with us; and not a hoof will be left behind; for with them we must serve Hashem our G-d; and we do not know with what we must serve Hashem, until we get there.” So I ask again, what sacrifices did Yitro bring? The narrative since our departure from Egypt describes nothing in the way of sacrifice. The sacrifices show up in Leviticus, and later in Exodus.

<Question Two>

In connection with the sacrifice is the altar. The command for building an altar is not given until the very end of this week’s Torah passage. Therefore, one must ask, “Upon what mizbeach did Yitro sacrifice his burnt offerings and sacrifices?” No instruction toward that end has been given to date.

<Question Three>

Exodus 18:13 says, “And it happened the next morning, that Moshe sat to judge the people; and the people stood around Moses from the morning unto the evening.” Moshe was judging, but upon what mitzvoth was he judging? When Yitro inquires regarding this odd sight, Moshe responds, “Because the people come to me to inquire of G-d; when they have a matter, it comes to me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I tell them the statutes of G-d, and His laws.[7]” I want to return to this passage after the questions, but thus far in the narrative of the book of Exodus, when did G-d reveal his Torah to Moshe and Israel? The answer is: it hasn’t been revealed. Moshe Rabbeinu has made no trips up the mountain, and has not G-d revealed his Torah to the people to date.

<Question Four>

Let’s look at one more point: “Moses let his father-in-law depart; and he went his way into his own land.[8]” This verse cannot be understood without reading its sister passage from the book of Numbers:

These were the journeys of the children of Israel according to their hosts: they set forward. And Moses said unto Hobab b’Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are journeying to the place Hashem said: ‘I will give it you.’ Come with us, and we will do you good; for Hashem has spoken good concerning Israel.’

And he said unto him: ‘I will not go; but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred.’

And Moshe said: ‘Do not leave us, please; because you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you shall be our eyes. And it shall be, if you go with us, that whatever good Hashem shall do for us, the same will we do to you.’

And they set forward from the mount of Hashem three days’ journey; and the ark of the covenant of Hashem went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them[9].[10]

Here, Yitro is called by another name, Hobab. – unless you want to suggest Moshe has more than one Midyani father-in-law.

Yitro’s sacrifices, the mizbeach, Moshe judging, and Yitro going back home are all questions that, when answered with intellectual honesty, tells us is that the Torah has not bound itself to a chronological narrative stream. This is not something that requires concern, because Torah uses topical as well as chronological themes in its structure. Whatever provides the better impact or a clearer opportunity for hermeneutics, is what the Torah provides.

Returning to Yitro as promised, he provides Moshe with some cogent advice, and this advice is just as sweet today as it was for Moshe 3,328 years ago. Yitro told him:

  • This thing you are doing is not good; you will surely become a carcass, both you and this people with you; you cannot do it by yourself.
  • Intercede for the people against G-d, and bring their cases and concern to G-d.
  • You shall teach them concerning the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way they should go
  • You should choose from the people competent men who fear G-d, men of truth, hating dishonest gain, and place these over them, heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. These shall judge the people at all times; the difficult rulings shall be given to you, and every small matter they judge themselves.
  • If you do this, and G-d commands you likewise, you will be able to stand, and this people shall go to their place in peace.

Is this just the concern or the critical eye of a father-in-law? Possibly, but ignoring his advise has very deep consequences.

If Moshe was to produce a people whom he spoon-fed Torah, and he was the sole arbiter of law and its interpretation, Judaism would become a cult of one personality. It would have been a failed experiment. The people need to be able to interact personally within the system, petitioning their grievances through a system of courts, protected by decentralized appellate courts, and a final supreme arbitration board [the Sanhedrin], otherwise it cannot survive. The people must be given an opportunity to become emotionally tied to the system. The Torah cannot thrive if Moshe stands stoic at the top of the mountain by himself. Matan Torah would have failed unless a system of courts was created. In a nutshell, Yitro is telling Moshe that the Jewish people will die off shortly after his death if the people are not personally and professionally empowered to involve themselves in the process.

The same thing applies to our congregations, if one or a few take all the responsibility and take on all the tasks because “no one else will do it,” or “I want to make sure it’s done correctly,” we, too, are building congregations that will not stand. Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, we are our worst enemies. If someone doesn’t make the coffee, can’t make the bulletin, or can’t rearrange the chairs before service, let it not be done. It’s better for people to see a void needs to be filled by them than to assume there’s nothing else to do. This gives everyone an opportunity to fill a role and to feel important.

Through Yitro’s advice, it becomes clear that he is the third friend of the Jewish people in Torah. Yitro became the greatest positive human force that assured our survival. The three friends are:

  • Malkitzedek[11]
  • Eleazar eved Avraham (the servant of Abraham)[12]
  • Jethro[13]

Interestingly, each of these men say a unique phrase that is now commonplace in Jewish liturgy: Baruch Hashem! Neither the patriarchs, nor anyone in the fledging nation of Israel are accredited with uttering these words, but these three godly men spoke these words and Blessed Hashem.

Yisro said: “Bless Hashem, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.[14]

After this declaration, Yitro sacrifices, presumably on an altar near the Mountain of G-d[15]. The end of our passage speaks of the mizbeach [the altar], but I will post on that next time.

[1] Exodus Chapter 18

[2] Exodus Chapter 19

[3] Exodus 20:1-14

[4] Exodus 20:15-18

[5] Exodus 20:19-23

[6] Exodus 18:12

[7] Exodus 18:15-16

[8] Exodus 18:27

[9] Numbers 10:28-32

[10] A question can arise because of a textual ambiguity in the Numbers account: Did Hobab/Yitro go with Moshe and the children of Israel? It’s not clear, but the answer is given in Exodus 18:27. Yitro does not join us in our travels.

[11] See Genesis 14:20

[12] See Genesis 24:17

[13] see Exodus 18:10

[14] Exodus 18:10

[15] AKA Sinai, Har Horev

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