Yitro 5780

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

And God spoke to Moses: I shall give you my laws. And you shall take them unto the people.

Moses (aka Mel Brooks): Hear me! Oh, hear me! The Lord, the Lord has given these 15 <crash> … ten commandments for all to obey!

What was in the other 5 commandments? What are we missing?

Well… they were probably the Terms & Conditions and no one reads those anyway.


In Parsha Yitro, we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments.

And yet, the parsha is named after Moses’ father-in-law. How is it that Yitro upstages the giving of the law??

The parsha is actually divided into two parts. The first is the story of Yitro arriving to Mount Sinai, after hearing of all the miracles of the Exodus. He knows Moses has been the chosen leader for the Exodus and he sees how people come to Moses all the time for advice and judgments on all matters of dispute. Moses listens and acts as a judge, making decisions for the people… It is an exhausting job!

Yitro comments:

 “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, you as well as this people that is with you; for this thing is too heavy for you—you are not able to perform it yourself alone.”

You cannot do it alone… you must delegate!! Yitro advises Moses to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates to share the burden.  Ah… but how do we know who will make a good leader? What qualities must they have?

Yitro continues:

But you must also seek out, from amongst all the people, able and G‑d-fearing men, men of truth, who hate unjust gain; and appoint them over the [people] to be leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens.

  • Men of truth – so they must be honest leaders
  • Men who hate unjust gain – so they must deal honestly and fairly and not be swayed by bribes
  • And organize these leaders in squads – so that the burden is not wholly shifted from Moses to a few, Yitro instructs Moses to build this hierarchy.

Hmmmm…. It sounds a whole lot like an org chart to me!

I have to wonder though, are these leaders the kind who build their own empires? Or are they leaders who empower their teams to make decisions and nurture the teammates’ abilities.

I’m currently reading the book, “Multipliers – How the best leaders make everyone smarter” by Liz Wiseman. In this book, you will find leaders who run meetings with their own opinions loudly voiced over those in attendance. This is the kind of leader who has his own agenda and puts forth his ideas as representing the team; this is the kind of leader who claims that the team supports his assertions, but in reality, he never asked the team to weigh in on anything, and likely would not have listened anyway. This is the kind of leader who made the decision before the meeting or project convened.

In contrast, there are also the kinds of leaders who pose a question or a goal and provide ground rules for conversation and then let the team have the conversation; this is the kind of leader who reserves her voice for clarifying the question, for probing more deeply into the discussion, or for getting the team back on track. This is the kind of leader who encourages the people to come together for a common goal and work toward consensus among themselves; this is the kind of leader who empowers her team to make decisions, and helps the teammates grow in their abilities to contribute.

Hmmmm….. that sounds a lot like our Kehilla which fosters growth and self-confidence and gives encouragement to those who want to learn or try new things.

Anyway… back to the parsha. Yitro helps Moses define a system of governance.

This is a really important framework for the second part of the Parsha – the giving of the Ten Commandments. Think about it… you are about to receive a bunch of rules by which you shall live your life. If you don’t have a system to enforce and remind the people of the rules, the rules will surely fall to the wayside.

Wait – why do the people need the rules? The children of Israel have just left Egypt where everything had been decided for them. Now they are free.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote:

At Mount Sinai a new kind of nation was being formed, and a new kind of society – one that would be the opposite of Egypt… nowhere else do we find anything like the politics of Sinai, with its radical vision of a society held together not by power but by the agreement of its citizens. This envisioned society was founded on the decision taken in total freedom by its members, to be bound, individually and collectively, by a moral code and by a covenant with God.

… if we don’t give them some ground rules, they might run amok!

Hmmm…. Sounds a lot like children! If you don’t teach your children the rules, they don’t know how to behave.And if they don’t periodically cross the line, they forget the boundaries of those rules.

Ah… it sounds a lot like our dog, too.

OK – so the children of Israel gather at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is seven weeks after they have left Egypt. Why did God wait seven weeks before revealing his laws to the people? Well, we know it takes time to establish a system of governance but more than that, God waited all that time so that the people were truly free from Egypt.

If God had given the commandments right away, the people might have simply accepted them because they were grateful for having been freed. Instead, by letting some time pass and letting the people experience some of that freedom, they were more ‘ready to receive’ the message. They would see more value in accepting some guidance.

Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive God’s instruction. God tells Moses that he is taking the children of Israel as his chosen nation:

Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel:”

“You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine.

“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

“Say to the House of Jacob and tell the children of Israel.:”

  • Why so explicit? Why break that into two parts?
    • “The House of Jacob” – that’s the women
    • “the children of Israel” – that’s the men
  • Why did God command the women first?
    • Because they are the more diligent in the fulfillment of the commandments.
    • Another explanation is: So that they should introduce their children to the study of the Torah.
    • One midrash explains that God said, “When I created the world, I commanded Adam first, and only then Eve was commanded, with the result that she transgressed and upset the world. If I do not now call upon the women first, they will nullify the Torah.”

Moses brings this message from God and the people respond:

“All that God has spoken, we will do

By accepting this message, the people are acknowledging that they are ready to receive the laws and therefore, the revelation of God and the commandments can proceed. By accepting this covenant with God, the people enter into a relationship in which both parties truly benefit. Rabbi Sacks comments that

At Sinai, God remained God and the Israelites remained human.
A symbol of covenant is the havdallah candle: multiple wicks that stay separate but produce a single flame.

I find this imagery particularly interesting. I never thought about the havdallah candle in this way. Further, I am reminded of the couple’s candle you might see at a wedding in which two flames are joined as one; whereas I used to think of this only as a symbol of the couple, now I can consider it a symbol of a covenant and somehow that seems more solid to me.

One final reminder from Rabbi Sacks on the idea of covenant:

So, if you find yourself in a situation of conflict that threatens to break something apart, whether a marriage, a family, a business, a community, a political party or an organisation, framing a covenant will help keep people together, without any side claiming victory or defeat. All it needs is recognition that there are certain things we can do together that none of us can do alone.

From establishing a system of governance, to working as teams, and to living as families and communities, we recognize that there are some things we simply cannot do alone. We join for common goals and enjoy trust and friendship, love and growth.

Shabbat Shalom