Parashat Yitro

From The Margins

Jethro's position at the margin of the Jewish people allowed him to understand how to make the Torah work for a multiplicity of people with a multiplicity of views.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

In Parashat Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many Rabbis and commentators have begun their discussion of the parashah by noting that the name of the parashah, Yitro, is not, perhaps, what we would expect for what is, after all, the most important portion of the Torah.

Jethro (Yitro) was Moses's father-in-law, and was, as the Torah tells us at the beginning of the parashah, a priest of Midian--a priest of idolatry. Why is this crucial portion of the Torah named after a relatively minor figure, who, in fact, only came to the Jewish people late in life, after a long career in applied paganism?

In fact, according to a Midrash quoted by Rashi, Jethro was somewhat ambivalent about the Jewish people, and his relationship to them. The Bible tells us that Jethro, hearing of the Exodus from Egypt, with its attendant miracles, took Moses's wife and children, whom Moses had left in Midian, apparently in order to spare them the rigors of life in Egypt, and, with them in tow, joined the Jewish people, encamped in the Sinai desert.

Moses greets him warmly and respectfully, sacrifices are offered to God in recognition of His miraculous care for the Israelites, and a celebratory meal is eaten. Moses then takes him into his tent, where he tells him the marvelous details of the miraculous defeat of Egypt by God.

Jethro Was Happy

The Bible reports Jethro's response to all this with the words Vayichad Yitro--"And Jethro was happy, for all the good which God had done for Israel, that he saved the nation from the hands of Egypt." 'Vayichad' is a rare word, not the obvious choice for 'happy' or 'joyous.' The Rabbis notice this, and derive from it the following remarkable insight: The word 'vayichad' comes from a word for goosebumps; Jethro felt goosebumps, a chill, when he heard about the tragedy which had befallen Egypt.

The Midrash goes on to draw the following conclusion: "This is like what people say: 'One should not speak poorly of a gentile in the presence of a convert, even after 10 generations'." In other words, Jethro, although he had joined the Jewish people, still felt a connection, an allegiance, to the non-Jewish world, and, therefore, was sensitive to the tragedy of the Egyptians, more sensitive than someone born Jewish, of Jewish stock, might be. And yet, it is this very Jethro, who is ambivalent about his allegiances, in whose parashah the Ten Commandments are given.

To complicate matters, not only the name of the parashah, but Jethro's subsequent actions in the parashah as well, raise some similar questions. The day after Jethro's arrival, Moses sits in judgment of the people, who, all day long, approach him, demanding solutions to their arguments, litigations, and problems.

Some commentaries have suggested that, although this story appears in the narrative before the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, it may actually have taken place afterwards, which would explain the great need for Moses to interpret the newly-received law to the people. Either way, we are presented with a picture of Moses inundated, 'from morning until night', with the people seeking justice from him.

Jethro, seeing this, approaches Moses and, speaking like a true father-in-law, says: "This is not good, this thing you are doing. You will surely be worn out, you and the nation with you, for this is too great a burden for you, you can not do it by yourself." Jethro then goes on to outline a brilliant solution: he suggests that Moses recruit suitable men--God-fearing, honest,--and appoint them as judges. Jethro proposes that a system of upper and lower courts be established, with Moses at the top of the pyramid.

Moses goes along with the idea, and chooses the judges--some 72,600 of them if we calculate starting from the assumption that here were judges for every 10, 50, 100, and 1000 people in a nation with a population of 600,000--who begin judging the people, referring to Moses only the most difficult cases. At this point, knowing when to make an exit, Jethro returns home, to Midian.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.