Hebraic Studies - Parashat Yitro

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Parashat Yitro

Shemot - Exodus 18 to 20


With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

The Torah portion ‘Yitro commences with a story about Moshe and his father-in-law Yitro, who as we know was a Midianite priest. Moshe greets his father-in-law with the traditional low bow and with kisses, both signs of great respect.

“And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moshe from the morning unto the evening” Shemot - Exodus 18:13 (Jewish Publication Society - JPS version of the Torah).

With Moshe having spent as a magistrate among the people all day long, by nightfall, Yitro counsels him:

“What is this thing that thou doest to the people? Why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto even?” Shemot - Exodus 18:14 (JPS).

Thus, Yitro advises him to establish a system of judges who can share the burden, and Moshe does as his father-in-law suggests. Thus we see on this early part of Yitro how Moshe Rabbeinu was open to take instruction, thus no matter who we are we should be able to learn from this!

I will now turn to the point as described in chapter 19, verse 2 they were in the Sinai and they were encamped before the mount. In that wilderness, they had to prepare themselves for the revelation, and then Elohim, blessed be He, gives Moshe the Ten Commandments - - atop Mount Horeb (Sinai).

But before the Commandments, before that mystical Sinai moment, Elohim says:

“Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My Covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” Shemot - Exodus 19:5-6 (JPS).

Thus the Torah says that we are something special, for if we live in the Covenant with Elohim, blessed be He, then we are Elohim’s - Segulah - precious possession or treasure; for Shemot-19:6 clearly states;

- mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh - a kingdom of priests and a holy nationShemot 19:6.

What can we make of this, and how does this relate to the story of Yitro with which the Parsha began?

I read once that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of what would become the state of Israel, interpreted these verses to mean that our community has two communal missions.

He believed that the phrase “mamlechet kohanim (nation of priests) refers to the aspiration to uplift the entire world. Thus it being for us to act in a way that may help the peoples of the world to fulfill their purpose and to live out their best selves. Of course, in his paradigm, that meant: it is also our task to teach the world about Elohim and His ways and to ensure that everyone cares for the widow and the orphan, and shows compassion to the stranger, acts justly and righteously just as Torah describes.

But Torah also tells us that we are meant to be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. Rav Kook interprets this as the flipside of the coin: on the one hand we are meant to teach others how to be righteous, and on the other hand we're meant to focus inwardly, to live out holiness in our own lives. Being a holy people also means tending to our own spiritual growth.

Yitro a Midianite priest was an outsider to the Israelite community. But when he shares his wisdom and his management insights with Moshe, Moshe takes them to heart. Given the Torah’s generally negative stance toward the other nations of the Ancient Near East, I found it remarkable that Yitro is so obviously respected and trusted despite being a foreign priest. But, I see a connection between the Yitro story and this verse which asserts that we are Elohim's treasure, a nation of priests, and holy.

The Torah reminds us that all the earth is Elohim’s, but asserts that our community has a special role. In Rav Kook's interpretation, our community’s task is both outward-facing and inward-facing. It is our job to help everyone in the world live up to their best and most righteous self, and it is also our job to care for our own souls.

As a “nation of priests,” we are obligated to tend to the entire world. As a “holy nation,” we're obligated to tend to our own selves. The Torah balances these two callings within the same verse. But, if we only tend to our own selves, we are falling down on the job of caring for all creation; and if we do not tend to our own selves, we certainly cannot heal the world.

This is, I think, part of what Yitro taught Moshe when he urged him to find righteous men who could serve as magistrates. If Moshe tried to adjudicate every single disagreement and dispute in the entire community, he would burn out! But once he did appoint judges, he was able to tend to his own spiritual needs, which in turn allowed him to continue tending to the community.

Yitro may well have been an outsider, not part of our covenant with Elohim, and yet he still clearly had spiritual wisdom. Not only that: it was spiritual wisdom that Moshe really needed at that time, for obviously Elohim placed that man at his side at the right time! Our task is to integrate that wisdom from the outside that comes from what is good, and fits in with our spiritual tradition and our spiritual faith, and then we can truly be -mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh.

What does it mean to you to imagine us as being a nation of priests? If a priest’s job, in those days, was to connect the people with Elohim, how can we live out that responsibility now?

What does it mean to you to imagine us as a holy nation? Not “the” holy nation, but a community which is collectively holy. This means that we are a nation which tends to its own spiritual sustenance, then how might we live that out in our own day?

Remember, nothing else but the Torah matters when it comes to the Law, anything that is not in the 613 Mitzvot, is purely man made and did not come from our Creator, Elohim who created all things and gave us our breadth and the Torah.

Elohim’s beloved Torah and His precious Tanakh is powerful and it is full of truth as it shows His everlasting love for us and we must never lose sight of Him and His Word. The most important word above is “TRUTH”. Because there has been a habit in the ancient days of priests and rabbis of somewhat altering truth a little here or there or what might be called twisting things somewhat!

But what does our beloved Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, have to say about all that? He gave us a very powerful instruction, which is one that we as Jews MUST listen to and we must uphold, for His Word cannot be changed, and He said this;

“Ye shall not add unto the Word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the Commandments of your Elohim which I Command you” Devarim - Deuteronomy 4:2 (JPS).

“Ye shall observe to do therefore as your Elohim hath commanded you; ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. Ye shall walk in all the way which your Elohim hath Commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you,” Devarim - Deuteronomy 5:28-29 (JPS)

Let us be true and good “” - a “mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh.

Shabbat Shalom.

Always remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.


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