Parshat Yitro contains the most important piece in the narrative of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, when the nation and God are 'married.' Curiously, before that story, we have two short stories about Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, first when he throws a feast to celebrate the salvation, and then when he advises Moshe to set up a court system. How do these stories relate to both Moshe's first meeting with Yitro and the marriage between the people and God?
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Yitro.
In this week’s Parsha we have the revelation narrative, the story of the Torah’s deliverance at Mount Sinai from God to the Jewish people. And if you have been around the block a few times, you have heard that encounter between God and the Jewish people as being analogized to that of marriage, almost as if God were the groom, the Jewish people were the bride, and the Torah was the ring. It’s a romantic notion. Is there actually any evidence from the text that would support this notion?
The text itself, of course, doesn’t seem to overtly cast the story of revelation as a kind of marriage between God and the Jews. But if you look carefully, I do think that we find some fascinating evidence to this analogy. I want to study with you a prologue, of sorts, to the revelation narrative; an encounter between Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, and Moshe, that immediately preceeds the story of revelation. At the end of this encounter, Moshe tells Yitro that he is teaching the laws of God to the Jewish people. And I want to focus on what the significance of that might be, that idea of ‘Moshe the lawgiver,’ as it were, teaching the laws of God to the Jewish people. Because that, of course, is what revelation is all about. Let’s take a look at what happens immediately before Moshe teaching the law to the Jews.
Chapter 18, “vayishma Yitro,” Yitro hears about all the wonderful things that God did for the Jewish people, how God saved the Jewish people from the hands of Egypt and Yitro comes to visit Moshe. He brings along with him Tzipporah and Moshe’s two children Gershom and Eliezer. And as you hear Yitro sort of rejoice in this salvation, the word that appears over and over again is, in fact, the word salvation; it’s all about saving. “Vayichad Yitro al-kol-tova asher asah HaShem l’Yisrael,” Yitro rejoiced for all the goodness that God did for the Jews, asher hitzil otam mitachat yad Mitzraim, that God saved the Jewish people from Mitzraim, over and over again this notion that God saved the Jews, God saved the Jews, and immediately after Yitro rejoices about this great act of salvation, he convenes a feast. “Vayikach Yitro choten Moshe olah u’zvachim l’Elohim,” he brings offerings to God and he invites people to join him in these offerings. “Vayavo Aharon,” Aaron comes, “v’chol ziknei Yisrael,” all the elders of Israel come and join him. They all eat bread, “im-choten Moshe lifnei Elohim,” with the father-in-law of Moshe before God. Interestingly, there is only one person, one significant person, not on this guest list or who didn’t show up for some reason. It was Moshe. Why wasn’t he there? Aaron was there. The elders of Israel were there, Yitro is there, God is even there. They are consuming these offerings before God, but Moshe is not there. Why not?
Interestingly, the next verse tells us of Moshe’s whereabouts. “Vayihi mimacharat vayeshev Moshe lishpot et-ha-am,” the next day Moshe is sitting and he is judging the people from morning until night, and Moshe’s father-in-law comes up to him and says what are you doing? Why are you sitting there all alone, and the people are coming and asking you things from morning until night? You can’t do it. You won’t be able to stand up to all the stress, all the pressure. Moshe explains, “ki-yavo elai ha-am lidrosh Elohim,” the people are coming to seek out God, they are coming to me, they are asking me questions, I am telling God’s law. Yitro says, no, no, no, that’s not a good idea. You need a whole administration, you need intermediate Judges to help you. “Vayishma Moshe l’kol chotno,” and Moshe listened to the voice of Yitro, took his suggestion, instituted intermediate judges.
Now if you think about all these elements, we can play our favorite game: Where have we heard this before? Because there was another time where we encountered Yitro, another time when Yitro heard about a great act of salvation, another time when Yitro made a feast. And when was that other time? It was the very first time we every encounter Yitro. It was back in Exodus chapter 2. What I want to suggest is that Exodus chapter 2, if you read it carefully, is a kind of parallel narrative to Exodus chapter 18 and once you see how these events line up, it actually creates a startling conclusion. Let’s look at the events carefully.
The first time we meet Yitro, Yitro also hears about a great salvation. Chapter 2 verse 17, “Vayavo ha-ro’im vaygarshum vayakam Moshe vayoshi’an.” Moshe saved the daughters of Yitro from harassment at the hands of these shepherds. Interestingly, the word ‘saving,’ “vayoshi’an,” is the same word that later on is used to describe the way God saved the Jews. After the great victory over Pharaoh’s armies at the Red Sea, the words of the Torah that sum it all up, “vayosha HaShem et-Yisrael mi-yad Mitzraim,” God saved the Jewish people from Mitzraim. Here too, we have that word, except this time, Moshe is the savior.
There is a kind of irony here of course. The daughters of Yitro will describe Moshe as an ‘ish-Mitzri hitzilanu mi-yad ha-ro’im,” they tell their father. An Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds. An Egyptian man does the saving the first time around, the second time around, it is God doing the saving from the hands of Egyptian men. Of course the first time around, the Egyptian man is Moshe, who comes upon these women and saves them. Yitro hears about them and says, “lama zeh azavtem et-ha-ish?” Why did you just leave them there? “Kirenu lo vayochel lechem,” call him and let’s eat bread together. Fascinating!
In both stories, what we might call it Yitro 1 and Yitro 2, Yitro hears about a great act of salvation and then make a feast. And who does he invites to the feast? He invites the savior to dine. In Yitro 1, Moshe saved his daughter. He invites Moshe to dine with him. In Yitro 2, God has saved the Jewish people and Yitro offers offerings to God, invites God to dine, so to speak, with everyone, to rejoice with everyone. But there is only one difference between the stories.
You see, in the first story, Yitro makes this big feast and he invites the savior. But the second time around, someone didn’t come to the feast. Moshe himself didn’t come to the feast. Moshe was doing something else. He was judging the people. And Yitro became angry at him. What are you doing? You are supposed to be at the feast!
Why wasn’t Moshe there?
If we look at the next event in both Yitro 1 and Yitro 2 we may understand. Because what happens in both stories, what happens in Yitro 1? After Yitro hears the great news of how his daughters were saved, after he makes this great feast and invites everyone to join, the next thing that happens is “vayoel Moshe lashevet et-ha-ish vayiten et-tzipporah bito l’Moshe,” he gives Tzipporah, his daughter, to Moshe in marriage. The savior marries the saved. Well what’s going to happen in Yitro 2?
After Yitro hears about the great act of salvation that God performed for the Jews, after Yitro convenes a great feast to celebrate it, the next thing that should happen is the savior is going to marry the saved, and in fact, the very next thing we experience is Moshe judging the people. Why? Why is he judging them? Why are you doing this all alone? Yitro says. I am doing it, Moshe says, because it’s not just a menial administrative task. “Ki-yavo elai ha-am lidrosh Elohim.” The people are coming to seek out God! This isn’t just about administering small claims court. “Ki-yihyeh lahem davar,” whenever the people have any sort of dispute, “ba elai u’shafat’ti beyn is u-beyn re’ehu,” I come and I judge between one person and his fellow, “v’hoda’ati et-chukei Ha-Elohim v’et Torato,” and I make known the laws of God and his Torah.
You see, the disputes between people aren’t just about the disputes. It’s about the people’s way of reaching out to God. How do people bring God into their lives? People are mundane beings; God is so transcendent and spiritual. How do we bring the transcendent God in our mundane lives? We bring God into our mundane lives. Whenever there is a dispute, one person or the other, they’re excited; there is a chance to understand how God will look upon this. And when they understand that, they bring God into their lives. They’re coming, as Moshe says, “lidrosh Elohim,” to seek out God and I am facilitating that connection. When they get the resolution of the dispute—God’s view of what should be done—there is a connection made between God and man.
In each story, Yitro hears about a great act of salvation. In each story, Yitro convenes a feast and breaks bread to celebrate that salvation, and in each story, the Savior marries the one that he saved. In the first story, Moshe marries the daughter of Yitro, and in the second story, God is the Savior, and the one God marries is the Jewish people and the ring is the Law.
Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There is a little space for comment underneath these videos. Please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.