Torah Readers Reflections

Moral editing

The Torah takes a pause from the narrative of the Exodus and the events that came after to tell us about Jethro - Moses' father in-law. Why did it insert this episode at this exact point in the narrative? What it could mean for the next event which is the giving of the Torah?
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The fascinating story about the exodus from Egypt and the adventures of the Israelites in the desert, takes a sudden and unexpected pause to tell the story of Jethro, Moshe's father-in-law, who comes to visit him with his wife and two sons. When did this episode happen? According to the Ramban it happened between the war of Amalek and the giving of the Torah - the sequence that is written in the Torah. However, according to Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra the whole story happened only after the construction of the tabernacle - at least a year after the narrative sequence that we are currently reading.

Even if we consider that there might be some importance to the sequence of events that preceded the story of Jethro, it is appropriate to ask why write this episode of Jethro at all? The question certainly comes into perspective when we take into account the reasoning of Iban Ezra. Iban Ezra answers that the story of Jethro is certainly important. Since we have already described the narrative of the war with Amalek - who dispensed evil to the Israelites, we should also deal with the story of someone who supported the Israelites and dispensed goodness to the entire nation - in fact, since this was a positive episode verses a negative one, we should emphasis it even more so. This excuse, to me, is not technical but essential - when telling a story it should be with proportions - not everyone is fighting against us, there are also those who are interested in our wellbeing. Many rabbis have explained in a similar way that "in the future to come" - in the final redemption, the people of Israel will be at war against many enemies but there will also be nations who want to come close to Israel, support it and find favor with Israel. As mentioned, this is not only a local interpretation, but also a general perception of reality of a people who receive the Torah and are commanded to be "a light unto the People." The question of whether such a people perceives that everyone is against them, or whether they believe that there are forces in reality that they can get along with is a dramatic question.




It is possible that the story of Jethro came to influence, in a very fundamental way, the platform on which the Torah was given to the children of Israel. Sages in tractate Yoma teach that a high priest must have a wife - a man without a wife cannot atone for the people of Israel - first of all a person needs to have a normative home and from this it is possible to be sanctified and eventually enter the Holy of Holies to atone for the Israelites. Similarly, it is possible that the Torah wants to emphasize to us that Moses could not give the Torah to the people of Israel without first being a family man - a man with a wife and children.


Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.

(Ex. 18:7)

And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law.

(Ex. 18:12)


Moses also cannot give Torah to the Israelites without first and foremost being a "son of man". A person who goes out to meet his father-in-law to honor him, asks after his health and sits down to eat bread with him... If the Torah was given by a person detached from reality, it could not belong to people who live in the reality of this world. Precisely this story, that emphasizes Moses' connection to a correct and normal lifestyle is the best introduction to the giving of the Torah.

At the end of the episode, we read about Jethro's advice to Moses. The sages focused specifically on these words and took extreme care to note that these words created a whole world that surrounds the Torah.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

(Ex. 18:19-20)

Bava Metzia 30b:11

As Rav Yosef taught in a baraita with regard to the verse: “And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the path wherein they shall walk and the action that they must perform” (Exodus 18:20). The baraita parses the various directives in the verse. “And you shall teach them,” that is referring to the structure of their livelihood, i.e., teach the Jewish people trades so that they may earn a living; “the path,” that is referring to acts of kindness; “they shall walk,” that is referring to visiting the ill; “wherein,” that is referring to burial; “and the action,” that is referring to acting in accordance with the letter of the law; “that they must perform,” that is referring to acting beyond the letter of the law.

(Bava Metzia 30b:11)


As a continuation of what was written above, the Sages emphasize through this sermon - that receiving the Torah can be done precisely from a certain atmosphere - through learning a profession, through charitable giving, through visiting the sick and through walking "in front of the law."

When the Torah provides us such a platform, a platform of correctly looking at reality, building a healthy family, walking in the world on a path full of actions directed at goodness and kindness. This Torah, which directs and corrects man and society, can be a Torah of Life - a Torah that adds life and goodness to the world.




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