Parashat Yitro – Erev Shabbat 21 January 2022
Week of 16-22 January 2022
Torah portion: Exodus 18:1-20:23 Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Theme: Blessed be the Lord
n this week’s parashah we notice how, in response to what he hears and sees, Yitro dynamically engages with both the people of Israel and their God. For example, when Moses relays the events of their escape from Egypt, ‘It took a Yitro, a non-Israelite, to come and say, “Blessed be the Lord” (18:10). (The inference is that it often takes others to turn us to God.)’ (Mechilta Amalek 3 in Plaut, p514) He follows this immediately by bringing ‘a burnt offering and sacrifices to God’ (18:12). (Etz Hayim, p435)
It is Yitro who sees that the structure in place to resolve disputes is not functional and he tells Moses, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.’ (18:17-18) So he advises Moses to delegate, and his instruction ‘defines the ideal social, spiritual, and moral qualifications for judges – those necessary to create and maintain a healthy and just legal order.’ (18:21) (Etz Hayim, p435) Yitro, a Midianite priest, provides invaluable feedback that supports Moses and the Israelite people in creating a new, more robust, structure for implementing ‘the statutes and instructions of God’ (18:16, 23).
An entirely different relational structure emerges in the next chapter. God descends to the top of the mountain and calls Moses up (19:20). The people and the priests are to remain at the bottom of the mountain (19:24); they are to be ‘consecrated’ and are to prepare for the Lord’s presence on the mountain (19:10, 14). The preparation, which includes washing their clothes (19:10), offers a means of separating themselves from the ordinary, every day, elements of their lives. However, having been consecrated, they will ‘perish’ (19:21) if they ‘break through’ onto the mountain (19:24). So they find themselves neither in the ordinary nor the extraordinary: stepping out of the former simply to witness to the latter. Soferno says that this is ‘Lest they think that – since they have achieved the level of a face-to-face prophecy, just like [Moses] – they can ascend to [Moses’] position.’ Zornberg understands from this that ‘Seforno identifies the danger of a heightened consciousness. The intoxication that may sweep the people away is related to the prophetic experience itself. Face to face with God, they may lose all contact with the reality principle, with a sense of the distinctions and distances that characterize the human world.’ (p262)
Thus respecting limits can support us in knowing how to approach God. Paradoxically, God reaches out to us, beyond these limits, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us but meets us in our experience. Yitro demonstrates this in that he didn’t go up the mountain nor was he at the bottom with the Israelite people; rather, hearing the story of what happened was enough for him to recognize God’s action and to respond to it with the words, ‘Blessed be the Lord’ (18:10).
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. When has being an ‘outsider’ or meeting an ‘outsider’ been a blessing in your life? 2. What structures are you aware of in your life? How do they support you in saying ‘blessed be the Lord’ (18:10) or ‘everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’ (19:8)?
Bibliography: Lieber D.L. (2001ed) Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York: Plaut, W.G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: 1981); Zornberg, A. The Particulars of Rapture (New York: 2001)
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Thérèse Fitzgerald NDS, Ireland, Bat Kol Alumna: 2015, 2018