January 29-30, 2016 – 20 Shevat 5776
Annual (Exodus 18:1-20:22): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Triennial (Exodus 18:1-20:22): Etz Hayim p. 432; Hertz p. 288
Haftarah (Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6): Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302
The Stories We Tell: Yitro and the Founding of the Judiciary
By Rabbi Joshua Kulp, CY Rosh Yeshiva
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is one of my favorite books. Pi, the story’s protagonist, tells a fantastical tale of his voyage from India to Mexico. After being shipwrecked he is trapped on a life boat with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. When he arrives in Mexico, he is interrogated by the authorities. When they do not believe his tale, he tells them another, more mundane version, which they do believe. Martel summarizes the message of the book, “Life is a story… You can choose your story… A story with God is the better story.”
The Torah tells us three stories about the founding of the Israelite judicial system. The first story is in this week’s parasha. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, sees the burdens Moses faces and instructs Moses how to establish a system that will adjudicate the people more efficiently and justly. In Numbers 11:14 Moses responds to the murmurings and complaints of the people, crying out to God “I cannot carry all this people by myself; for it is too much for me.” In response God instructs Moses to gather seventy elders and says that He will put of holy spirit that is on Moses onto them as well. Finally, in Deuteronomy 1, Moses realizes that it is too burdensome to judge the people himself, and so he initiates a judicial system without any intervention from God.
The end result of these stories is the same. The burden of judging the nation is shared with others. If so, does it really matter how the story is told? Does it really matter if Yitro, God or Moses initiated the system?
Of course it does. The stories we tell are not meant just to tell how we got to where we are today. We know where we are today, even without the story. We tell the story of Yitro, and we ascribe (or at least Exodus ascribes) the system of judges to Yitro for a reason, not only because it is “historically accurate,” as Nahum Sarna claims (JPS Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 100). After all, even true stories can be omitted from historical record. Rather we tell the story because it teaches us the wisdom this new people Israel are to learn from the nations of the world. The story is one of universalism; it balances the story that follows the tale of how a particular set of laws was given to a particular people, the Israelites. Yitro is a priest of Midian, a nation bitterly hostile to Israel later in the Torah. Before Moses departs to receive the Torah, he first learns “torah” from other nations. The implication of the story is clear. In order to prepare to learn the particular mitzvot that set us apart from the rest of the world, we must first open ourselves up to the wisdom of other people. This universal wisdom, here the wisdom of political and judicial organization, is the only ground on which the particular mitzvot of the Jewish people can grow. We are a particular people, but our roots are universal.
A Vort for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
The Torah tells us that at Mount Sinai “the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder” (Ex. 19:19). Rashi notes that usually when one blows a horn, the sound gets weaker (as the breath diminishes). He explains, from the Midrash, that when the Torah was given, the initial volume was what the ears were able to hear; with time Bnei Yisrael would be ready for more. R’ Mordechai Hakohen (20th C, Israel) says that the sound of the shofar at Sinai never dissipates; it gets stronger from generation to generation. Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchov (18th C, Ukraine) said that there are people who hear the shofar of Rosh Hashana all year long and the shofar of Matan Torah all their lives. Halavei alenu…Would that we…
By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Following the story of the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, the people arrive at Mount Sinai. All their preparations might not quite have prepared them for the awe-inspiring event of the Revelation at Sinai.
1) In the opening of this Parasha we meet Yitro (Jethro), Moshe’s father in law. Why do you think that he chooses to come to Moshe at this point in the story? (There could be several answers to this question.) Who does he bring with him? Where have they been until now? Why do you think that they were not with Moshe?
2) Yitro watches Moshe’s work with the people, and he spots a problem. What does he see and what is problematic about it (18:13-18)? What solution does he suggest (18:19-23)? What do you think is positive and negative about his suggestion?
3) Chapter 19 is the story of the revelation at Sinai. When do the people arrive at Sinai (19:1)? How much time passed since they left Egypt (on the 15th of the First Month)? Why do you think that God did not rush them to get there sooner?
4) Before the revelation on the mountain, God gives the people a ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ list. How will they prepare for this monumental event (19:10)? What will they be forbidden from doing (19:12-13)? What might the people have done if God had not warned them of the dangers? Why?
5) 20:1-13 are the so-called Ten Commandments (in Hebrew they are called the Ten Words). Read 20:2. Is this a commandment? Why does God choose to open his revelation (and the giving of the Torah/Law) with this?