"Jethro Advising Moses" by Jan van Bronchorst (Google Art Project)

Wisdom From The Margins

Jethro's position at the outside of the Jewish people allowed him to understand how to make the Torah work for a multiplicity of people.

Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

In Parashat Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many rabbis and commentators have begun their discussion of the Torah portion by noting that the name of the portion, Yitro, is not, perhaps, what we would expect for what is, after all, the most important portion of the Torah.

Jethro (Yitro) was Moses‘ father-in-law, and was, as the Torah tells us at the beginning of the portion, a priest of Midian — a priest of idolatry. Why is this crucial portion of the Torah named after a relatively minor figure, who, in fact, only came to the Jewish people late in life, after a long career in applied paganism?

In fact, according to a Midrash quoted by Rashi, Jethro was somewhat ambivalent about the Jewish people, and his relationship to them. The Bible tells us that Jethro, hearing of the Exodus from Egypt, with its attendant miracles, took Moses’s wife and children, whom Moses had left in Midian, apparently in order to spare them the rigors of life in Egypt, and, with them in tow, joined the Jewish people, encamped in the Sinai desert.

Moses greets him warmly and respectfully, sacrifices are offered to God in recognition of His miraculous care for the Israelites, and a celebratory meal is eaten. Moses then takes him into his tent, where he tells him the marvelous details of the miraculous defeat of Egypt by God.

Jethro Was Happy

The Bible reports Jethro’s response to all this with the words Vayichad Yitro— “And Jethro was happy, for all the good which God had done for Israel, that he saved the nation from the hands of Egypt.” ‘Vayichad‘ is a rare word, not the obvious choice for ‘happy’ or ‘joyous.’ The Rabbis notice this, and derive from it the following remarkable insight: The word ‘vayichad’ comes from a word for goosebumps; Jethro felt goosebumps, a chill, when he heard about the tragedy which had befallen Egypt.

The Midrash goes on to draw the following conclusion: “This is like what people say: ‘One should not speak poorly of a gentile in the presence of a convert, even after 10 generations’.” In other words, Jethro, although he had joined the Jewish people, still felt a connection, an allegiance, to the non-Jewish world, and, therefore, was sensitive to the tragedy of the Egyptians, more sensitive than someone born Jewish, of Jewish stock, might be. And yet, it is this very Jethro, who is ambivalent about his allegiances, in whose parsha the Ten Commandments are given.

To complicate matters, not only the name of the parsha, but Jethro’s subsequent actions in the parsha as well, raise some similar questions. The day after Jethro’s arrival, Moses sits in judgment of the people, who, all day long, approach him, demanding solutions to their arguments, litigations, and problems.

Some commentaries have suggested that, although this story appears in the narrative before the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, it may actually have taken place afterwards, which would explain the great need for Moses to interpret the newly-received law to the people. Either way, we are presented with a picture of Moses inundated, ‘from morning until night’, with the people seeking justice from him.

Jethro, seeing this, approaches Moses and, speaking like a true father-in-law, says: “This is not good, this thing you are doing. You will surely be worn out, you and the nation with you, for this is too great a burden for you, you can not do it by yourself.” Jethro then goes on to outline a brilliant solution: he suggests that Moses recruit suitable men — God-fearing, honest — and appoint them as judges. Jethro proposes that a system of upper and lower courts be established, with Moses at the top of the pyramid.

Moses goes along with the idea, and chooses the judges — some 72,600 of them if we calculate starting from the assumption that there were judges for every 10, 50, 100, and 1,000 people in a nation with a population of 600,000 — who begin judging the people, referring to Moses only the most difficult cases. At this point, knowing when to make an exit, Jethro returns home, to Midian.

A Strange Story

The strangeness of this story is obvious. For one, there is the naming of this auspicious parsha after a retired idolatrous priest, who actually still has a certain reservoir of feeling for the culture and people who oppressed Israel, and whom he has, in theory, left behind.

In addition, why is Jethro, the stranger, the newcomer to the tribe and its beliefs, the only one who can see Moses’s problem, and, moreover, come up with a solution; a judicial system which will more efficiently bring Torah and justice to the people? Why didn’t Moses, or one of the elders, figure this important piece out?

And, finally, why does Jethro return home? Why does he not remain with his family, his newly-adopted people, and get some nachas (Yiddish for satisfaction) from pointing out to all who will listen what good advice he gave his son-in-law?

It seems to me that the answer to these questions lies in a central piece of post-modernist thought. Many post-modernists (Derrida, Foucault) see the marginal as being the place where the action really is. It is not at the center of a culture or a system where we will find its true nature or message, but, rather, at the margins, in the seemingly inconsequential. It is there that the system makes its most crucial statements about itself, its beliefs, and its concerns.

The parsha of Jethro would seem to be the Torah’s way of teaching us about the value and importance of the marginal, and the view from the margins. The parsha of matan Torah — the giving of the Torah — and the way to create the delivery system for that Torah — a network of courts — is best understood by someone at the margin.

For those who actually went through the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, only the most central authority figure — Moses — can be accepted as an adjudicator of Torah law. No one could imagine that other, less central, less authoritative, people could have the right or ability to also determine the will of God. It is Jethro, himself an outsider, a minor figure, who points out the need to look beyond the epicenter of Jewish life — Moses — to the margins, if Jewish life is to flourish.

The Real Strength of Torah

In other words, the real strength of the Torah, its ability to survive and sustain itself, will not be found at the center, with Moses, but at the edges, in the lower courts, among the thousands of junior jurists, who will determine, daily, for their peers, the will of God and His Law.

It is only Jethro, whose marginality as a convert gives him a sensitivity to the plight of the Egyptians not shared by the rest of the Jews, who deserves to have the parsha of the giving of the Torah named after him. It is precisely his sensitive, nuanced, ambivalent response to things — the chill he feels at the news of the fall of Egypt, along with the joy he feels at the salvation of Israel — which the Torah demands.

This is why only a Jethro could understand that what is needed in order to make the Torah work for the people is a judicial system made up of thousands of individuals who will, of necessity, speak with more than one voice, bring to bear more than one sensibility, and look at the Torah with more than one world view. Only Jethro, who, as a convert, carried a multiplicity of sensibilities within himself, understood the need for, and the value of, such a complex, nuanced world view.

The Torah of one man, even a Moses, is not the Torah of a nation. Jethro’s plan democratizes, spreads out, and, therefore, complicates beautifully the message of the Torah, taking it out of the hands of any one individual and making it the property of the people. It is this Torah that we are meant to receive, not a monolithic Torah, interpreted by only one person, one sensibility.

And, finally, it would seem that Jethro understood and cherished his role as outsider, and, therefore, to preserve it, goes back, through the desert, to Midian, in order, perhaps, to retain that marginal world view, the insight of the outsider.

What must we do, to gain that insight? Where is our Midian? How do we get there?

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

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