Parshat Yitro

Torah Reading for Week of January 31 – February 6, 2010

“Appreciating Yitro”

by Judy Aronson
AJRCA, Professor of Jewish Education

There are only six eponymous parashiot, and ours is Yitro. His name is not the first word in the text. Rather the opening phrase is “V’yishma Yitro cohen Midian…” “Yitro, a Midianite Priest heard…” The rabbis ask the question just what did Yitro hear and there are varied opinions. Some say he heard about the wonders at the Reed Sea, and others, that this refers to the revelation at Sinai. But we readers have not yet heard about what would happen at Sinai. Why did the redactors preface this normative story with an account of Moses’ father-in-law Yitro?

Just who was Yitro? I think of him as the first Torah systems engineer. How did he operate? Yitro travels into the wilderness to reunite Moses with his wife and two sons. Then he listens to Moses’ account of all that happened in Egypt. Impressed, he rejoices in G-d’s kindness and acknowledges his greatness. Offering a sacrifice to G-d, he summons Aaron and the elders to join him for dinner. He gets to know the milieu before he observes his son-in-law in action.

The next day, he watches as Moses sits from morning to night adjudicating disputes between the people camped around them. He intuits Moses’ potential burnout and conceives of a pragmatic solution. Moses will identify and appoint a support system of judges that will serve tens, hundreds, and thousands. Only the most serious conflicts will demand Moses’ scrutiny. In Ex. 18:25, we hear his advice. “If you do this – and G-d so commands you – you will be able to bear up.”

Moses follows the plan and Yitro goes home. Placed just before the covenant and the Ten Commandments, I might expect this story to have been a footnote at the end of the parashah rather than a lead-in.

Next, we learn that Moses hears the terms of G-d’s instruction. As Yitro was a priest among his people, Israel will become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Like Yitro, the people of Israel recognize G-d’s power and say, “All that Adoshem has spoken, we will do.”

In the fifth commandment, we learn that the way to secure Israel’s place in the Promised Land is to honor both father and mother. Moses’ parents have long since disappeared from his life and are barely mentioned in the text. But his father-in-law is clearly important, and it is not left to chance to remember Yitro and his deeds. Indeed, his name and memory are identified with the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should extend the fifth commandment to those who act effectively in loco parentis.

I have a soft-spot for in-laws. I dedicate this study to my late father-in-law Sam Aronson whose yahrzeit occurs this month. Once, I borrowed his new Pontiac to take a young cousin to a college interview. I started the car and while backing out of his steep driveway, I hit both the bumper and the garage frame. I rushed to the front door with tears in my eyes to tell him what had happened. He asked me if I was okay and I said I was not hurt. Tenderly, he said, ‘Judy, we don’t cry about cars, we only cry about people.” That was November 22, 1963. Before the college interview ended, we heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A whole country wept for the loss.

My father-in-law only completed the eighth grade, but his innate wisdom influences me to this day. Let us identify, listen to, and honor the Yitros in our lives “that we may long endure on the land.”

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