Torah Reading for Week of February 9-15, 2020
“What’s In a Name?”
By Rabbi Bruce Skolnick, MD, PhD, ’16
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Yitro is the shortest parsha in the Torah. In the JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH, the Hebrew of Yitro is only six half-page columns. The parsha is divided into two portions by way of the subject of the columns. The first two columns describe the visit by Yitro to Moses in the newly established Israelite camp at the base of Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were only three months out of slavery after having spent four hundred and thirty years of captivity in Egypt. Yitro was a Midianite priest and the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro had heard about all that God had done to save Moses and the Israelites from their enslavement by the Egyptians. Moses had separated from his wife Zipporah, and he sent her home with their two sons to live with Yitro. I think Yitro hoped that by bringing Zipporah and the sons back to Moses, they might reconcile, but that did not happen.
However, Yitro did help Moses in a rather unusual way. He witnessed Moses spending an extraordinary amount of time adjudicating problems among the Israelites. In fact, Moses was very tired from spending many long days making judgments about the problems the Israelites had with each other. Yitro suggested to Moses that he develop a tier of judges to keep peace among the Israelites. Thus, Moses was saved from the drudgery of spending all hours of the day trying to keep peace amongst the Israelites by himself. After this tier of judges was in place, Yitro went back to his home in Midian.
The word yitro means abundance or plenty. What was it that Yitro did to warrant having a Torah portion name after him? Really nothing so significant. Although Yitro had done a good deed by helping Moses, did he really do anything to deserve having a Parsha named after him? The story of Yitro helping Moses takes only two columns of Hebrew. What about the rest of Parshat Yitro? There are only four more columns of Hebrew in Yitro (2 + 4 = 6). Remember, Parshat Yitro is only a total of 6 columns of Hebrew.
What was the religious life of the Israelites for the four hundred and thirty years they were enslaved in Egypt? They had no Siddurim, they had no Chumashim, they had no Ten Commandments, they had no Talmud. From where did the Israelites take moral authority? They must have had an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. But, when they arrived at Mount Sinai, the lives of the Israelites and the lives of the people in the rest of the world all changed. Why? Because, at Mt. Sinai God first gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, and then gave them the Torah. The Israelites then had laws from God to show them the way they should live their lives.
Why was the story of God giving the Ten Commandments to the Israelites buried in the back half of the shortest parsha of the Torah? Why was that parsha given the name Yitro? Why was the parsha not just called the Ten Commandments? Why was the part about Yitro, the Midianite priest, not just added onto the back of the previous parsha of Beshalach?
Note: In the first story of the Ten Commandments in Yitro, the commandments were not given to the Israelites written in stone. They were spoken to the Israelites by God.