Photo Credit: The Hebrew Identity
  • Parshat Yitro shows Israel receiving an unexpected new covenant and universal mission for all humankind.
  • Why are Moshe’s sons rarely mentioned in the Torah?
  • What are the different models for gentiles to participate in Israel’s mission?
  • In what way must the children of Israel process the Torah in order to make it accessible to the rest of humanity?

Parshat Yitro largely focuses on the relationship that’s meant to exist between Israel and the rest of humanity. As this is also the weekly Torah portion that includes Israel receiving the Torah, we should appreciate these two themes to be inexorably linked. This is the parsha where we are shown the Torah’s understanding of what our relationship is meant to be with the outside world.

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The first few verses of Sh’mot 18 show us Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro – the priest of Midian – arriving at the Hebrew camp, together with his daughter Tzipora and grandsons Gershom and Eliezer, after having heard all that the Creator had done for the children of Israel. The fact that the first eight verses of Sh’mot 18 refer to Yitro as Moshe’s father-in-law six times demonstrate this to be something crucial about their relationship.

Yitro was not only Moshe’s father-in-law but also his teacher – as we discussed in our episode on Parshat Sh’mot – and he was likely eager to learn from his most successful disciple if he could be of any further help to the revolution taking place.

In verse 7, we see Moshe go out to meet Yitro, bow low and kiss him, publicly demonstrating that he acknowledged his father-in-law as his teacher.

And in verse 8, we see Moshe not only giving Yitro a detailed account of all that HaShem had done for Israel, but also sharing some of the difficulties he had been having with the newly freed Hebrews. Before coming to meet Moshe, Yitro had heard about the Exodus on a macro level from the outside. But now he was getting a first hand insider’s perspective.

But even after hearing of all the challenges confronting Israel, Yitro maintained a positive attitude. He praised HaShem and brought a burnt offering as an expression of gratitude.

As already mentioned, Yitro had arrived at the Hebrew camp with Moshe’s wife and two sons. But after this, the Torah won’t mention these sons again. Unlike the sons of Aharon, who will become very central characters in Israel’s story, Moshe’s sons seem to play no role at all in that story. While some might see this as resulting from the fact that Moshe’s sons weren’t present for any of the major national events leading up to this point, a more compelling explanation could be Moshe’s lack of participation in raising his children. This should serve as a warning for all those who take on the responsibility of leadership roles. It’s crucial to also prioritize and invest in our own children.

Sh’mot 18, verses 13 and 14 tells us that on the next day, Moshe’s father-in-law watched him judge the people. There are different opinions as to how we’re meant to understand “the next day.” Rashi teaches this to have been the day after Yom Kippur, months after the events in the preceding verses. But the straightforward understanding is that this was the day after Yitro’s arrival, which would mark this event as having taken place prior to the Brit Sinai.

The Torah is nevua. It’s prophecy. Not a history book. And it therefore sometimes presents events to us in an order different from how they chronologically occurred. This is often in order to ensure the integrity of a story or the discussion of a specific topic. So regardless of the actual chronology, we should understand the 18th chapter of Sefer Sh’mot as telling us the most important aspects of Yitro’s impact on the people of Israel.

Manitou teaches us to understand the prophetic ideas that the Torah communicates to us according to the logic of how the narrative is presented in the text, regardless of whether or not that presentation is chronologically accurate.

From this perspective, even if the actual chronology was different than how it’s presented in the text, we should still understand Moshe as having judged the people before Israel received the Torah and we should still understand Yitro as having returned to his land before Israel received the Torah. Even if Yitro had actually been present physically for the Brit Sinai, he was not party to it.

In fact, Yitro presents us with a very specific model for Israel’s relationship with other peoples. We’ve already learned about the erev rav that accompanied Israel out of Egypt. These pro-Hebrew Egyptians ultimately absorbed into Israel and became part of the nation. Yitro and his Keni descendants, on the other hand, became strong allies but remained completely separate and maintained their own unique identity. The erev rav and Yitro therefore present us with two different models for gentiles joining Israel’s mission.

This is important because the Hebrew mission is not actually national but universal. From the time of the Brit Avot with Avraham in Parshat Lekh Lekha, the idea was always that Israel would be the instrument through which the Creator would influence humanity. So for Israel to receive the Torah from HaShem, there needed to first be gentiles like Yitro ready to receive it from us.

In any case, Yitro witnessed Moshe judging the people of Israel from morning until night. When he raised concerns to his son-in-law that such a system would cause both him and the people to burn out, Moshe responded in Sh’mot 18, verse 15 that the people come to him to seek the Creator. And then in verse 16, he told Yitro that he makes known the decrees of God and His teachings.

Moshe didn’t say that he decides who is guilty and who is innocent but rather that he makes known the laws and teachings of the Creator. Meaning that for Moshe, this work of sitting in judgement all day was for the sake of giving each person the opportunity to connect directly with the Torah.

Moshe was using his court to educate the people through the disputes that would occur in their daily lives. Because people are generally better able to learn and retain new ideas in the context of legal proceedings that actually involve them personally, Moshe was using his court not merely to decide legal disputes but to highlight the Torah’s relevance to people’s lives.

But while Moshe prioritized education, Yitro prioritized justice and wanted to find an efficient model to prevent Moshe from burning out.

Yitro therefore proposed a decentralized structure that involved captains of ten, fifty, one hundred and one thousand. Moshe took his father-in-law’s council seriously and adopted the proposed system. Not only for judicial matters but also as political and military structures. The Hebrew term “shofet” – which translates into English as “judge” – will actually come to be used to refer to military and political leaders. And because Israel would soon need to conquer the Promised Land from the Canaanite kingdoms, an organized military with a command structure would be essential.

Manitou notes that there were no captains of ten thousand included in this model, despite the fact that the number of Hebrew males eligible for military service was 600,000. Did 600 captains of thousand report directly to Moshe? Nearly all census figures after this point would be calculated tribally, which leaves room to assume that it was the tribal chiefs that would manage the captains of thousand of their respective tribes.

Once Israel arrived at Sinai and camped opposite the mountain where Moshe had first been Divinely tasked with freeing the Hebrews, it was time for the nation to learn that it would receive the Torah and a universal mission for humanity.

In Sh’mot 19, verses 3 through 5, we see HaShem instructing Moshe to tell the Hebrews that after seeing how the Creator had brought them out of Egypt, Israel must now observe His covenant and become a special unique nation that would play a central role in His larger plan for world history.

Manitou teaches that this wasn’t something Israel had been expecting. While enslaved in Egypt, the Hebrews had a tradition based on the Brit Avot – the Covenant of the Patriarchs – that they would one day go free and return home to their native land. We saw in our episode on Parshat Vayeḥi that Yosef had made this explicitly clear to his brothers at the end of his life. The children of Israel had been passing down an expectation from generation to generation that they would return to the land of their ancestors and become a great nation. But the idea of receiving a new covenant – the Brit Sinai – in the form of a legal system was completely unexpected. We don’t see it mentioned to the Hebrews in any previous verses.

In verse 6, we see HaShem conclude His instruction to Moshe with the tenet that Israel become a “mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh” – a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This was a necessary prerequisite for Israel receiving the Torah because only through understanding our historic purpose and the context of the commandments would it be possible to grasp the significance of the individual mitzvot through which the Divine Ideal is expressed. Israel’s universal mission must be achieved through the formula of establishing “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Israel is entrusted with bringing all of humanity to the conscious awareness of HaShem as the timeless ultimate Reality without end that creates all, sustains all, empowers all and loves all. And in order for Israel to achieve this goal, we must first create a unique civilization in a specific territory that manifests the Divine Ideal in all spheres of national life. Not as a religion or a philosophy but as a living reality – a civilization who’s very life force is the Divine Ideal being fully expressed in every realm of human endeavor.

This is how Israel is meant to function as the Creator’s instrument to bring humanity to know its collective higher Self. A priest – a kohen – works not for himself, but for the people he serves, helping them to realize and experience their strong connection with HaShem. And likewise, the people of Israel exist not for ourselves but for all humankind.

But the Hebrews can only realize our mission as a “kingdom” – an independent national formation – and we can only serve as the “priests of mankind” when independent in our land. This is because Israel’s task isn’t merely to elevate the spiritual level of individuals, but rather to elevate all the peoples and cultures of the world collectively, which requires Israel to engage the rest of humanity in the form of a nation.

When the Creator chose Avraham to create this nation in Parshat Lekh Lekha, He said that all the families of the earth will be blessed through it. Israel was Divinely chosen for the purpose of facilitating the advancement of all humankind. National identity for a universal goal.

When Moshe related HaShem’s message to Israel in Sh’mot 19, verse 7, he initially spoke only to the elders, likely out of concern that the broader nation wasn’t ready for the surprise. But then in verse 8, we see the entire people respond by declaring a readiness to accept the word of HaShem. But another way to understand this verse is that the people wanted to hear HaShem speak so they could trust that this Brit Sinai was not simply an invention of Moshe.

This second understanding is actually strengthened by verse 9, where we see HaShem stating that He would permit the nation to hear Him so they would from then on trust Moshe.

This Torah that Israel would receive wouldn’t be a static document but actually something alive and dynamic that Israel would be able to influence through generations of not only study and deliberation but also national development.

In Yeshayahu chapter 2, verse 3, the prophet famously states that “ki miTzion tetzei Torah u’dvar HaShem m’Yerushalayim” – “for from Zion will emerge Torah and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.” It’s not the Hebrews who need the Torah to emerge from Zion or the word of HaShem from Jerusalem. Israel received the Torah at Sinai. But then we carried it with us to Jerusalem. The tribes of Israel essentially processed the Divine teachings by making them an integral part of our lives. This includes adding the Books of Neviim and K’tuvim to the Torah, effectively transforming it into the TaNaKh. What Israel did with the Torah by actually living it in our land has made it accessible to other peoples and cultures, making Zion – i.e. the story of Israel – the place from where the Torah shines out to all of humanity.

There’s a very famous Midrash that the Torah was offered to other peoples but they refused to accept it because its laws conflicted with essential features of their identities. Manitou explains the reason for this refusal as being that the Torah was inaccessible to most peoples because it was so transcendental and far removed from ordinary human life.

But after the Torah passed through Zion – through Jerusalem and through the historic adventure of the nation of Israel – the Divine teachings were no longer incomprehensible to other peoples because the parts Israel lived that added to the Torah and transformed it into the TaNaKh are actually rooted in the real life and historic challenges of human societies.

Israel’s national lived experience in our land, as prophetic as it was, was also familiar and accessible to other peoples. The Torah’s Divine light had to be filtered through Israel’s earthly story in order to reach the rest of humanity. So Israel was never the Torah’s ultimate destination but actually its co-author in partnership with HaShem. And as a kingdom of priests, we’re meant to bring the Torah to the rest of humanity.

This of course works best when there’s a willing receiver. Throughout history, there have been two main gentile approaches for receive our Torah.

The first was that of the fourth empire – Christianity and Western civilization – which sought to appropriate the TaNaKh and separate it from having any relevance to the living people of Israel or to the portable civilization we carried with us through our exile – a portable civilization that would much later take the form of a religion called Judaism.

This model of appropriation and abrogation was how the Christian world tried to connect to our TaNaKh. But because it negates Israel’s role and even much of the Torah’s message, it’s ultimately doomed to failure.

But there is also a rival model for gentiles that seek to participate in the TaNaKh and access the Torah’s light through the people of Israel. This is the model adopted by Yitro and by the B’nei Noaḥ – the children of Noaḥ or the Noaḥide movement – that interprets the Torah through Israel and observes the seven Noaḥide laws given to human society.

While this latter approach was rare during the nearly 2,000 years of our exile, the return of Israel to our land and to the stage of history has allowed for a resurgence in gentiles rejecting Christianity and seeking to attach themselves to the Creator through the children of Israel.

In any case, once Israel had readied itself to accept the Brit Sinai, along with the universal Hebrew mission through a unique national framework, we became sufficiently prepared for the transformative collective prophetic experience of receiving the Ten Commandments.

[Published in Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.