This week's Torah reading, Yitro, includes the definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. There is so much to be learned from this passage, there is an infinite amount of inspiration to be gleaned from this passage . . . and it is so powerful that we rarely look elsewhere in the parashah / Torah reading. So, this year, I direct your attention to a different moment in the parashah, the opening verses . . .
The methodology of naming our parshiot / Torah readings, is a practical one. Instead of serving as a title that summarizes or characterizes the parshah, the name of the parshah is basically a keyword. In a world of text, where so many paragraphs begin "Vaydabeir Adonay" (God spoke), or "Eilah" (these are) or "Vayomer" (He said), there needs to be a way to identify the opening verse of the passage in question, the parashah. Thus, the name of both the book of Exodus and the first parashah of Exodus is "sh'mot", "names." The opening words are "v'eileh sh'mot" . . . the word "sh'mot" is going to be more identifiable than the word "v'eileh" . . . and so the book and the parashah are named "sh'mot." The same is true of this week's parashah, which begins with the words "vyishma yitro" "And Jethro heard..." "Vayishma" is not going to serve as effectively as a keyword as "Yitro", therefore this week's parashah is named Yitro.
But in this case, Yitro is an excellent name for the text to come because it helps flag a passage that is so often dwarfed by the iconic revelatory moment encompassed by the parashah.
The parashah begins with an explanation: apparently, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, took his daughter and grandchildren back to Midian as God's campaign to free the Israelites intensified. Yitro hears the news that God has delivered the Israelites from slavery, redeemed them from Egypt and that they are safely encamped beyond the reach of the Egyptian army. So Yitro packs up his daughter and grandsons so they can be reunited with his ostensibly less-burdened son-in-law. The Torah relates:
And he said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law, Jethro, have come to you, and your wife and her two sons with her." And Moses went out to his father-in-law, and he bowed, and he kissed him, and they asked each other how they were, and they came to the tent. (Sh'mot/Exodus 18:6-7, Friedman translation)
So much to note, right here: there is clearly a warm relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, a relationship of mutual respect and affection. Jethro, we have been reminded a few verses before, was "kohein Midyan", priest of Midian...so both men served as religious leaders and had that common denominator to bind them as well as their familial tie.
There is a parenthetical note to be made about the absence of an account of the reunion between husband and wife, father and children . . . and there are more than one possible ways to understand this. Perhaps for another year's Yitro blog!
In the following verses, Moshe tells his father-in-law about everything that had happened in Egypt: the plagues, the confrontations with Pharoah, God's ultimate redemption of the people. Jethro, priest of Midian, replies:
"Blessed is God, who rescued you from Egypt's hand and from Pharaoh's hand, who rescued the people from under Egypt's hand: now I know that God is bigger than all the gods because of the thing they plotted against them." (18:10-11)
And goes on to make a sacrifice to his son-in-law's God and to break bread with Aaron and the other elders.
The next day, Jethro watches as his son-in-law conducts the daily business of leading the people: from morning to evening, a never-ending line of people are coming to Moses asking for guidance from God and from the newly revealed tradition. Jethro, an older, experienced religious leader, watches this and then challenges his son-in-law: "What's this thing that you're doing for the people? Why are you sitting by yourself, and the entire people is standing up by you from morning until evening?" (18:14)
Moses replies like any other clergy person you'd ask today: it's my job; they need me; I am familiar with the content of God's revelation . . . . Jethro replies: "You'll be worn out, both you and this people who are with you, because the thing is too heavy for you." (18:18) . . . and then goes on to teach the newly minted religious leader how to delegate authority and how to create a system that works for the people, for Moses and for God. And perhaps Moses will have more time for his wife and children this way, too!
Jethro's respect for the God of his son-in-law is deeply moving. He is, after all, entrusting the well-being of his daughter and grandsons to the God of the Israelites who he has never served. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jethro brings a sacrifice to Adonay after hearing of the love of God for the Israelites and the intelligence and humility of his son-in-law. We should not interpret Jethro's sacrifice as a "conversion" to the faith of the Israelites. Let's be mindful of the cultural assumptions of this time and place where polytheism was a cultural assumption and where "gods" were most often associated with specific geographic territories. Jethro, serving the gods of Midian, would have been impressed by the power of this Canaanite God to manipulate events in Egypt and would be acknowledging, as his words suggest, the unique power of the God of the Israelites. This is a milestone on the road to universal monotheism.
In his turn, Moses, touched by his father-in-law's words and actions, is able to hear the criticism as constructive and wise...rooted in love, respect and experience.
We who are leaders, we who are not leaders, we can all learn from Jethro's compassion, respect and wisdom. More often than not, there are those around ready to help us share the burden. More often than not, there are those around us who love us more than we are aware. It's ok to pick up our heads, look around and learn to share our burdens and our love.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.