Yitro - Out of Order to Preserve Order
If you were to try to create a ranking of the best Torah portions, it is likely that all Jews would have a slightly different list. (The expression, after all, is “two Jews, three opinions…) But it is also likely that Parashat Yitro would be in the top 5 of just about all of them. This week’s parashah is full of generation-defining content. We experience the revelation at Mount Sinai, when God and the Israelites solidify the covenant that has been promised for centuries. We see the Ten Commandments, which are perhaps the most famous laws in the history of human society. We see the progression of a people from wandering former slaves to a nation of God’s Chosen People.
But before we get to any of these details, we get a truly incredible story of family, of compassion, and of leadership. This portion is named after Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest who, after hearing of the victory of God over the Egyptians, comes to greet Moses. The story begins as follows:
“Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the welfare of the other, and they went into the tent. Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Eternal had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Eternal had delivered them. And Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Eternal had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. Yitro said, ‘Blessed be Adonai, who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Eternal is greater than all gods, yes by the result of their very schemes against the people.’” (Exodus 18:7-11)
Yitro, the faith leader of another tradition, goes to great lengths to celebrate the joy of his son-in-law’s people, to be with them in their success. Even the choice of language of his blessing is significant. Yitro uses the name of God to bless God, using the language of Israel’s tradition in order to glorify the God that made this moment possible. He was willing to offer his own praise to God using the formula of Israel, in order to experience their emotions with them, rather than force his own style of worship upon the people.
This is an incredible act of compassion and kindness. History has countless examples of contentious in-law relationships, and this is not one of them. For Yitro to go so far out of his way to be present with Moses in his triumph, to support him and his culture in ways that feel inclusive and accepting, is a powerful tool in setting the stage for what comes next.
Because the next day, Moses takes Yitro with him to work as he sits in judgment before the people. Moses sits all day, listening to claims by the community and offering judgements as to how God’s laws and commandments are to be put into action. After a while, Yitro asks Moses about his strategy for this. The text offers:
“‘When [the people] have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.’ But Moses’ father-in-law said 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 fo you; you cannot do it alone. Now, listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trust-worthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.’” (Ex. 18:15-22)
It takes a lot of chutzpah to look at the leader of God’s Chosen People and say, “you’re doing it wrong.” That sounds a lot more like the traditional trope for a father-in-law. But that isn’t how Moses receives the advice. Instead, Moses is quick to accept the guidance of Yitro, quick to put into motion the structure that Yitro had recommended. Why? Because Yitro had been willing to first invest in the community as if it were his own before then offering advice on how to lead it.
The story of Yitro praising God helps to establish his willingness to see the best for the people. Their happiness is his happiness, which in turn means their struggle is his own as well. By establishing this, Moses does not have to wonder about the motivation behind the advice he receives. He knows the intention with which it is given, and he knows that it is only in his own best interests to heed the suggestion. Yitro is able to offer hard feedback exactly because it is well-intended and constructive, based on a strong foundation of relationship and care. Without the first part of the story, the second part wouldn’t be possible.
This is one of the most lovely sequences of relationship development in the entire Torah. The only problem is, it doesn’t make any sense in context. The interaction between Yitro and Moses takes place in Exodus Chapter 18. But, as Moses describes offering judgment on God’s commandments and laws, we encounter a problem: God doesn’t give any commandments or laws to the people until Exodus Chapter 20 and beyond. The story is clearly out of sequence.
In his commentary on this section, Nahum Sarna writes, “As early as the second century C.E., it was recognized that this chapter is not in its proper chronological sequence and that the episode took place after the revelation at Sinai...the second part of this chapter, verses 13-26, focuses on God’s ‘laws and teachings’ and deals with the administrative arrangements for their implementation in the daily life of the people, thereby smoothing the transition to the theme of the succeeding chapters: the giving of the law.” (JPS Torah Commentary, Exodus, pg. 97-98) The text is knowingly put out of order to strike a particular emotional chord.
Why, then, would the text so clearly put these stories in this order in particular? Why not simply keep the Yitro interaction after the handing down of laws, keeping things in their natural sequence? The answer can be found when we look back at the previous Torah portion, Parashat Beshalach. At the end of the previous sequence, we read the story of the people of Amalek, the bitter rivals of the Israelites. The Amalekites attack the Israelites, and a battle breaks out, with Israel narrowly beating their foe. The Torah portion concludes by saying, “The Eternal will be at war with Amalek for all generations.” (Ex. 17:16)
There is a tradition in Judaism that we are never supposed to end a Torah reading unit on a curse. This is most commonly applied in the book of Deuteronomy, when God describes the blessings and curses that await the people when they enter the Promised Land. But a similar approach can be applied here. It is not a very pleasant transition to go from the wickedness of Amalek to the glory of the revelation at Sinai. The text needs a better transition point, in order to set the people up for success in their new relationship with God. Thus, the Yitro story offers a different tone to help make the pivot from the conflict of war to the beauty of divine partnership.
To further make this point, the Israelites are given time to prepare before the Ten Commandments are revealed to them. God describes to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Eternal will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.” (Ex. 19:10-11) While there is a ritual purity that is involved in preparation for the moment, there is also a time-bound period of transformation. The people are given the space to reflect upon what kind of people they want to become. Do they want to be virtuous in their role as God’s Chosen People, or do they want to behave selfishly? Will their relationship with God be for the betterment of the world or for their own gains? Before God’s intentions for you can be manifest, you have to ask yourself: who do you want to be?
As readers, we read the story in this manner in order to do this work for ourselves each time we read the story. As Jews, are we going to be like Amalek, preying upon the weak, doing anything it takes to win? Or are we going to be like Yitro, celebrating the success of others and investing in their wellbeing? Are we going to dedicate ourselves to warfare and conquest, or are we going to spend our time on nation-building and justice? The Midrash teaches that every Jew who ever has existed or ever will exist was present in that moment at Mount Sinai, that we each have an equal stake in the covenantal agreement that was cut between God and our people. Which means that we each, in our own day, have the opportunity to reflect upon what we are going to do with that sacred partnership. The Torah reflects an improper chronological sequence in order for us to properly contextualize our own relationship with what is about to happen. The story of Amalek can’t be the last taste in our mouths before we receive the glory of covenant. Instead, we are shown the story of Yitro, the story of a man who is willing to use his own relationships with others to make the world a better, more thoughtful, more compassionate place.
There are so many times in Torah when we have to do heavy lifting in order to apply it to our everyday lives. It is no small task to ask a 2,000 year old text to speak to the realities of the modern world. Torah knows nothing of modern technology, of the evolution of geopolitics, of the constantly interconnected globe. But what Torah can do is show us the essential truths of the human spirit, to show us the ways in which we are to engage with those into whom we come in contact. We can see the best of others through the eyes of Yitro, celebrating their joy and guiding each other along the way. We can see the worst in others by the way they emulate Amalek, using force and aggression to make war and spread violence. And most importantly, we can acknowledge that both of these realities exist within ourselves. We are, at any given moment, offered the choice to be like Amalek or like Yitro, to be worthy of revelation or to be incapable of it. Before we can be our truest selves, we first have to see what it looks like to see the world at its most difficult, and also at its most beautiful.