Commentary for Yitro

5 Feb

In this week’s parshah, Moses gets a visit from his father, Jethro. While Jethro does bring Moses’ wife and sons, who had been staying in Midian while Moses was off liberating the Israelites, the Torah makes it pretty clear based on Ex. 18:1 and 2 that the reason this visit takes place is not so that the family can be reunited, but rather because Jethro had heard of all of the miracles and wonders God had performed for Moses and the Israelites during their dealings with Pharaoh, and that being able to reunite was more of an added bonus.

While 18:1 tells us that Jethro had heard of “all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt,” when 18:8 describes Moses recounting the miraculous events to Jethro, the Torah specifically mentions “everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all of the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.” The “hardships” in question are said to refer to the various issues the Israelites have with the availability of food and water as well as the attack by the Amalekites- all of which are dealt with either directly by God or with God’s help- because if the “hardships” did not refer to these events, then 18:8 would merely be Moses telling Jethro things that Jethro already knows. Strangely, even after being given this new information about additional wonderful things God has done for the Israelites, Jethro’s response (given in 18:9-11) is to praise God, but focusing only on the events that occur in Egypt; the stuff he already knew about.

Interestingly, the issue of praising God for one miraculous event more than others is at the heart of a debate surrounding the other major component of this week’s parshah: the revelation at Sinai and the reading of the Ten Commandments. One school of thought says that we should stand while the Ten Commandments are read to reflect the great importance of this moment in Jewish history, while the other argues that if the entire Torah is Divine, then all parts of it are equally important and it would be wrong to show greater respect to one part over another.   The conversation between Moses and Jethro in the beginning of the parshah seems to give voice to this very debate, with Moses taking the position that all parts of the Torah are equal and Jethro taking the position that certain events are more important than others.

The only other part of the Torah about which such a debate exists is the Song of the Sea, read last week, which recounts God’s defeat of the Egyptian army and envisions the other nations of the world hearing the news and having almost exactly the same reaction that Jethro has here: acknowledgement of God’s supremacy. Some commentators see Jethro’s praise of God (and particularly 18:11’s “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all of the gods”) as a conversion to Judaism, and Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon cites the parting of the Red Sea as the specific event that leads to Jethro’s decision to convert. When viewed through this lens, Jethro’s words do not show a disregard for the new information he was given, but rather show his desire to praise God for an event that he found to be especially meaningful.

While the debate over standing during the Ten Commandments and showing more respect to one part of the Torah than to others does fit nicely, a more literal interpretation of the disagreement as applied through Moses and Jethro would be “is it okay to praise God more for one miracle than for others?” We have all been given many gifts from God: Some people are good at sports while others can sing or play music while still others have a talent for comedy or for mathematics or problem-solving, and we are often very conscious of these gifts, but really, every moment of our life is a miraculous gift from God. Those little everyday bits of joy or inspiration, or even just the fact that physics of the universe works the way it does that allows it to sustain life. There is even a brachah to say after going to the bathroom that thanks God for designing the human body in such a way that it is able to do these things because “if even one of them ruptures or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You, even for a short time.” Jethro teaches us that there is nothing wrong with feeling more connected to God through our ability to make and appreciate music than through the fact that we have such a well-crafted respiratory system or the fact that we can see a rainbow because there are some of us out there for whom neither rainbows nor respiratory systems will make us feel connected to God in the way that a beautiful tune will. Moses teaches us that although we might not connect with them the same way, we shouldn’t neglect the amazing miracles that these other things are. Keeping both of these lessons in mind, we can fully appreciate all of the wonderful things that God does for us.

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