A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: YITRO (EXODUS 18:1-20:23)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


This week’s Torah parsha, Yitro, consists of two episodes which appear to be a study in contrast. In the first (Chapter 18, Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, a high level Midianite, provides Moses lessons in management and governance. In the second, the prime mover is God, Himself, who, in an unprecedented and unrepeated epiphany, appears before an entire ‘nation’, and gives them the world’s most famous code of ethics: The Ten Commandments.

Despite the contrast of the two unrelated narratives, there is one critical theme in common to Yitro (Jethro) and the Revelation at Mount Sinai, specifically the willingness to listen and to learn from others, even in situations which contradict our own opinions. Jethro provides Moses with a plan for the delegation, distribution, and democratization of leadership; the ‘Decalogue’ enumerates ten concise commandments, each open to diverse interpretations. “Only God can rule alone” (1).

Parsha Yitro begins with Jethro’s visit to Moses. He arrives and finds him involved in all of the leadership activities, alone. Jethro says to Moses: “What you are doing is not good” (2). Jethro then proceeds to propose a system of delegation:

“You must be the people’s representative before God, and bring the most difficult issues to His attention. Ensure that all of the people understand His decrees and instructions; and how God would expect them to live and behave; select capable men and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens; have these appointed men serve as judges at each level; and only bring the most complex cases to you” (3).

Jethro’s knowledge, pertaining to infrastructure, reaffirms the Mishnah in ‘Ethics of the Fathers’: “The definition of a wise man is one who can learn from every man” (4). Again, this is the primary relevance between Jethro’s actions and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. “The theophany at Sinai was perceived, understood and appreciated by each individual in a unique way” (5).

In the third month after their departure from Egypt, the Children of Israel arrived in the desert of Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to speak to God, who said: “So shall you say to the Israelites; you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and I brought you near to Me, and now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be a treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth” (6). Further, the Lord told Moses: “Tell the people to prepare themselves for two days, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the people upon Mount Sinai” (7).

“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke for the Eternal had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose and the whole mountain trembled violently; the blare of the Shofar grew louder and louder; as Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder” (8). The experience of the intensity of the lightning and thunder, combined with the general awe of God’s presence, was too overwhelming for the people to bear. According to Rashi, the Israelites most likely heard only the first one or two of God’s utterances.

Although the Children of Israel most likely did not hear all of the Ten Commandments, they answered as one: “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will do!” (9).

The ‘Sinai Moment’ gave birth to the Torah – – a complex work of law and narrative. This was the beginning, whereby the ‘Divine’ entered into the life of all Jewish people… to enable us to respectfully discuss, debate, and to learn from each other.



(1) Psalm (147:19)

(2) EXODUS (18:17)

(3) EXODUS (18:19-22)

(4) Avot (4:1)

(5) Maimonides: “Guide for the Perplexed”

(6) EXODUS (19:4-6)

(7) EXODUS (19:10-11)

(8) EXODUS (19:18-20)

(9) EXODUS (19: 24)