Parashat Yitro
Annual (Exodus 18:1-20:22/3): Etz Hayim p. 432-450; Hertz p. 288-301
Triennial (Exodus 18:1-20:22/3): Etz Hayim p. 432-450; Hertz p. 288-301
Haftarah (Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6): Etz Hayim p.451-455; Hertz p. 302-305

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Sin:  The Upside
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank is the rabbi of Midway Jewish Center, Syosset, Long Island, and a former President of the Rabbinical Assembly. 

Of the Ten Commandments, only four will land you in jail if you are convicted of violating them.  The winners:

  1. You shall not swear falsely by God’s name (assuming you are under oath).
  2. You shall not murder.
  3. You shall not steal.
  4. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (assuming, again, some court proceeding)

All this leaves us a lot of wiggle room to sin.  If we want to create a sculptured image and worship it, no one will stop us.  If we want to dishonor a parent, we may.  If we want to spend the Sabbath day laboring away at some menial task, let’s shvitz to our heart’s delight.  It’s a free world.  The opportunities for sin abound, and ironically, it is in such an environment that the possibility for living the sacred life is greatest.

The reason is simple.  In a world where no one can sin, no one can know the downside to sin.  One may do good, but doing good would be a mechanical, instinctual act.  There would be no depth to it.  But in a world where the choice to sin is ours to make, we can witness firsthand what a difference a mitzvah rendered—or not rendered—can make.

In parashat Yitro, God reminds the Jewish people that “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians…” (Exodus 19:4).  And Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak of France (Rashi, 1040-1105) comments that the “you have seen” is critical, because God did not send the Jewish people a written account or third party witnesses to report back.  Rather, the Israelites saw what happened to sinners with their own eyes.  The Israelites were given a visual demonstration of what happens to a people who believe in idols, who have no sense of the sacred, who abuse others and so forth.  In a sense, these slaves were the luckiest people ever, for in seeing what happens to such people, they could begin to appreciate the depth of wisdom borne in the Ten Commandments.

Will observing Shabbat make you a better person?  It depends.  It depends on why you are observing Shabbat and what its observance means to you.  To close your business only because the law demands it is rather shallow.  But to close your business because one out of seven days should be devoted to something greater than yourself—that is the start of creating the sacred.  As for those whose only goal is to amass wealth daily—what a pity.  However much money they earn, it will never be enough.

In a world of freedom, which is the world in which we reside, we can see—with our own eyes—the deleterious effects of sin.  We can see the hurt and distrust in a family where adultery has taken place; we can see the wasted energy and time of those devoted to the idols of money and power; we can see diminished self-esteem of those who covet what is not theirs.   In granting us the freedom to witness firsthand the corrosive effects of sin, God blesses us deeply, for we can only then begin to fathom the wisdom of God’s cosmic and life-sustaining guidance.

A Vort for Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Yitro advised Moses to set up a two-tiered judicial system (Ex 18:22): “every great matter (kol hadavar hagadol) they shall bring to you, but every small matter (kol hadavar hakaton)” shall go to the officers Moses appoints. And indeed most western systems work this way – the jurisdiction of the lower and higher courts is determined by the monetary size of the suit. R’ Chaim Berlin (1832, Valozhyn – 1912, Jerusalem) noted that Moses follows his father-in-law’s advice, with one twist. Moses assigned to himself the hard cases, hadavar ha’kasheh (18:26). In Jewish law din prutah k’din meah – a small matter (financially) is as important as a large matter. The basis for designating the jurisdiction is the difficulty of the legal issues, not the monetary value of the dispute.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, arrives with Moshe wife and children. The people then arrive at Mount Sinai. A covenant is made between God and the nation, culminating in the awe-inspiring event of the Revelation at Sinai.

1) Yitro (Jethro), Moshe’s father in law arrives with Moshe’s wife and 2 children (18:2-4). What are their names? What is the meaning of each name? What does it tell us about Moshe’s understanding of his life?

2) Yitro observes Moshe spending his entire day leading and judging the people. He asks Moshe what he is doing (18:13-15). What does Moshe explain? Why might Moshe think that he has to do this by himself?

3) In chapter 19 we are read about the revelation at Sinai. Before being given the Mitzvot (starting with the “10 commandments”) God lays down the basis for the covenant between God and the people of Israel (19:3-6). What historic event is at the foundation of the relationship of God and the people of Israel? What will the people have to do? What is God offering as a return? (There are different understandings possible here.)

4) Vv.20:1-13 contain what is popularly known as the Ten Commandments, but might be better called ‘the ten sayings.’ What is the first Mitzvah/commandment (not statement) that you find in this section? Why might it make sense to start with this Mitzvah?

5) In 20:7-10 we have the Mitzvah of Shabbat. What is forbidden on that day? What is the reason given for observing Shabbat? How does this reason explain the prohibition that the Torah placed on this day?

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