Parshat Yitro: Wisdom and Torah

In the story of Jethro, we learn that the Jewish nation’s judicial system was set up under the advisement of an external source, a non-Jew, someone not part of the nation.

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
January 24, 2019 19:31
3 minute read.
Parshat Yitro: Wisdom and Torah

MOSES ON Mount Sinai as depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1895.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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The first part of this week’s Torah portion is hinted at in its name, Yitro. We read in great detail about the arrival to the Israelites’ encampment of Jethro (Yitro), the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law. We read of the establishment of the hierarchical judicial system created on the basis of principles suggested by Jethro.

The end of the story points to its onetime nature: “Moses saw his father-in-law off, and he went away to his land” (Exodus 18:27). Despite knowing that later on, Jethro’s descendants will live alongside the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel, we will not meet Jethro himself again. He returned to his land.

The commentators – from the earliest commentary of the Tana’im to our own day – are divided as to when this story occurred. There are those who say the story appears in chronological order, between the war against Amalek, which appears before it, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai, which appears after it.

Others say that the story appears out of order and that it occurred later, after the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Obviously, these commentaries had to explain why this story appears out of order. What message was being conveyed to us, the readers, by putting this story in this position?

When we look at the entire Torah portion, it seems that the first part stands in contrast to the second.

In the story of Jethro, we learn that the Jewish nation’s judicial system was set up under the advisement of an external source, a non-Jew, someone not part of the nation. The great detail of Jethro’s proposal, and the clear-cut words “Moses obeyed his father-in-law, and he did all that he said” clearly express a universal stance that is open to various suggestions and willing to acknowledge the advantages of neighboring cultures.

However, as soon as this story is over and we move on to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, where a covenant was formed between the Jewish nation and God, special commandments were given obligating only the Jewish people. The Jewish nation is given the status of “segula” – a precious treasure in the eyes of God, and is required to sanctify itself and behave accordingly. It could be said that, as opposed to the story of Jethro, the Revelation at Mount Sinai singles out the Jewish people in particular.

It is possible that this contrast is the answer to the question of why the story of Jethro appears before the Revelation at Mount Sinai.


The Torah purposely wishes to bring these stories together to teach us that the supposed conflict between them is not fundamental. Singularity and universality can be integrated. Indeed, the Jewish nation is the chosen people.

It has a role in advancing human society, a role not given to other nations. However, the Jewish nation does not claim exclusivity on human wisdom. On the contrary, there are areas in which the Jewish nation is unique and others in which the Jewish nation learns from other nations.

There is a famous story of the great library established by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century BCE. At its peak, the library held an unprecedented 700,000 scrolls. The library was destroyed by Muslim Caliph Omar, who burned down the library with all its holdings, supposedly claiming: They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.

This perception that wisdom exists only within the context of religion is not a Jewish one. Thus, for example, the sages of the Midrash teach us: “If someone tells you that he has found wisdom among the gentiles, believe him, but if he tells you he has found Torah among the gentiles, don’t believe him” (Lamentations Raba, 2).

Wisdom – logic and intellect – are universal qualities that every person has, since every person was created “in the image of God,” but Torah – the guidance as to what the correct spiritual and moral lifestyle should be – is found only in the holy Torah and in the words of the Torah sages.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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