Parshat Yitro

Summary: One of the shorter parashot of the year, Yitro is 5th in the Book of Shemot, spanning chapters 18:1-20:23. In it, Yitro brought Moshe’s family into the desert and offered his son-in-law advice on how to establish an efficient judicial system.

Moshe was commanded by G-d to bring Bnei Yisrael to the base of Mt Sinai and to charge them to sanctify themselves for 3 days. Meeting the Almighty, he was told to warn the priests and the people not to ascend after him.

On the 3rd day, with the mountain ablaze in fire and reverberant with sound, the Almighty revealed to all those assembled the 10 Commandments. The parasha ends with laws about altars for offering sacrifices to G-d.

Comment: Several puzzling questions arise when looking at Parshat Yitro. First, why after the national experiences of the splitting of the Reed Sea and the Revelation at Sinai do we have this seeming interruption of Moshe’s family being reunited?

Next, looking at the way he was initially addressed in the Torah as Yitro, High Priest of Midian, Father-in-Law of Moshe, why does his name change through the rest of the narrative until he’s simply referred to as father-in-law?

And, why is the parasha in which the 10 Commandments appear named after Yitro and not Moshe or anyone else?

As a recently freed, young Joseph said to Pharaoh in Genesis when asked to interpret dreams of the 7 Fat Cows and the 7 Ripe Ears of Corn, ‘these are one and the same.’ Here too, we may be looking for a single answer that addresses all of our questions.

The Parasha opens with a narrator’s description that ‘Yitro, the Priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moshe heard … all that G-d had done for Moshe and Bnei Yisrael … and Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law came with his wife and children…’ (Exodus 18:1-5).

The great medieval Biblical exegete Rashi (1040-1105) explained that Yitro heard news of the 10 plagues that struck Egypt, the splitting of the Reed Sea and the attack by Amalek. In an age without internet, it’s unclear how fast news travelled but if we assume this part of the Torah is in chronological order, it could only have been a matter of weeks.

Let us also recall that since the time of Viceroy Joseph, the surrounding nations were indebted to Egypt for feeding them during the great famine and a series of suzerain relationships may have been in place – with Egypt receiving annual tribute from its surrounding neighbours.

The news their slave population was freed and the elite Egyptian soldiers drowned in the Sea would have been an enormous shock to the known world. Egyptian culture was considered the finest of its period. The Jewish exodus in effect foreshadowed an imminent decline to what was then the known civilisation.

In a way, Bnei Yisrael’s departure destroyed the regional balance of power. More than iconoclastic, they were a threat to the established world order. How could Egypt continue economically without its slave base? At what point would the empire crumble?

But Yitro was a high ranking national figure. His initial interest, as Priest of Midian, would have been more diplomatic than familial. Just as one sends spies to learn about one’s enemies and one’s allies, Yitro may have wanted a first-hand look at what might be the new world order. Perhaps, the same fear of change may also explain why Amalek felt a need to attack. Emancipation was a threat that might impact all cultures.

In verse 18:8, Moshe recounted to Yitro the entire odyssey – of what G-d did to Pharaoh and to Egypt for the sake of Bnei Yisrael, how they’d been saved from harm and delivered, leading Yitro to declare in his own words ‘Blessed is G-d who delivered you’ (18:9-10).

The importance of this transition is not lost on the rabbis of the Talmudic period, some of whom speculated that Yitro then converted to Judaism. At this point, Yitro’s interest was no longer national or diplomatic but familial.

Yet, soon afterwards, watching his son-in-law adjudicate, seeing him work so hard as to preclude time for family life, the narrative describes Yitro only as ‘father-in-law’. Having seen that this newly-freed slave-nation lacked even basic social controls and organisation, Yitro decided to return home.

There are many angles with which to refract and reflect upon this story. First, that Yitro, a respected leader during a time of great flux and instability, ascertained for himself that the Exodus was a good event and the collapse of Egypt would lead to new circumstances and not to world chaos. Second, that Yitro’s arrival helped authenticate the Jewish experience and bring legitimacy to their struggle for freedom. And third, that Yitro, despite high rank, put aside his title to have compassion for Moshe and his family.

Was this enough reason to warrant naming the parasha of the 10 Commandments after Yitro may be a point to argue. But, it helps us visualise some of Yitro’s motives and the diplomatic value his support offered to Bnei Yisrael.

And it reminds us that in troubling times such as ours, we should stand for our own beliefs and not be swayed by rumours and rabble. And that we must have compassion for those who are scapegoated and made the object of our fears.