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Parashat Yitro – פרשת יתרו

Shmot 18:1-20:23

Miriam Klimova,
Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and the Rabbi of the „Shirat ha-Jam” congregation in Haifa.

Does human behavior depend on one’s nationality? One’s character, thinking and feeling, wisdom – do they depend on one’s ethnic background or religion?

This week, as we read Parasha Yitro, we are in one of the most important Shabbats in terms of Torah reading. After about ten weeks from their liberation, the Israelites have set up a camp in front of a holy mountain. The exodus from Egypt represents the physical birth of Israel as a nation, but the spiritual meaning of its existence is supposed to be defined exactly here – at Mount Sinai. Without the revelation and the covenant Israel would not differ in any way from other nations; it is exactly thanks to them that the Israelites will become a goy kadosh – a holy people. It’s worth emphasizing that the covenant will be made not only with those present at that moment,  but   “both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal, our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”, which means even with the yet unknown descendants of those who witnessed it. (Dvarim 29:14).

The scene looks very dramatic: thunders, lightning, clouds of smoke and fire, the sound of the shofar sounding louder and louder. The Midrash describes the giving of the Torah as a mysterious and powerful event. In the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 88A it says that God forced the people of Israel to accept the Torah on Mount Sinai:

„Va-itjacvu be-tachtit ha-har” – “they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.

We can find a similar story about a “mountain hanging over the Israelites” in Tractate Avoda Zara 2B. The story’s background is a question about other nations of the world and their right to accept the Torah. According to the Talmud God had already offered to give the Torah to other nations earlier, but they didn’t want it. So, when He came to the Israelites:

 “…the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial”

That’s what the Midrash says…  Whether we believe these words or not, in our parasha the Israelites will become “chosen among all nations(Shmot 19:5). The promise of a special chosenness will be the key factor in Jewish life for thousands of years. It is exactly in parasha Yitro where the culmination point of the Book of Shmot takes place – God is revealed to the people of Israel. God reveals the fundamental rules of the Torah which we call the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue.

Why is such an important Parasha named after a goy – a Midianite priest? Who was this man? Why did he come? From where and for what purpose?

Rabbi Gil Nativ, Phd, believes that according to the traditional rule the name of this week’s Parasha should be “Vaishma”, after its first meaningful word:

 „and Yitro heard…” (Shmot 18:1).

Just like Parashot Vayetze and Vayishlach in the book of Bereshit and  Vaikra at the beginning of the book of Vaikra, Vayelech in the Book of Devarim. Each of these names is a past tense verb in the third person singular. Nonetheless, our tradition preferred to name this Parasha after  Mose’s father-in-law – Yitro.

The Torah portrays him as a man of strong religious beliefs, hospitality and wisdom. It was him who gave shelter to a refugee from Egypt and gave him his daughter Tzipora as a wife. During the meeting Moshe told his father-in-law everything that God had done to the Pharaoe and the Egyptians and how God had liberated his nation. Yitro rejoiced after hearing that and made offerings to the God of Israel!

Yitro gave Moshe wise advice on how to enforce justice (Shmot 18:19-23), and in a later passage in the Book of Bemidbar he was invited by Moshe to join Israel permanently during the conquering and settlement in Canaan. Although he declined this invitation, he came back to his country as a loyal friend of Israel – he was Israel’s friend from the moment when he became related to Moshe.

Midrash Vajikra Raba 9:3 tells a story about a man who didn’t know the Torah or even how to say a blessing, but he behaved appropriately towards people. This story led to the creation of a Talmudic rule, according to which  “Derech Eretz kadma la-Tora” – appropriate behavior precedes the Torah.

Yitro is a wonderful example of this rule, especially since he is someone who comes from the outside and not from the people of Israel. He appears  before the offering of the Torah to share his wisdom and teach us appropriate behavior. This way the Talmud states loud and clear that it’s possible, and even worthwhile, to learn from persons who are not part of the Jewish people!

Every person deserves respect from others. But often our pride, our prejudices and our fear make us blind. In contemporary times we find ourselves in a multicultural environment on a daily basis. People can be good, people can be bad. But dividing them based on the color of their skin, their ethnic and national background, their religion or lack thereof, sexual orientation, gender, age or disabilities shows a lack of respect towards God Himself, who created everyone in His image and likeness. No person can declare that they’re better than others.

Yitro was not a Jew, and Moses was a refugee. If he spoke Hebrew, he must have certainly had a heavy Egyptian accent.

May there be a will that we learn how to see in front of us first and foremost a human being.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים:

„Blessed are You, o Adonai, our God, who rules the universe, opening the eyes of the blind”. (Siddur, Morning blessings)

Shabbat Shalom!

Miriam Klimova,
Rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem, 
A Rabbi at the Shirat ha-Yam congregation in Haifa.