PARASHAT YITRO: Jews, gentiles and justice

Although Judaism teaches that the entire Torah is the word of God, and as such every letter is sacred, this week's portion of Yitro contains one of the most inspiring passages of all: the Revelation at Mount Sinai, also known as the 10 Commandments.

February 7, 2007 11:19

Although Judaism teaches that the entire Torah is the word of God, and as such every letter is sacred, this week's portion of Yitro contains one of the most inspiring passages of all: the Revelation at Mount Sinai, also known as the Ten Commandments - the very cornerstone of our faith and morality, the basis for our 613 commandments. Is it then not rather strange that such a key portion is named after Yitro (Jethro), a gentile, and a Midianite priest at that, rather than after a descendant of Abraham? You might argue that since it was Jethro who suggested the judicial system which made the Ten Commandments and their multiple extensions enforceable in Israelite daily life, it is logical that the portion be named after him. However, careful reading of the text demonstrates that Jethro's suggestion for judicial reform must have been made at least four months after the Revelation, which would require that it be recorded in the latter portions of Exodus rather than after the splitting of the Reed (Red) Sea and directly before the Revelation, where we find it. Yes, it is true that Jethro makes his appearance when he comes to Moses with his daughter (Moses's wife Zipporah) and their two children - who had apparently been left behind by Moses. Jethro's purpose is to unite the family and praise the God who wrought such miracles during the Exodus (Exodus 18:1-12). However, Jethro's key judicial reform comes "on the morrow," when he points out that unless there is an organized judicial system, Moses, together with the laws he brought down from Sinai, will collapse under the weight of the many cases which simply had to be adjudicated immediately if the laws were to be taken seriously (18:13-27). Now when does this "morrow" fall out? Rashi, citing the Midrash (ad loc. 18:13), insists that it was the morrow of the Day of Forgiveness (Yom Hakippurim), the 10th of Tishrei, after Moses received the second tablets, four months after the initial Revelation on the sixth day of Sivan. There was absolutely no time for adjudication until then, since immediately after the Revelation, Moses entered the supernal realms atop Mount Sinai, where he received the Sacred Tablets over the course of 40 days and 40 nights. He then came down to confront the Golden Calf, smashing the Tablets (on the 17th of Tammuz), after which he prayed for 40 days for divine forgiveness, and received the Tablets a second time as a sign of that forgiveness 40 days following that (on the 10th of Tishrei). Hence, it could not have been until the 11th of Tishrei that the Israelites lined up for Moses' adjudication; until that time, the master of all prophets had been totally preoccupied with revelations from, and prayers to, God. Only after those four months (three segments of 40 days) had passed, "from the morrow [of Yom Hakippurim], when Moses sat to judge the nation, and the nation stood upon Moses from morning to evening" (18:13), would Jethro have cause to explain: "You will surely become worn out, yes, worn out, you and also this nation of yours, because this matter is too weighty for you. You will not be able to do it by yourself... You must seek throughout the nation people of strong reputations, who fear God and are people of truth who despise ill-gotten gain, and appoint them as district judges [to adjudicate] for thousands, for hundreds, for fifties and for tens..." (18:13, 14, 18, 21). But if so, why precede the description of the Revelation with advice that was given four months later, thereby causing the portion of the Decalogue to be named after a gentile priest? Apparently it was important for the Bible to stress - as a prologue to the Decalogue - that the Revelation was meant, not for the Israelites alone, but for the gentile world as well! Our mission, our very raison d'etre, is "to perfect the world in the Kingship of God" - to inspire not only the Jews but also the gentiles to declare: "Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from the hand of Egypt. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other powers, because the very object which they used sinfully [the Nile River, used as a repository for drowned Hebrew male babies] was turned against them [when it became transformed into blood] (Exodus 13:10, 11)." The world must recognize a God who detests - and ultimately vanquishes - injustice and enslavement. The biblical message is even more striking because our sacred text juxtaposes two types of gentiles: at the conclusion of last week's portion we meet Amalek, the terrorist who strikes at the weak, the aged and the infirm, and we are commanded to "remember" to extirpate this enemy of civilization from the world (Exodus 17:8-16, cf. Deut. 25:17-19). At the beginning of this week's portion, however, we meet another type of gentile, one from whom we have much to learn. It is this latter type of gentile for whom the Holy Temple will eventually open its gates; Jethro and his kindred spirits will flock to Jerusalem to hear the word of God, and will beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). And finally, there is one last lesson to be derived from Jethro. We do not insist that gentiles convert to Judaism; it is sufficient that they abide by the Seven Noahide Laws of ethical conduct - the essential morality of the Decalogue. Hence the prophet Micah declares that in the Temple at the end of days, "everyone will call upon his God, and we shall call upon the Lord our God forever" (ibid). Indeed, it would seem from the literal reading of the text that Jethro never actually converts. When the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses importunes his father-in-law to remain with them, to be one of their leaders ("for us as our eyes" - our visionary, Numbers 10:31). Jethro, however, replies: "I shall not go [with you], but to my land and my birthplace shall I go" (Numbers 10:30; Genesis 12:1). Jethro returns, but what we note in the description of his destination is that he omits mentioning his "father's house." This implies that although he will not convert to Judaism, neither will he revert to the idolatry of his forebears. Nevertheless (and perhaps only coincidentally), when Jethro leaves their encampment, the Israelites degenerate into squabbling, rebellious factions which contribute to the demise of that entire generation. The message of Yitro is codified in the teachings of Maimonides, who rules that while "the Almighty bequeathed to Moses to impart the 613 commandments only to Israel... He similarly bequeathed to Moses [the obligation] to even force the gentile world to accept the seven commandments of morality" (Laws of Kings, 8,10). Today, when Islamic fundamentalism threatens to engulf the world with its fanatical call for jihad against all non-Muslims, no message is more crucial than this biblical teaching of religious pluralism and world peace. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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