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Torah Sparks

Parashat Yitro
January 18, 2014 – 17 Shevat 5774

Annual (Exodus 18:1-20:23): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Triennial (Exodus 18:1-27): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Haftarah (Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6): Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Hearing of Israelite triumphs, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, visits the people, and notices that Moses is overloaded listening to the people’s grievances. Jethro convinces Moses to create a council of elders to assist in this task.

Promising to make the Israelites a “kingdom of priests,” God promises to make a series of utterances to the people at Mount Sinai. Moses urges the people to prepare themselves. The people witness a majestic scene of thunder and lightning. God announces 10 maxims on topics relating to devotion to God, honoring parents and the Sabbath, and refraining from crimes like murder, theft, adultery and falsehood. Though the Israelites are scared of the scene, Moses calms them.

Theme #1: Jethro, the True Believer

Jethro, priest of Midian - Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt. … He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” (Exodus 18:1, 6)

Jethro’s arrival in the Israelite camp is a sign that the Exodus had been publicized throughout the known world -- and that non-Israelites are impressed.

There were three people on Pharaoh’s advisory council concerning the enslavement of the Jewish people … [one of the three,] Jethro, fled the country. – Talmud Sotah 11a There was not a single religion in the world that Jethro did not try out. -- Mechilta Yitro

Why did Jethro have to come to Moses? Could he not have become and remained a believer in God in his home? He came because he was disturbed at the news that such a revelation of Divine Providence as the splitting of the Red Sea could be followed by a withdrawal of Divine favor such as the attack on the Amalekites. This report convinced him that one cannot understand the Law properly if one studies it by oneself. He realized that he must go and receive instruction from a teacher and that he must never cease to strive for the improvement of his character in order to be able to overcome the forces of evil which seek to blind man's eyes to truth and righteousness. -- Sihot Tzaddikim

Questions for Discussion:

The above passage from the Talmud Sotah claims that Jethro once was an Egyptian official who went to Midian to protest the Israelites’ enslavement. Does this explain Jethro’s kind treatment of Moses from the beginning of their relationship? Conversely, if we are to believe this midrash, why does Jethro decline to accompany Moses after God calls Moses to return to Egypt to help liberate the slaves? When we disagree with someone else’s unjust treatment, what is our level of responsibility to help fix the situation? Does Jethro achieve that level of responsibility?

Mehilta Yitro says that Jethro was a spiritual wanderer, and considers Judaism late in his religious journey. Why might it be essential for a Torah student to believe that Jethro had tried all out other religions before joining the children of Israel? Is Jethro a good role model for non-Jews today who are considering conversion to Judaism? Is it healthy for a person looking to find a religious home to consider all kinds of faiths? What about people who are born Jewish who have doubts about their connection to Judaism? What are the pros and cons of spiritual “experimentation?”

The Sihot Tzaddikim argues that Jethro needed to become part of the Israelite community so that his faith in God can be strengthened. Is Judaism untenable in isolation? If one tries to live a full Jewish life in isolation, what are the obstacles? In what ways does one need community in order to feel fully connected to Judaism? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a small Jewish community? A large Jewish community?

Theme #2: Holy Nation, Batman!

“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-5)

Prior to the Revelation on Mount Sinai, God explains a key reason for leading the Israelites on their journey -- both a privilege and an expectation.

Israel’s special identity demands a radical separation from the ways of the nations. The whole world is [God’s], but Israel is to be His “treasured possession … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, a sacral state, not a political one. -- Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion

Rabbi Ashi said: Rabbi Huna bar Natan told me: Once I was standing before King Yezdegerd and my girdle was tied too high. He pulled it down, saying to me: You are described as “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” – Talmud Zevachim 19a

The notion of Jews as a holy nation is about more than morality. It is about even more than the covenant between the Jews and God, a covenant expressed by mitzvah; it is about a unique relationship that makes Jews a people. Ultimately, mitzvah is about more than vertical connectedness; its focus is horizontal too. The centrality of command and the importance of obligation in Jewish life do more than connect Jews to God; these ideas connect Jews to one another, creating of Judaism not only a religion but a people as well. -- Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire

Questions for Discussion:

Levenson clarifies that the main function of the Israelite people is to function together in matters of holiness, and that the particulars of political structure are not at the heart of the matter. What are the challenges of being a holy people today? Does it mean worshipping God in a unique way? Can this uniqueness be applied to the ways our communities are organized as well?

The passage from Talmud Zevachim takes the imperative to be a kingdom of priests quite literally -- it must be shown in the way we dress in addition to the way we act. How does our clothing reflect our commitment to God? Does the way we dress for ritual occasions (i.e., kipah, talit, tefillin, modest and formal clothing for Shabbat) add to our level of spirituality? Conversely, do we feel a lack of holiness if we are dressed in ordinary clothing during holy days and/or services? Or should our feelings transcend what we happen to be wearing on our bodies?

Gordis reminds us that Judaism sees religious connectedness as both vertical (between human beings and other human beings -- bein adam l’haveiro) and horizontal (between human beings and God -- bein adam la’makom). What are examples of vertical connectedness? Of horizontal connectedness? What are commandments that require both vertical and horizontal relationships? How does one kind of connectedness compliment the other

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