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Parashat Yitro and the Giving of the Torah

Rav Michael Hattin




The closing event of last week's Parasha was the battle against Amalek.  This marauding nomadic tribe had attacked the people of Israel while they were journeying in the wilderness of Rephidim, and according to the account in the Book of Devarim (25:17-19) had concentrated their assault on the weak and weary stragglers who trailed behind the rest of the camp.  Yehoshua, at Moshe's behest, raised a force and repelled the aggressor, and in the aftermath of the confrontation Moshe set up a memorial altar and invoked God's oath of retribution against the perpetrator.  So concludes the Parasha of Beshalach.


This week's Parasha opens with the journey of Yitro from his desert home of Midian, to meet Moshe and the people of Yisrael  at their place of bivouac.  "Yitro the Priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moshe heard of all that Hashem had done on behalf of Moshe and His people Israel, that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt."  Accompanied by Tzipora, Moshe's wife, as well as by Moshe's two sons, Yitro sets out for the 'wilderness of God's mountain' where the people of Israel are encamped.  Moshe meets his father-in-law, and recounts to him all that God had done to Pharaoh and Egypt on behalf of Israel.  He also describes to Yitro their most recent adventures along the route, from all of which Hashem had saved them.  Yitro, gladdened by the news, blesses God and proclaims His greatness and uniqueness above all other gods.  He then proceeds to prepare an offering, and Aharon and the elders of Yisrael join him for a sacrificial meal before God.


On the morrow, Moshe performs his by-now-routine role of adjudicating the peoples' civil suits, and is engaged in doing so from the morning until the evening.  Yitro is surprised that there are no other official judges assisting Moshe in his work, and suggests that a hierarchical judicial system be established utilizing suitable candidates drawn from the people.  This, he  proposes, would allow the more straightforward cases to be heard before other officials;  Moshe, whose expertise would be called upon only for the more difficult cases, would be able to devote the majority of his energies to the more pressing need of instructing the people in God's laws.  Moshe graciously accepts his father-in-law's advice and begins the process of establishing such a system.  The first section of the Parasha concludes with Moshe sending his father-in-law on his way, "and he returned to his land."


The subsequent section of the Parasha is the most momentous in the Book of Shemot: the events surrounding the Revelation at Sinai.  As the people camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, God recounts how He had taken them out of Egypt and borne them on 'eagle's wings' to bring them to this place.  He offers them the covenant of being obedient to His Torah, thereby becoming His special treasure among the nations.  The people, in unison, accept, and after intense preparation, they stand to witness the awesome spectacle of the Decalogue.


What is the significance of the order of these sections?  When exactly does Yitro make his appearance and when exactly does he leave?  What inspires him to join the people and why is the account of his visit juxtaposed with the battle against Amalek on one hand, and the Ten Utterances on the other?  The commentaries disagree on these points, and their disputes are a reflection of differences of opinion recorded in much earlier sources.



The Chronology of Events


"Yitro the Priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moshe heard of all that Hashem had done on behalf of Moshe and His people Israel...and he journeyed towards them" - what did Yitro hear?  Rabbi Yehoshua says: he heard about the battle against Amalek, which is recorded just prior to his visit.  Rabbi Elazar HaModai says: he heard about the giving of the Torah and came to join them...Rabbi Eliezer says: he heard about the splitting of Yam Suf" (Mekhilta de Rabbi Yishmael, Parashat Yitro, beginning).


According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the sections of the Torah in the main follow a strict chronological order.  If the preceding passage to Yitro's visit describes the war against Amalek, then that must have been the catalyst for his visit.  Presumably, news of the surprising triumph of Bnei Yisrael spread throughout the region and Yitro discerned in that victory the hand of God. 


Rabbi Elazar HaModai, in contrast, suggests that Yitro's visit is here recorded out of order, for in fact he did not journey to meet the people at Sinai until after the giving of the Torah.   Surely a minor desert skirmish was insufficient cause for Yitro to have undertaken such an arduous passage; it must have been tidings of grander events that inspired him. 


Rabbi Eliezer, perhaps taking his cue from the opening verse of the Parasha, understands that Yitro had heard of the most striking episode of the Exodus: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. "...All that Hashem had done on behalf of Moshe and His people Israel, that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt" is, for Rabbi Eliezer, a reference to this most singular occurrence.  In his interpretation, Yitro's visit may have temporally followed on the heels of the contest against Amalek, but unlike Rabbi Yehoshua's view, it was not that battle that occasioned it.



Ibn Ezra's Explanation and Evidence


A rather similar but expanded version of this disagreement is to be found at length in the classic commentaries of Rashi, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, and the Ramban.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), adopting the view of Rabbi Elazar HaModai, offers a number of lines of converging evidence for his view that indeed Yitro joined the people after the revelation at Sinai had already taken place.  In fact, Ibn Ezra argues that over a year elapsed between the Exodus recorded in last week's Parasha, and Yitro's appearance occurring in this week's reading.  In the interim, the Torah had been given, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) had been built, and the people were finally preparing to journey from Mount Sinai towards the Promised Land.  Basing his interpretation on the subtle details recorded here, in the Parasha of Beha'alotekha (the Book of Bemidbar), as well as in the Parasha of Devarim, he assumes that the Torah occasionally records events in non-chronological order for the sake of overriding pedagogic and didactic purposes. 


Thus, he argues, we find that Yitro offers a sacrifice to God in response to the news of the peoples' redemption.  This would imply that the Mishkan with its sacrificial altar was already built, for prior to the giving of the Torah, we find no mention of another altar of sacrifice in use.  Moreover, when Yitro questions the efficiency of Moshe's single-handed judiciary, Moshe responds that he is busy from dawn until dusk because the people come to him for judgement: "When they have a disagreement, they come to me and I judge between them, and inform them of God's decrees and teachings."  What 'decrees and teachings of God' could Moshe be conveying to the litigants if the Revelation had not yet taken place?  There presumably was no significant corpus of civil law extant before the Torah was given to the people! 


Most convincingly, when Moshe recalls in his twilight years the events of this time period, in the Book of Devarim as the people are poised to enter the land of Canaan, he appears to link the judicious advice of Yitro with the journey from Mount Sinai towards the Promised Land.  "The Lord our God spoke to us at Chorev saying: 'you have encamped at this mountain long enough.  Now travel towards the land of...the Canaanite...and possess the land which God swore to your ancestors.'  At that time, I (Moshe) told you that I am not capable of bearing your burden alone.  God has made you as numerous as the members of your tribes who are intelligent, wise and of renown, and I will appoint them over you...I appointed officers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens...and commanded them to judge justly...we journeyed from Chorev and traversed the great and awesome wilderness...until we came to Kadesh Barnea..." (Devarim 1:6-21). 


In other words, the appointment of officers and judges which Moshe describes as having occurred on the eve of their departure from Mount Sinai, is synonymous with the sage counsel of Yitro recorded in our Parasha: "Yitro said: 'Ascertain from among the people men of valor who are God-fearing, truthful and haters of bribery and appoint them over the people as officers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  They will judge the people at all times...'"  It therefore follows that Yitro must have arrived towards the very end of the peoples' sojourn at Sinai, long after they had received the Torah and soon after they had completed the building of the Mishkan. 


Completing the puzzle, Ibn Ezra explains that the sending of Yitro back to his home which our Parasha records at the conclusion of the account of the novel judicial system, correlates exactly with the narrative preserved in the Book of Bemidbar.  There we read that on "the twentieth day of the second month in the second year of the Exodus, the Cloud of Glory lifted off of the Mishkan, and the people began to journey from the wilderness of Sinai" (BeMidbar 10:11-12).  This verse describes the beginning of the journey towards the Land, after the people had been encamped at Mount Sinai for almost a year.  As the tribal units begin to move forward, Moshe addresses "Chovav son of Reuel the Midianite, his father-in law, and says: 'we are going to the place which God said He would give to us.  Accompany us and we shall be good to you, for God has spoken kindly concerning Israel.'  He responded: 'I will not go, rather I shall return to my land and to my birthplace...' (Bemidbar 10:29-34).  Thus, Yitro who returns to his own land in our Parasha is the very Chovav who decides to return home as the people leave Mount Sinai and journey towards the Land, and the two accounts are describing the exact same episode!



Yitro versus Amalek


Having demonstrated that Yitro's visit in point of fact took place after the giving of the Torah,  Ibn Ezra goes on to explain why the episode is recorded here out of chronological sequence.  "Since the text described earlier the dastardly act committed by Amalek," he writes, "it notes in contrast the kindness of Yitro's conduct.  Yitro had been gladdened by the news of God's redemption of the people, and he provides them with good and proper counsel regarding the establishment of a judicial system...just as we are enjoined to commemorate the cruelty of Amalek and to extirpate their memory, so we must not forget the kindness of Yitro and must preserve his descendents..."  In other words, the didactic justification for the placement of the account of Yitro at a juncture earlier in time than it actually occurred, is to set up a glaring study in contrasts with the behavior of Amalek.


In both cases, we have a non-Hebrew element responding to the news of Israel's miraculous delivery from slavery and bondage.  Amalek counters the Exodus and the overt expression of Divine Providence that it represents, by brutally attacking the very people associated with its ideal.  Amalek exemplifies a rejection of the Divine element in human history and a concomitant disdain for any higher moral law or spiritual dimension that it implies.  If liberation from brutal slavery carries with it an obligation and a demand to acknowledge a God who will not brook oppression of body or dulling of soul, then let that emancipation never occur.    The peoples' march Sinai-ward to receive the Torah is checked by the aggressive assault of not only a plundering roving tribe, but an opposing ideology as well. 


Yitro, in contrast, also hearing news of Israel's salvation, is filled with joy.  He resolves to join them and to link his destiny to theirs.  He bears no ill will towards their mission and in fact wishes to assist them in any way that he can.  And his help is substantial, for he provides counsel that ultimately will set the foundation for righteousness and justice to prevail against oppression and violence.  The judiciary that is established according to his recommendation is the antithesis of the lawless 'state of nature' championed by Amalek.



The Other Juxtaposition


There is, however, another implied element to Ibn Ezra's assertion. Recall that Yitro's visit is bracketed by the two events of the battle of Amalek and the giving of the Decalogue.  Ibn Ezra's approach admirably explains the juxtaposition of Amalek with Yitro, and regards it as the primary rationale for the Torah to record the events out of order.  At the same time, however, his exegesis should retain its cogency with respect to the linkage of Yitro with what follows it textually but not temporally, namely the Revelation at Sinai.  For if Yitro's visit is out of place at one end of the narrative, it is also out of place at the other.  In other words, what message is provided by the fact that Yitro's journey is described not only in contrast to Amalek's conduct, but also as introductory to the Revelation at Sinai?


Yitro is of course the first convert in Jewish experience. The people have scarcely left Egypt when he travels to meet them.  Inspired by the Exodus, overawed by the expression of God's saving power, and genuinely appreciative of the profound goodness bestowed upon Israel, he embarks on an odyssey that will in the end take him away not only from Midian but from polytheism as well.  In recognition of that profound shift, some traditions assert that his name is changed to 'Chovav' or 'Beloved,' for beloved is his character for resolving to join the people of Israel (see Ramban's commentary to Shemot 2:16).  Thus, Yitro represents not the convert of convenience or even of infatuation, but rather the absolutely sincere individual who undertakes the awesome task of completely changing the direction and goals of his life. 


As the people stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and prepare to receive the Torah, they too will be asked to undergo a process not unlike that of conversion.  In fact, Rambam (12th century, Egypt) quotes a Talmudic tradition that the Revelation at Sinai is the paradigm for all future conversions.  "The people of Israel entered a covenant with God after three preparatory acts: circumcision, immersion, and sacrifice.  Circumcision took place in Egypt prior to the consumption of the Paschal Lamb, for (although it was a tradition from Avraham's time) the people had abrogated this practice over the course of time.  Only the Tribe of Levi had maintained the legacy of circumcision.  Immersion took place in the wilderness as the people were encamped at Sinai, for the verse states: 'sanctify yourselves today and tomorrow and cleanse your clothing'.  With respect to sacrifice, the verse says: 'he sent forth the exalted lads of Israel and they offered sacrifice' on behalf of all of the people.  In similar fashion for all time, when a convert desires to enter the covenant, to find shelter under the wings of the Divine Presence, and to accept the yoke of the Torah, he requires circumcision, immersion and the bringing of a sacrifice.  A woman requires only the latter two...nowadays, sacrifice is not offered but when the Temple is rebuilt, those sacrifices will be brought" (Laws of Forbidden Relations, Chapter 13:1-5).


If indeed the receiving of the Torah at Sinai involved undergoing a process of 'conversion' including not only ritual acts but also a proverbial sea-change of attitude, outlook, worldview, and existential purpose, then the most striking exemplar of that intense opportunity being exercised is none other than Yitro.  A respected idolatrous priest among his own tribe, an important dignitary in his clan, Yitro leaves his esteemed past behind him as he enters the wilderness in search of a more profound truth.  His act of attachment to the God of Israel is not precipitated by plans of material gain, nor is it driven by desire for honor, for he lacks neither in his native land.  His is the earnest search of the restless soul that seeks communion with the Creator and a relationship with the Redeemer from servitude.  He sees the people of Israel as being directly linked to that Divine reality and therefore freely chooses to consign his fate to theirs. 


Yitro's acceptance of the Torah is thus purely motivated from the outset, as well as powerfully driven towards greater spiritual accomplishments.  In other words, he represents the sort of connection and commitment to sincere Jewish faith and to veritable Jewish living that we often take for granted, and as a result, frequently fail to appreciate or to achieve.  The Torah's narration of his story prior to the Revelation thus serves as a forceful message to those of us born into the tradition.  Real and meaningful acceptance and fulfillment of the Mitzvot, as signified by the covenant at Sinai, must be transformative, for how can one remain static and unmoved by the 'words of the Living God'?  Yitro, the former pagan, teaches us how to stand at Sinai properly, how to receive the Torah authentically and how to live by its dictates faithfully.


Shabbat Shalom


For further study:  see the Ramban's commentary in which he follows his exegetical method of adopting a more conservative approach to chronology.  For the Ramban, we are to assume that unless specifically and explicitly indicated otherwise, the events of the Torah are in chronological sequence.  Therefore, Yitro arrives in the aftermath of the battle with Amalek and prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai, according to the order that the events are recorded in the text.  His attempts to address Ibn Ezra's evidence to the contrary are in this case less convincing.


Rashi adopts an intermediate view that breaks up Yitro's visit into two distinct components.  The first, in which he arrives with Tzippora and her children, is greeted by his illustrious son-in-law, and hears the full account of the Exodus, takes place prior to the Revelation as the order suggests.  The second, however, in which he suggests an overhaul of the judicial system, occurs after the giving of the Torah.  Rashi's approach, while solving some difficulties, introduces others.   


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