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Torah Commentary
Yitro (February 3, 2018)

A Word From the In-Laws

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 for you; you cannot do it alone... You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy 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...”
— Exodus 19:17-23

Bettijane Eisenpreis

At the beginning of Exodus, Jethro (Hebrew: Yitro), the priest of Midian, took Moses in when Moses was fleeing from Egypt and gave him his daughter Zipporah, as a wife. Now Jethro has emerged again.

At the beginning of the parashah named Yitro, Jethro sends word that he is coming to see Moses in the wilderness and is bringing Zipporah and their two sons with him. Moses greets Jethro effusively, going out to meet him, kissing him and inviting him into his tent.

The next day, Jethro observes Moses attempting to judge the Israelites all by himself, while the people stand around him all day, waiting for his opinion. Jethro doesn’t hesitate to speak up, telling Moses that what he is doing is wrong, both for himself and for the people. As an experienced leader, he lays out a plan: Moses is to select capable men as judges of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They are to hear complaints and decide whether they can settle the disputes themselves or whether to refer them to Moses.

It is surprising that Moses, who spoke up to Pharaoh and is on speaking terms with God, actually pays attention to his father-in-law. Or is it? Jethro is a leader in his own right, the High Priest of Midian. And Moses must know that he is wasting his time settling petty disputes when he is only at the beginning of the journey — not just the physical journey to Canaan but the spiritual journey of the people from slavery to freedom.

Jethro is not an Israelite and makes no attempt to be one, but he plays an important role in the story of Moses and the people. Unlike Pharaoh, Jethro recognizes that the Israelites are a people with a right to exist. Also, he is one of the few people who can relate to Moses on an equal basis, without seeming either superior or inferior.

This is all very interesting. Still, no sooner does Jethro leave than the people approach Mount Sinai. There is fire and smoke upon the mountain, and the people are so frightened that they deputize Moses to go up and get the Ten Commandments for them. And most of the Commandments are spelled out in this portion. Given the importance of the Commandments, why did the Bible even bother with Jethro?

The answer may be that the Israelites never exist in a vacuum. Jethro is one of the few non-Israelites who acknowledges and admires Moses. He is helpful to the fledgling nation and their leader. As the Children embark on a frightening but vital journey, Jethro is a sign that they have a place among the other nations. As he returns to Midian, Jethro wishes them well. And that is important for the future.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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