Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Rabbi David Stav
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
A select few Torah portions are named after an individual, and it is even rarer for a parsha to be named after a non-Jew. Three individuals merited this privilege: Noach, Yitro (Moshe’s father-in-law), and Balak, the king of Moav.
Noach is the focal point of a significant event – the flood. The story of Balak, who tried to block the Jewish people on their way to the Promised Land, plays a vital role in helping us understand the history of the Jewish nation in the desert. Yitro, in comparison, seems to be a trivial figure, especially when considering that we read about him in close proximity to the narrative of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
So, who was Yitro, anyway? Moshe, having become a fugitive after killing the Egyptian man who had beaten a Jew, married the daughter of Yitro, a Midianite priest. According to Jewish tradition, Yitro was a key figure in Midianite idol worship, and there was scarcely a form of idol worship at which he hadn’t tried his hand. While Moshe was busy taking his people out of Egypt, Yitro was being cared for by Moshe’s wife and two sons in Midian. Now, after Israel had left Egypt and entered the Sinai Desert, Yitro reunites the family.
The Torah devotes an entire chapter to describing how Yitro arrives in the Israelite camp. Unsatisfied with merely being a guest at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Yitro begins dispensing advice, and even offers a few words of criticism. He sees Moshe taking an overly centralized approach to managing the judicial system, and tells Moshe that he doesn’t stand a chance of succeeding this way. Moshe relents and changes his approach, appointing a system of higher and lower courts – a basic administrative tool to help manage the affairs of a nation consisting of millions of people.
This attention on bureaucracy seems strange. The Jewish People are about to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai – one of the most momentous events in the history of the Jewish nation and all of humankind – yet the Torah deems it appropriate to dedicate time to such a technical, secondary issue?
Some Jewish sages reasoned that Yitro had come to see the Jewish People in the desert only after the Torah was given. If this were the case, we would all the more so need to understand why the Torah mentioned his arrival precisely at this juncture. It seems as though the Torah is planting some kind of a message in our subconscious, before the formal giving of the Torah, using Yitro as a messenger.
Only a few verses later, we will receive the Torah from God, Creator of the Universe. We will soon be told that it is a great privilege to be a part of a nation receiving the central values that will cause dramatic changes in world history:
“…and you shall be for Me a treasure among all peoples, for Mine is the entire Earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (19:5-6)
The lofty role intended for the Jewish people is accompanied by a justified concern – that this important standing and eminent position could “go to our heads”. We might become conceited, and grow unwilling to listen to others. Caught up in the fervor of the moment, we might forget that Derech Eretz – common decency – precedes the Torah. We might have entertained the false notion that since we had received the Torah, there was no need to “merely” be a good and moral person – a “mentsch”. This is why we need Yitro.
The Divine Torah, given to us from Heaven, is awe-inspiring. No human being could ever have invented Shabbat, that amazing gift. A person would have found it impossible to encapsulate the entire body of the material world’s ethical teachings with the words “you shall not covet” (Shemot / Exodus 20:14).
However, before getting to those lofty values – be a decent human being. Yitro comes along, with all of the “baggage” that Moshe may have had towards him (after all, everyone knows that people don’t always get along with their in-laws), and teaches us that we need to accept the truth from whoever speaks it.
Moshe could have told his father-in-law to “get off his back”, and let him manage the affairs of the Jewish people in his own way, but he doesn’t. Moshe understands that we need to learn from every individual, even if that individual happens to be a father-in-law, and even if we have been deemed worthy of receiving the Torah from G-d. Once we heed Yitro’s counsel, we are truly ready to accept the Torah from Hashem.