Yitro 5783 – Adding Another Chapter

By: Dr. Jeffrey Buch

Just 7 weeks prior to the start of today’s Parsha, the Jewish people were still slaves in Egypt.  But now, As G-d is about to give B’nai Yisroel the Torah and make them his “chosen people,” Moshe’s father-in-law shows up at their encampment.  This is Yitro, the priest of Midian.  He brings with him his daughter/Moshe’s wife Zipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to join up with Moshe and the Jewish people.  The translation of his name, Yitro, is “another chapter” which I presume is since his experience and counsel of Moshe added another chapter to the Torah.  As a factual matter, Yitro had several other names including Reuel, Hobab, Yeter and others, but that is a chapter to be added to another Dvar.

Yitro observed Moshe sitting as judge onto the people from “morning to night” hearing their cases and rendering justice with his decisions.  As a caring father-in-law has been know to do, he counsels Moshe that his lifestyle is not sustainable, and that Moshe should create a hierarchy of justice employing 70 righteous elders from the community to hear the majority of cases so as to refer only the most difficult and serious cases to Moshe.  Like a dutiful son-in-law, Moshe defers to Yitro’s counsel and abruptly sends him on his way.

It is now 9 weeks from leaving Egypt.  At the base of Mount Sinai, G-d instructs Moshe to assemble the people to receive the Torah which of course began with the Ten Commandments.  Then, amidst thunder and lightning with Mount Sinai shaking and covered with thick smoke, G-d descends as fire upon the mountain.  Moshe is called to ascend into the smoke from which G-d speaks directly to all those assembled, and as it is said, all those from future generations, in what we affirm as the Revelation.

Let us pause for a moment to consider something.  As a community of former slaves from Egypt who are now to become a “Nation of Priests,” it seems logical that a court system would need to be established.  It was too much for one man, Moshe, to hear all legal matters from morning to night.  The cha;ter that Yitro added, was the establishment of a legal system that would allow Moshe to delegate authority.  This would “free up” Moshe’s time to address the most serious legal and religious matters of the people.

Since the people were about to receive G-d’s law, enforcement of the law requires a system for ensuring justice without bias.  The Hebrews were not the first of the Near Eastern cultures with a legal system, but they were the first legal system based upon G-d’s law given at Mount Sinai, rather than simply a human derived convention.

Moses gained further authority as B’nai Yisroel’s supreme human arbiter because of the people declining to directly hear anything from G-d beyond the 2nd Commandment due to their fear of dying from direct Revelation.  The people pleaded with G-d to allow Moshe to receive the remainder of the Law and then to bring the Law back down to Earth, so as to hear it more easily from another human being they trusted. 

Try for a moment to place yourself in the shoes of our forbearers.  As slaves, they had no self-determination.  They had layers of task masters between themselves and the Pharoah.  The had experienced the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and now, the Revelation of G-d’s Law at the base of a shaking mountain on fire that was covered in thick smoke.  Sounds like a bit much to contend with and keep your head together even for us overly experienced and sophisticated Moderns, let alone for a downtrodden community of recently free Hebrew slaves.  Is it any wonder why they pleaded with G-d for Moshe to take over for them on hearing and transmitting the Law from the 2nd commandment onward?  So where does all this Revelation leave us today?

I suggest that this Parsha is a reminder for all of us living in the Modern world to step back and take a big dose of humility.  We should get off from our high horses and come down to Earth.  We think we are so much smarter than all who have gone before us, but I assure you that our forebearers were plenty smart, even beyond their own time in History.  We must respect our elders, even our fathers-in-law, such as Jacob’s respect for Laban.  Well, we can revisit that another time.  Please remember that our lives and our ability to live as free people depend on us revering G-d and G-d’s Laws.  May we all be fortunate enough so as to “add a chapter” of our own to the Living Torah!  Shabbat Shalom!