Sometimes I have to take some time before I can compose my thoughts of the upcoming parshah. Sometimes it comes easier. For me, this week’s comes under the category of “no brainer”.
Two of the major themes in Yitro are as follows: A wise father-in-law, and the creation of a legal system. I often speak about my father who I adored, but I hardly speak about my wife’s parents. It has nothing to do with a lack of respect, they were both Holocaust survivors, and they treated me with love. It’s just that I have longer memories of my own parents.
That being said, my father-in-law is someone that means a great deal to me. He was as smart a person as I ever met, and he always carried himself with a great deal of dignity. Some of the comparisons with the subject of this week’s parshah are striking. Moses’ father-in-law had three ways to say his name. I guess the “English” version would be “Jethro”. The Hebrew is pronounced “Yitro”, and sometimes he was referred to as “Yisro”. My father-in-law’s name was either the “English” version “Jack”, or the Hebrew version “Jakob” or the term of endearment from his wife, “Yonkush”.
As I stated before, both my father-in-law and Yitro were wise men and Yitro saved Moses from an early “grave” when he saw that Moses was being worn down by having to end legal disputes of all kinds himself. Yitro gave him the idea to set up a legal system wherein only the most difficult “cases” were to be decided by Moses. In a sense, I owe my profession to Moses’ father-in-law.
Another striking similarity is the obvious one. Yitro gave Moses his wife and my father-in-law allowed me to marry my wife for which I will always be grateful.
I once gave a devar torah about “Yitro” and in it I went on about my father-in-law and what he meant to me. Towards the end of his life, when he was the last “survivor” of our combined families, he stayed with us during the High Holy Days, and the walks the two of us had to get to shul are things I will treasure forever. Since I already devoted some of my thoughts about my father-in-law in my devar torah, I will leave my comments as to him as they were during my presentation at the JJC. Now, I would like to point out other things as they relate to Parshah Yitro with some observations and questions related to them.
In Parshah Shemot we are told the following at Exodus 4:20:
“So Moses took his wife and his sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt, and Moses took the staff of G-d in his hand.”
This week’s First Parshah at Exodus 18:1-3 states as follows:
“Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.
So Moses' father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after she had been sent away,
and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moses] said, ‘I was a stranger in a foreign land,"
Not that this is the most burning question that can be taken from a reading of the Torah, but when were Zipporah and her children “sent away”, and more importantly why? I think I can venture a guess as to the “why” in that Moses had important work ahead and could not be disturbed with “family matters” yet Moses’ brother Aaron had his sons but Moses, for the most part remained alone. I think we are going to be “privileged” with a response from a Midrash.
A related question comes from reading Exodus 18:27:
“Moses saw his father in law off, and he went away to his land.”
This comes at the end of the Third Aliyah, after Yitro sees that Moses took his advice about the way of resolving disputes. It says that Yitro left but did Zipporah and the children go with him and if so, why? The answer may be found in the same Midrash I anticipated above or maybe even another one.
In the Fourth Aliyah, the Israelites have traveled for three months and arrive at Mt. Sinai where Moses is given directions by G-d as to what he expects of the Israelites as explained in Exodus 19:5-6:
“And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.
And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation. ‘These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."
This is the first of what will be a continuing theme found throughout the rest of the Torah that I do not think Jews to this day fully comprehend. It seems to me that many Jews like the part of being a “treasure”, a “kingdom of princes” and a “holy nation” but they do not understand the heavy obligation, the “covenant” of obeying G-d’s “rules and regulations” that allows them the reward of being G-d’s “favorite”. I don’t think they understand the expression, “in order for you to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk”. I will come back to that in future parshahs.
When Moses comes back from his conversation with G-d and relays what was told him, the Israelites seem to “talk the talk” in the next Parshah at Exodus 19:8 when they say:
“And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.”
But did they really mean what they said?
Since I want to take this on chronologically, there is a tangent I would like to go on. The Lord tells Moses to tell the people if they obey, they will be a “kingdom of princes”, a reference to the males, but what about the women? I ask this because in preparing to receive G-d’s commandments the following is stated in Exodus 19:15:
“He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman."
Is the male of our religion so lame that “being with a woman” will completely distract him from what he has to do? Given the “macho” response of some of the ugly mobs we have witnessed lately with a showing of guns, which might be an extension of a certain male appendage, maybe having more female leaders will give us a more peaceful existence. But I digress.
Anyway, getting back to the latest spectacle that is viewed by our desert ancestors, we have a visual show of fire, lightning and smoke at the foot of Mr. Sinai that makes the people shutter in fright as the lead in to the Ten Commandments.
Right at the top of these rules, in Exodus 20:3-4, we have the following:
“You shall not have the gods of others in My presence.
You shall not make for yourselfa graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.”
The people are utterly terrified by what they see and hear, and in the Seventh Parshah, they say to Moses in Exodus 20:16:
"You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die."
So they have been given specific instructions as to how they are to worship and their immediate response is they “get it” and just to make it abundantly clear that the deity that is giving the instructions is to be treated as the one and only G-d, the following in Exodus 20:20 is again emphasized in a Torah that sometimes is vague, hardly ever repeats itself, and is valued for its every word:
“You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.”
Do the Israelites, despite all they have seen witnessed, “walk the walk”? Stayed tuned.
I definitely enjoyed hearing about your father-in-law. I know that sometimes that isn't the easiest relationship, so I'm glad to hear that you two got along so well.
I'm not going to trouble you with a midrash because I don't know one but also because I think the answer you proffer works quite well. In order to be a leader, Moses could not be a family man. You are right that the Torah indicates that they were with him as of Exodus 4:20. Something about the incident that night during which Zipporah circumcises Gershom leads to a parting of the ways temporarily for Moses and his wife and son(s). Apparently, they stayed with him after Jethro left for "his land," but we never hear of his sons again, and his wife is only mentioned if you think the Cushite woman is Zipporah.
Look, Jews may not be living up to the covenant, but I would make two points. First, adherence to "rules and regulations" is not the only barometer for measuring Israel's fulfillment of the covenant. Second, to turn to a subject that is often one you raise, the Shoah placed in the hearts of the Jewish people a serious doubt as to the worth of participating in the covenant. In short, the Jews were loyal to the covenant, but God wasn't. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make up, but let's give the Jews a break when they appear not to "walk the walk."
How interesting that you see 19:8 as the Jews talking the talk when what they say is that they "shall do." The emphasis is on action not talking. I do think they were in earnest when they said this.
I do think that having more women as political leaders would help in pacifying the world, but I don't look to female leadership as a panacea. All humans are problematic even if men are clearly more dangerous than women. I think what you're responding to is the sexism of the text, or perhaps some merit exists in temporary abstinence for the sake of focusing on the G-d-man relationship. You definitely appear to lay the groundwork in your email for the molten-golden calf incident. Israel's disobedience seems to frustrate you considerably. I also wonder why so much growing pain must occur in the Torah. Inevitably as we both know, the generation that left Egypt will simply have to be wiped out, and G-d will start from scratch. If that doesn't send a message about human fallibility, what will?
I find your reference to the Shoah and the Jews being “loyal to the covenant, but G-d wasn't” leads me back to a problem you and I have when it comes to punishment for misdeeds. Your defense of sometimes “bad things happening” despite putting up your best effort may have some merit as to particular individuals, but I don’t buy it when we are talking about “group action”.
What proof do you have that Jews were acting in a pious manner and following the covenant before the atrocity of what happened to Jews during World War II. Yes you can point to many that were “innocent of guilt” but maybe the “group” was not up to the “walk”. Maybe the fact that there were any survivors meant that there were many that were good and there was something to work with for the future.
You seem to give pass to Jews where you do not with other people. You were quick to state that what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues as well as the “grand finale”of the Sea of Reeds ending the life of Pharaoh and his followers was “payback” for their misdeeds, yet the slavery of the Israelites had nothing to do with punishment for earlier misdeeds. Remember, G-d preordained that this was going to occur in his conversation with Abraham. What the Israelites did to deserve there fate of slavery is something that maybe has to be debated more.
Once freed, maybe the answer is that G-d did not know how to handle the Israelites that were just let out from bondage. They probably had lost any hope of freedom by the time of their release, and G-d went overboard with the miracles they witnessed in an effort to bring them into the fold.
Even with the miracles of the plagues leading to their freedom, G-d had his doubts with the people he had just let out of bondage. How do I know this? Going back Beshalach in Exodus13;17, the following is stated:
“It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt”
In other words, G-d feared that if he let the Israelites go with the most direct route to the Promised Land, they would feel that they would not be able to defend themselves when they met up with the Philistines, despite the fact that G-d was with them.
With all due respect to the All Mighty, he did not handle the Israelites as well as he could have because he had a superstitious people that could not grasp the concept of the protection of the Lord because of how he demonstrated that protection through Moses.
Again, in Beshalach, G-d’s hand is forced by Amalek’s passion for preying on the weak. What does G-d do? He gets Moses to do the following in Exodus 17:11:
“It came to pass that when Moses would raise his hand, Israel would prevail, and when he would lay down his hand, Amalek would prevail.”
So we have Moses raising his hand and in the end after rocks are place around his arms, the Israelites eventually win. It was Moses that gave the “physical demonstration” such as struck the rock and water coming out. The Israelites were constantly given an impression of Moses coming through despite whatever Moses said as to G-d being the force behind everything and he was merely a conduit.
This goes on for the rest of the Torah as it relates to Moses, but I do not want to get too far ahead of myself.
In referring to Exodus 19:8 you seem to think that the Israelites were not earnest when they said they would obey, but I think “earnest” is not the proper conclusion, rather I believe the word should be “fear”. This is even more evident in Exodus 20:16 when they tell Moses to speak to G-d and tell them what to do but they cannot deal with G-d directly or as it was written:
"You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die."
Again at the foot of Mt. Sinai all of the pyrotechnics that they saw, was too much for them to deal with.
Since I brought up the circuitous route the Israelites had to take to get to the Sea of Reeds, I have a question as it relates to what I just brought up as it relates to Amalek. The Israelites saw that they could prevail in a battle, yet it is now three months to get to Sinai. Again, I do not want to get ahead of what is coming up, but there was no golden calf or the incident of the “spies” so why did it take three months just to get to Sinai?
I don’t want to make this too long, but I never said that having women as leaders is some kind of “panacea”, but the Torah as well as other “holy books” certainly disregarded women, and since they have been allowed to act with authority, they have done so with honor and for the most part in a more humane manner.
While you acknowledge that sexism may play a role in how the text reads, I take exception to the excuse you give of “perhaps some merit exists in temporary abstinence for the sake of focusing on the G-d-man relationship.” If you read the accounts of the disturbed people that go into schools, movie theaters, etc. and shoot poor innocents for no apparent reason, they are for the most part males and after some digging into their backgrounds, it was found that they had trouble being “near a woman”. It just might be that if a male would just be more “relaxed” and enjoyed more time with a woman, there would be less violence and anxiety. I don’t see how “abstinence” would have made the Israelite male any more attentive to what he was being instructed to do.
I would describe the difference between us as being how we view the role of reward and punishment in the collective life of Isarel. If I understand you correctly, undeserved suffering might apply in individual cases but not in collective cases.
In no way can the Shoah be understood in terms of reward and punishment. The blatantly incommensurate nature of what would constitute the punishment suggests that something else is at work in this instance. Not everything can be understood according to the category of reward and punishment.
I love my people. That doesn't mean I judge them less harshly than other people. I follow the example of the prophets who criticized Israel and loved her at the same time. As for other people, each has to judged on its own. Regarding the Egyptians, the Torah indicates that they were complicit in the crime of slavery and the killing of the male babies. I recognize that for the commentators, Israel is enslaved as punishment for misdeeds. I understand Israel's slavery differently. Many people were, have been, and are enslaved. Israel's slavery was normal in that sense. What makes Israel unique is that it was the first liberated - by G-d - from slavery.
The miracles - such as the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the bitter water turning sweet, the manna and quail, and the water sprouting from the rock - teach the principle of freedom, that not everything in the world operates according to cause and effect.
I think the answer for 13:17 is that trusting that G-d is with you is something that you learn over time. That Israel didn't recognize that G-d was with them in spite of the miracles is consistent with the human experience of being uncertain about G-d's presence.
In the battle with Amalek, G-d is not mentioned, and all success is attributed to Moses. This is a forecasting, as you hint, to the incident of the molten calf.
I like this question of why the Israelites took three months to arrive at Mt. Sinai. They could have been licking their wounds from battle or simply adapting to the new reality of G-d's caretaking as manifested by the manna.
The Tanakh in key respects is not as anti-woman as you seem to think it is. Take for example, the mitzvah of honoring one's mother and father. If the Torah was strictly anti-woman, it would only say "honor your father."
In your example from mass shootings, you paint one extreme. Certainly, three days abstinence is a whole other world from the relationship to sex the men who commit these mass shootings have. Think from the other extreme. Can you not see that an obsession with sexual fulfillment - hedonism - might not provide the best preparation for G-d's revelation?