Parashah #17: Yitro (Sh’mot) Exodus 18:1-20:23

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah #17 Yitro (Jethro) Sh’mot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) 6:1-13
B’rit Chadashah: James 2:8-13
This week I want to focus on Yitro, then the politics of the Covenant at Sinai as it applies to our current political situation. Let’s start with a little historical background of Yitro’s life and person.
Yitro is interpreted as meaning “abundance” or “added to.” This is our first clue that this was no ordinary man and that the narrative must be examined in the context of the theme of the entire Torah. In rabbinic literature Yitro had seven names but I will focus on the name “Yitro” in this teaching. Yitro was a Midianite priest. According to Genesis, the Midianites were the descendants of Midian, who was a son of Abraham through his wife Keturah: “…again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah” (Genesis 25:1–2). The Midianites through their apparent religio-political connection with the Moabites are thought to have worshipped a multitude of gods, including Baal-peor and the Queen of Heaven Ashteroth. I encourage you to look up these various gods to enhance your understanding of Yitro’s previous mindset and for that matter, from where the mindset of America originated and is returning. Related to this false goddess.
In the time of Moshe, the Midianites are first mentioned as having had a priest by the name of Yitro (Ruel) who became afterward Moses’ father-in-law. Toward the close of the forty years’ wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness, the Midianites were allied with the Moabites in the attempt to exterminate the Israelites. For this reason, Moses was ordered by G-d to punish the Midianites. Yet, Yitro came from this very nation from among those who would be destroyed. We can see a total role reversal of Moshe and Yitro. Yitro was a distinguished person; a minister of Midian and a former advisor to Pharaoh. Moshe had been a homeless wanderer and murderer who married this dignitary’s daughter. Now, Yitro brings Moshe’s family to reunite with him and introduces himself as Moshe’s father-in-law and he is revered in this way throughout the chapter.
In verse 9 Yitro rejoices over all the good that HaShem had done for Israel, and that He had rescued them from Pharaoh, from under the hand of Egypt (sinful lifestyle). He acknowledges HaShem as greater than all the gods referring to the manner in which HaShem delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh so completely and miraculously and measure for measure as Pharaoh had planned to do to the Israelites. He had planned to drown all the male babies of the Israelites, but it was the Egyptians who were drowned. It is interesting to note that Pharaoh survived. G-d allowed this as a way of making His name known among the nations as evidenced by Yitro’s knowledge of all that happened. We have further evidence that Pharaoh survived because Chapter 14:28 informs us that it was the chariots and horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh, not Pharaoh himself who perished. Still further evidence can be found by reading Chapter 14:17: “And I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire army, through his chariots, and through his horsemen.” And in verse 18: “Egypt will know that I am HaShem, when I am glorified through Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”
In verse 12, we read that Yitro took an elevation offering and feast offering for G-d. We need to understand what these offerings are and the significance to the event. Verse 23 further supports Pharaoh’s survival: “Egypt pursued and came after them- every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen –into the midst of the sea.” Therefore, we may conclude that G-d used Pharaoh who was a very unlikely witness for G-d to glorify His name throughout the nation by allowing him to survive such a catastrophic event and tell about it! The story if Yitro supports our previous conversation about whether anyone from a nation that is destined to total annihilation such as Edom, might be called out. Yitro is an excellent example and this should settle any argument on the subject.
The Cohanim throughout the generations would need special encouragement to bring this offering despite that they would not have any personal benefit from its meat. All of the meat from the Elevation Offering was burnt on the altar. This, says the Maharal, is the financial loss to which the Torat Kohanim refers. From this we can see that Yitro was serious about his acceptance of the G-d of Israel at whatever cost.
Feast-offerings were expressions of gratitude to G-d for allowing the convert to enter under the wings of the Divine Presence. Yitro brought only one elevation- offering, but multiple feast-offerings indicated by the pleural form of the word “offerings” in the text. This indicates Yitro wanted the elders and Aharon to be his guests in the celebration of his conversion (18:12). It is important to note that he would have been circumcised as a convert. But we don’t know his complete genealogy because the genealogy of Keturah is not known. Recall that Abraham was the father of Midian. Abraham was not a Jew but a Hebrew. Of Keturah we do not know her ancestry. However, most importantly, Yitro accepted the G-d of Abraham, was circumcised according to the covenant with G-d, and consecrated himself to the Israelites, making himself a “true Jew” according to Genesis 17:9-14 for the biological Jews; and John Chapter 14 for Jew and Gentile.
For our final examination of Yitro in this parashah, we move to 18:13. This begins the narrative where Yitro observes the overwhelming role Moshe has in judging the people and then provides advice that is both discerning and G-d-centered. We can easily see that Yitro himself is G-d-centered by this time and encouraged Moshe to seek G-d’s guidance in all his decisions. This narrative provides the first example of what would later become the basis for our judicial system that has certainly wandered far and away from this G-d-centered approach in our parashah. Yitro suggested delegation of authority with discernment. Lesser cases would be heard and decided by lower courts and Moshe would handle the more difficult cases. Unfortunately, the disadvantage to this type of system is that the personality and wisdom of the “leader” would become somewhat removed from the general public. Some people might feel as if the decision in their particular case might be different if the “leader” such as Moshe had heard the case instead of one of the elders or lesser judges. This happens in many professions today. In the medical field, some patients only want to see the physician rather than the physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner although all of these practitioners are board certified and well-trained to diagnose and treat patients. Fortunately, those who have actual experiences with these mid-level providers often prefer them to the physician because of their holistic approach to providing care. The reality is that each of these types of providers has a body of knowledge, expertise, and experience level and each can learn from the others. In the case of Moshe and the elders, I am certain that each of these individuals had their own style of judging that was combined with G-d’s guidance and Moshes instruction. The important point is that according to Yitro’s guidance, “You shall caution them regarding the decrees and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the path in which they should go and the deeds that they should do. And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money…” (18:20-19).This is the difference between those who were chosen as judges then, and those who are voted in as judges now. We no longer have G-d fearing judges who despise money and/or prestige. Yahshua told us this would be an ever increasing “norm” in the end times and we are witnessing this truth today (2 Pet. 2:15, 19; Jer. 8:8; Deut. 31:25-29; Luke 3:14; 18; 23:43).
Yitro is a perfect example of one who was considered a “true Jew,” a G-d fearing man; one who was grafted into the partakers of the covenants of Israel, and one from whom even the greatest prophet of the Old Testament was wise enough to take direction. Yet, we cannot pinpoint his genealogy as so many biological Jews require today in order to “prove” their Jewishness. May we consider all of Yitro’s qualities and consider them in the context of our beliefs, biases, and continued spiritual walk with HaShem.
The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parashah of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind. Unlike other faiths such as Islam and Christianity whereby revelation is claimed to be given only to individuals, it was to Israel that G-d disclosed Himself to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not yet righteous alike. The presentation of the ketubah (marriage contract) between G-d and the Israelites (all true believers then and those who will come later), was perfectly described by Moshe 40 years after the fact:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created man on earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of G-d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deut. 4:32-33).
For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance was primarily epistemological. That is, it created certainty and removed doubt. The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be or should be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G-d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not real and of His making.
From a political perspective we can see that at Sinai a very different society was in the making. This one would be a complete contradiction to Egypt, where few possessed all the power and the masses were slaves, a situation that is rapidly evolving in the United States. The Israelite nation would no longer be a group of individuals with individual rules and regulations interpreted at the individual level, again much as is happening in the United States under the teachings if secular humanism. The children of Israel became, for the first time, a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of God whose written constitution was the Torah and whose mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Our united and individual purpose is to glorify G-d.
Words like “democracy” (rule by the people) are Greek in origin. The Greeks were gifted at abstract nouns and systematic thought. However, if we look at the “birth of the modern” – at figures like the founding fathers of America – the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle but the Hebrew Bible. Long before the Greek philosophers, and far more profoundly, at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born.
Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government (first by judges, later by kings), they had entered into an overarching covenant with God. They agreed to the covenant/ marriage contract presented by G-d (the Groom) to the people (the bride) that had to be accepted by the “bride” before it could take effect. In the context of politics, there is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is Creator of heaven and earth. There were sages in the Talmudic period who questioned whether the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai was completely free. However, at the heart of Judaism is the idea – way ahead of its time, and not always fully realized – that G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. This is the purpose of free-will.
That covenant (brit Sinai) set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting could be legitimately challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.
Democracy on the Greek model always has one fatal weakness that may be described as totalitarian in favor of a majority. The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. This was the central issue behind the fall of Athens. The law of the state was considered final. The lawgivers were above the law just as we are experiencing in the United States and seeing in other countries. Contrary to such a system, in Judaism, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. I maintain those who consider themselves part of Israel need to take similar action as we continue to lose our right to choose when it comes to keeping G-d’s Torah. This will be increasingly difficult as we continue toward the last days. The covenant at Sinai deserves to be seen as the single greatest step in the long road to a free society and keeping its precepts are critical to such a system of government that follows the Commands of G-d.
The second key element lies in the prologue to the covenant. G-d told Moshe: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel.’You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now, if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …'” Moses tells this to the people, who reply: “We will do everything the L-rd has said.”
The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people” – men, women and children. This fact is emphasized later on in the Torah in the mitzvah of Hakhel, the septennial covenant renewal ceremony. The Torah states specifically that the entire people is to be gathered together for this ceremony, “men, women and children.” A thousand years later, when Athens experimented with democracy, only a limited section of society had political rights. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were excluded women). The Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty”, includes everyone. It is the first moment, by thousands of years that citizenship is conceived as being universal.
Haftarah: Yesha’yahu 6:1-13
This week’s haftarah Moshe’s and the Children of Israel’s experiencing prophecy that showed them G-d’s glory and which called upon them to realize their calling as a kingdom of leaders and a holy nation. The haftarah gives an account of a similar prophecy and a mixed vision of Israel’s fulfillment of G-d’s incredible charge. Isaiah is given a vision of the Heavenly Chariot (the merkavah), a heavenly court where the angels pay homage to G-d.
Isaiah perceives G d sitting on a throne surrounded by angels. Isaiah vividly describes the angels and their behavior (in anthropomorphic terms). During the course of this vision, Isaiah volunteers to be G d’s emissary to transmit His message to the Israelites. He is immediately given a depressing prophecy regarding the exile the nation will suffer as punishment for their many sins—and the Land of Israel will be left empty and desolate, though there will be left a “trunk” of the Jewish people that eventually will regrow.
An interesting comparison can be made between the scenario at Sinai and the vision of G-d’s throne Isaiah describes in Is. 6:1. The house is “filled with smoke, the s’rafim (guardian angels) are singing ‘Holy, holy, holy!’, and the doorposts shake “at the sound of their shouting” (Is. 6:2-4) Yahshua hears the voice of G-d and says, “Send me!” On Mount Sinai G-d surrounded the mountain with a thick cloud (Ex. 19:9). The mountain was smoking (Ex. 20:15). The thunder (Ex. 20:15) can be likened to the shouting of the s’rafim. Moshe can be compared to Yahshua in his willingness to be used by G-d.
An interesting point in Isaiah is found in reading Isaiah 9:7: “to the increase of His rulership and to completeness, there will be no end.” The Hebrew for increase begins with a mem sofeet (final mem). This alludes to the whole peace of G-d as yet to come!
B’rit Chadashah: James 2:8-13
“If you truly attain the goal of Kingdom Torah, in conformity with the passage that says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, your actions constitute sin, since you are convicted under the Torah as transgressors. 10 For a person who keeps the whole Torah, yet stumbles at one point, has become guilty of breaking them all. For the one who said, ‘Don’t commit adultery, also said ‘Don’t murder.’ “Now if you don’t commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the Torah. Keep speaking and acting like people who will be judged by a Torah which gives freedom. 13 For judgment will be without mercy toward one who doesn’t show mercy; but mercy wins out over judgment.”
James was the brother of Yahshua, and he was well-grounded in the Old Testament. His teachings paralleled those of his brother and L-rd as we read the above passages. James reminds us that we need take great care in forming opinions about others until we look closely at ourselves. I maintain we should not judge each other as we are not given this responsibility or right. This parallels Yahshua’s teaching to those who wanted to stone the adulteress. Those without sin were invited to cast the first stone. We see examples of people judging others on a daily basis and we are often quick to condemn, forgetting that none of us are righteous, no not one. YHVH/Yahshua is the only One who has the right to show us mercy or not. He is the only One who is Just and True. Speaking of judging, Dan is no longer a tribe as noted in the book of Revelation during this time (Rev. 7:5-8). If we go back and read the “blessing” of Dan by Jacob we read in Gen. 49:16-17: “Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a viper on the road, a horned snake in the path that bites the horse’s heels so its rider falls off backward.” We must give others an example to follow by our own lifestyle. That’s how Yahshua taught his disciples; one day and one mile at a time. If we realize we are to be a people set apart and act like it as G-d charged the Children of Israel in our parashah this week, we can assist others in their growth by leading a consistent lifestyle based on our continued learning and adherence/obedience to our new knowledge. Are we setting a good example as a representative of the Messianic faith? Are we glorifying Yahshua in our thoughts, speech and actions? “Don’t deceive yourselves by only hearing what the Word says, but do it! Whoever hears the Word but doesn’t do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in the mirror, who looks at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But if a person looks closely into the perfect Torah, which gives freedom and continues, becoming not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work it requires, then he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).
“So everyone who hears these words of mine and act on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on bedrock. The rain fell, the rivers flooded, the winds blew and beat against that house, but it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does NOT act on them will be like a stupid man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the rivers flooded, the wind blew and beat against that house, and it collapsed- and its collapse was horrendous!” (Matthew 7:24-27).
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart