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Parashat Yitro 5780

February 12, 2020
A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

This week’s Torah portion includes the single most intense episode in the whole Torah—the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. The Israelites, having left Egypt, stand together at the foot of the mountain. There’s thunder and lightning, and the blaring of a horn. The mountain is shaking and smoking, because God has come down on it in fire. This is when the Israelites really become a people, God’s people—when God gives them the Torah.

We don’t call this Torah portion “revelation,” though. And we don’t call it “the 10 Commandments.” The name we use for this Torah portion is Yitro, because the portion begins with something else, something that is also very important, though more mundane.

At the beginning of parashat Yitro, Moses and the Israelites are encamped at Mount Sinai. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro—Yitro in Hebrew—comes to visit. Jethro and Moses have a nice visit and catch up on the news.

The next day, Moses spends his day judging disputes among the people, from morning until night. The people with cases to bring before him stand around waiting all day until Moses gets to them. Jethro says to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Jethro advises Moses to set up a court system so that people can have their disagreements heard and resolved in a timely fashion, with Moses’s only getting involved when a case is too difficult to resolve at one of the lower levels. Moses does so.

Now, Moses is a pretty new leader. So far, he’s followed God’s instructions about how to lead. God doesn’t give him this instruction, though. It may be that God doesn’t care how Moses resolves issues between the people, as long as they learn to follow God’s law. It is another human, Jethro, a much more seasoned leader, who observes a leadership problem and offers a solution. And Moses listens to him.

The reasoning behind Jethro’s advice is interesting. The concern he expresses is primarily for Moses—that this is too much for him to handle by himself, that he will just exhaust himself—but his concern isn’t only for Moses. It is also for the people, that they too will be exhausted by having to wait so long to go before Moses with their cases.

The phrase that Jethro uses to describe what is happening is “lo tov”—not good. This Hebrew phrase appears in only one other place in the Torah—at the time of creation, God says it is “lo tov” for the human to be alone—it is “not good” for the human to be alone. When a word or phrase only appears a couple of times in the Torah, one of the forms of exegesis is to look at the contexts where it appears and see what we can learn by comparing the two. In this case, we know that when God says it is “lo tov” for the first human to be alone, God is saying that humans need companionship, need community. Therefore, here, we can extrapolate that it is not good for Moses to handle this task alone—he too needs community. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Hebrew word for life, chayyim, is in the plural as if to signify that life is essentially shared. [Someone] once defined religion as ‘what an individual does with his own solitude’. That is not a Jewish thought.”

If life is essentially shared, if we need to have companionship and community, if we need to depend on each other, then we also need to care for one another’s welfare.

Compare the leadership of Moses, as advised by Jethro, to the leadership of Pharaoh. Pharaoh certainly needs his people: They are the ones who plant the crops, work the land, and serve in Pharaoh’s army. He doesn’t seem to pay any attention to their welfare, though. He hardens his heart after each plague, despite the devastation and death that the plagues bring upon the Egyptians. I often hear people indict God for bringing suffering on the Egyptians with the 10 plagues, and ask why God would bring harm to them, who might be innocent (although I think their innocence is up for debate). We should also indict Pharaoh, who does not indicate at any point that he cares at all about what happens to Egyptians who aren’t him.

On the other hand, the people Moses leads are suffering here—albeit not like the Egyptians with the plagues—and as soon as Jethro gives him advice about how to alleviate both his own suffering and that of the people, Moses follows it. They both exhibit caring for the people, not just themselves.

The Torah tells us again and again to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—the least privileged people in society. It is incumbent on us, as people who follow the traditions of Judaism, to notice the suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering. Part of being in community, embracing community, and recognizing that community is fundamental to practicing Judaism is paying attention to what is happening with other people, and trying to improve the situation for all of us.

We need to be open to hearing advice about how to do that better. Sometimes that advice will come from someone we respect and trust, as Moses gets advice from his father-in-law. Sometimes the advice will come from someone who is suffering, someone whose suffering we have perhaps not noticed because we don’t share it.

Let us listen. Let us be open to hearing how we—as individuals, as leaders, as members of a community—can do better. Let us recognize that community is crucial, and that every member of the community matters. Let us not consider the suffering of others simply a side effect, something acceptable as we pursue our own goals. May we care, and even more, may we act to do God’s work and move toward a world in which no one suffers needlessly.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.