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Parashat Yitro

February 4, 2015

Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Isaac Mann

This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, coming to the Israelite camp along with his daughter Zipporah (Moses’ wife) and her two sons, after hearing about the Exodus from Egypt and G-d’s role in that event. The Torah goes into some detail about the initial encounter that seems rather unusual and even unnecessary — “Moses went out to his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him, and they greeted each other, and they went into the tent” (Ex. 18:7). One might expect such trivial details in a modern novel, but what purpose does it serve in the Torah with regard to Moses’ and Yitro’s coming together? Would one expect that they did not greet each other warmly? After all, there is no indication of any enmity between the two, as we find, for example, with regard to Jacob and Esau, where the Torah also elaborates on the way they greeted each other after many years of separation (see Gen. 33:1-4). There the expression “and he embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they cried” (v. 4) is in order to show reconciliation on Esau’s part. But why here?

A possible explanation for the Torah’s dwelling on Moses’ and Yitro’s greeting one another lies not in what came before, as in the case of Jacob and Esau, but in what follows. The day after Yitro arrived, the Torah tells us that he observed the way in which Moses judged the people, presumably in matters of dispute. “Moses sat while judging the people and the people stood by him from morning to evening” (v. 13). Yitro criticizes this manner of adjudication insisting that this will lead to fatigue both on Moses’ part as well as on the part of the people. Instead, he suggests, a division of responsibility through the establishment of a hierarchical judicial system, which Moses accepts and implements.

For an outsider to come to someone else’s turf and start criticizing the way things are done is highly unusual, and one might even call it an act of supreme chutzpah. Nevertheless, Yitro went ahead and found fault with the way his host was conducting his leadership role and minced no words in telling him that he should change his ways. How could he engage in such galling behavior? The answer is that Yitro was made to feel that he is no “outsider.” After being greeted with great affection and having Moses spend time with him recounting the events surrounding the Exodus and its aftermath, Yitro expresses joy at G-d’s salvation and blesses Him for saving the people from the Egyptians. He then acknowledges G-d’s superiority over all the heathen gods, offers a sacrifice to the One G-d, and then partakes of a meal with the elders of the Jewish nation (vv. 8-12). In a sense Yitro then became a part of the nation, an insider, and could without trepidation critique Moses’ conduct.

Now that we can interpret Yitro’s behavior as not being contrary to the norms of derekh eretz (ethical behavior), we can actually see his suggestions about improving the judicial system as very much a concern with derekh eretz. He felt that it was wrong to have Moses serve all day in a judicial capacity without letup. Probably his concern was with the quality of decision-making that ensues when fatigue sets in. And for the people, he was concerned that standing all day waiting for Moses to hear their disputes or render decisions about the Law would similarly lead to tiredness and perhaps rejection altogether. Yitro’s motivation was concern for the leader and for the people he led. Derekh eretz had to underlie the way justice was to be administered.

Moses, on his part, when hearing Yitro’s suggestions did not protest or try to justify his actions. He accepted unfailingly the advice that his father-in-law gave him without even consulting the Almighty. Yitro, on the other hand, qualified his instructions to Moses with the proviso that they be accepted by G-d (see vv. 19 and 23). Apparently the great leader of Israel recognized that Yitro’s system was superior to his practice heretofore and permission from G-d to change it was not necessary. Yitro’s suggestions embodied a more ethical and compassionate way of handing out justice. It was the way of derekh erez, and as the Rabbis tell us (see Vayikra Rabbah 9:3), derekh eretz kadmah la-Torah (came before the Torah).

No wonder then that the parashah that contains the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments, certainly the highlight of this Torah portion and perhaps the entire Book of Exodus, begins with the story of Yitro and his advice to Moses. A fair and ethical judicial system had to be in place before the Torah could become the way of life for our people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.