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Yitro (Jethro)

Exodus 18:1 to 20:23, Isaiah 6:1 to 7:6 and Isaiah 9:5-6


How sad! Moses begins leading alone, and ends leading alone.

We know from the first chapter of Deuteronomy that installing the leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (verse 1:15) took place after the events of Mount Sinai (verse 1:6, see also Exodus 18:16). So why is Yitro's visit related first in the Exodus account? It does create the "Moses begins alone, and ends alone" I mentioned above. It also true that Yitro does not enter the covenant of Sinai, but merely brings an offering and sacrifices to Adonai. Perhaps the ordering in Exodus is a politeness to Yitro, helping us overlook his refusal to enter into the Sinai covenant.

The governing structure Yitro suggests is accepted in word and deed. The governing structure Adonai commands is accepted in word but not in deed.

The Haftorah portion includes how Isaiah, through a vision, is commissioned by God to proclaim a plea for repentance that God knows will not be accepted. Richard Foster retells the story of a Jewish boy who asked a prophet, "Prophet, don't you see? For fifteen years you have been prophesying but things are still the same. Why do you keep on?" and the prophet replied, "I am not prophesying to change the world, but to prevent the world from changing me." In the book of Job, Elihu provided an different explanation: God provides warnings even when they will be ignored, to show that the suffering that follows is indeed punishment (Job 36:5-12).

The commandment usually translated "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain" is literally "Do not carry the name of the Lord in a lie". The word translated "in vain" is a lie in Exodus 23:1, Deuteronomy 5:20, and elsewhere, and has no relation to the word translated "vainity" in Ecclesiastes.

Note that the tenth commandment is not about prohibited action, but prohibited thought (coveting).

Two words make up "idol" in Hebrew. The first means "carved image": this is the first time (the second commandment) that it occurs in the Bible; it occurs 33 times, always in respect to idolatry. The second means "image" as in "copy of": see Genesis 1:26-27 and 5:3 for examples.

Traditional Jewish Commentary

Yitro is the third person to say "Blessed be Adonai!" The first two were Noach and the servant sent to find Rivkah.

Jeffrey Feinberg notes that the Ten Commandments are spoken as very broad principles, without details about how to prevent or enforce violations of the principles.

Yitro suggested "major" matters be handled by Moses personally. But in the implementation "difficult" matters were brought to Moses. What is the difference? (By tradition, the former relates to the monetary import, the latter to truthful complexities—Yitro thus was thinking about community economic health, but Moses respected truthful ruling for everyone.) In both cases the other judges dealt with "minor" matters. Tradition comments there are "major and minor" matters but no "easy" truths.

Mahari'l Diskin notes that in verse 18:21 Yisro's advise was "v'samto," you should force ministers upon them, but when Moshe did Yisro's bidding, the verse says "va'yi'tein osom roshim al ho'om," Moshe placed ministers upon them to their satisfaction, after conferring with them.

Ancient Rabbinical Judaism did not understand personal relationship with God in the same way Messianic Judaism does. One example is the teaching of R. Bachyei that "Just as the children of Israel are under the Lord's personal domain, so is the Land of Israel under His personal watch. If the children of Israel live in the Diaspora, they are placing themselves under the domain of administering angels for those other geographic locations. They thus remove the Lord's dominance over themselves somewhat. This might give us an understanding of the statement of our rabbis, that one who dwells in the Diaspora, it is as if he serves idols (gemara K'subos 110b)."

The HaGoan Rav Aaron Levine, proposed that the people came to Moses with two types of issues: how to relate to God, and how to relate to each other. (The two phrases of Moses's reply to Yitro are seen as distinct.) The former involves caution, and people were obedient and did not develop "matters". The latter was handled carelessly, and people developed "matters" which Moses had to resolve. Moses desired the latter issues to be treated as carefully as the former; Yitro was telling Moses that it would never happen.

Chazal expands upon the tradition teaching that the Israelites are "betrothed" to Shabbat by asking, "We may be so bold as to wonder whether those who reject the sanctity of Shabbat, negate its overriding significance to the Jewish people, are reflecting their own misperception of the institution of marriage. Do they understand the meaning of fidelity? We may suggest that the laws regarding the observance and hallowing of Shabbat should serve as a primer for the relationship between husband and wife."

Verse 19:2 reads, "And Yisrael camped there, opposite the mountain." The verb "camped" is in the singular, in contrast to the previous verbs. Rashi explains that the multitude of people all camped as one unit with one desire.

Rabbi Yosef Levinson writes, "Chazal teaches us, 'b'kol yom yihiye b'einecha ki'ilu hayom nitna', every day we should look at the Torah as if it was given today (Rashi, Shemos, 19:1). The Torah alludes to this concept many times (Shemot, 19:1, Devarim 6:6, 11:13, 26:16), and is commonly understood to be an exhortation to always view the Torah as new and exciting... In this week's parsha, the Torah states "In the third month from the Exodus of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Sinai Desert" (Shemos 19:1). Since the Torah is retelling a past event, we would expect the passuk to say bayom hahu, "that" day. Why then is it written "bayom hazeh", "this" day? Rashi answers that this is another reminder that we should look at the Torah as if it is being given today."

The Jewish reverence for Shabbat is so strong that according to tradition (and recorded in the Tz'enah Ur'enah) even the wicked being punished in Hell rest on Shabbat. (Supposedly an angel named Dumah is in charge of carrying out that punishment during the week; in the Jewish mindset God rules over Hell.)