Criticism & Citizen Participation : Parashat Yitro

Meeting With Non – Jews Strengthens Judaism

“Only after Moses listens to his father in law and absorbs his feedback and criticism, de-centralization is established, and the People of Israel can make the step that enabled them to grow and come to their constitutive event as a nation – the receiving of the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai.”

Parashat Jethro is the fifth parasha in Exodus. This parasha is full of substance, thought-provoking suggestions, and invites us to review in order to renew and build a nationparticipation

At the beginning of this parasha it is written: “Now Jethro… heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people… And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake,… And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh… Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods… And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.” (Exodus 18; 1-12).

The first thing this parasha does in the verses 1-12 is to explain that Jethro believes and admires the greatness of God and this admiration has a public aspect. The beginning of the parasha clarifies that Jethro knows God.

The Division of the Power to Judge

Later in the parasha Jethro sees Moses judging the people all day long and it is written: “And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘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?” (Exodus 18:14). Moses’ answer to this question was that he tries to bring God to the people and Jethro’s response was – it is no good that you alone know and judge the people, listen to me and God will be with you. This power is not good for you and neither for the people. Jethro’s criticism reminds us of the story of Kuzari. In this story God appears in the dream of the king and says to him that “God likes your intensions but not your deeds”. Jethro continues and suggests the system of rulers of hundreds and rulers of thousands – in order to divide the judging capability. But this division is not only for the judging capability, but also for knowing God. There must be a process of de-centralization of the knowledge of God as well, making it more well-known. This may be what enabled the Rambam’s (Maimonides) idea of a collective revelation.

It seems that the parasha brings the famous feedback model of “preservation, improvement, and change”. According to this system, while one is criticizing one must also find positive feedback that will enable people to connect, trust, and be comfortable. Only then can one continue to improve and finish with a new plan. In parashat Jethro the “preservation” is established when the text explains a few times why Jethro deserves to criticize – because he knows and admires God. Only then does the text continue to the criticism and the suggestion for a change.

Why Jethro? Why is the non Jew the person brings the message?

Why is Jethro specifically the one saying it? Why is the gentile the one who brings the message? Let’s put it into terms of every day wisdom: in order to make dulce de leche taste great we should add in a little bit of coffee. When preparing a sweet soup we enhance the sweet taste by adding a little bit of sour.  What does this mean? It means that the capability of deep, true, and necessary feedback comes only from somebody who admires, loves, cares, but has a different identity and comes from a different world. This parasha is also called by the name of Jethro. Why? Rabbi Haim Ben Atar replies that this is because the parasha wanted to show the people of Israel in this generation and future generations that also in other nations  there are great, clever and educated people, and the example is Jethro who gave Moses good suggestions. From here we can learn that God chose the People of Israel not because they were more clever and educated, but because of great mercy and because He loved our fathers.

I bring this up also to show the wrongness of our tendency to seclude ourselves in order to strengthen our identity. From the beginning parashat Jethro clarifies that it is not right. In fact, our identity is built and strengthened when we meet the other who is different from us. When from the difference we succeed to honor and love, our identity is strengthened. I think it is also true regarding the different voices that are heard inside Judaism and regarding the role of different organizations in the Israeli society, who are able to criticize from an obligated, loving perspective that tries to strengthen the Jewish identity.

Moses Listens to his Father In-Law

Only after Moses listens to his father in law and absorbs his feedback and criticism, de-centralization is established, and the People of Israel can make the step that enabled them to grow and come to their constitutive event as a nation – the receiving of the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai. Without the capability of developing a tool to correct the system it would have been impossible to receive Divine spiritual revelation.

After the legal system was established, the 10 commandments appear, the additional foundation stone in creating a nation. The 10 commandments are actually a manifestation of universal morals between man and man and between man and God.

For the reading of this parasha I want to refer to the first commandment: “I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:2). In this verse we can combine the Rambam’s and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s systems. The first one’s approach is to highlight “I am the LORD thy God,”, and everything will lead to knowing God and what are the action that are needed in order to Know God. As for Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, he highlights the conscience or the memory of an historical God. Why the combination? Because, beyond in the theological discussion about the understanding of our divine, the clear principle that opens the 10 commandments is the divine presence. It is with the same principle and the same knowledge that the Torah refers to Jethro. This knowledge is what makes Jethro’s opinion relevant and capable to influence Moses and help him to realize the vision of knowing God and His presence in the “Jewish Law”.

This parasha begins in a conversation with our reality. The parasha comes to remind us what is our vision as a nation that should aspire to know God without the theological perception but as a knowledge of universal good. Parashat Jethro invites us to check the place of criticism in our society, our attitude towards it, and reminds us that criticism and improvement, when they come out of love and deep commitment, although it is sometimes hard, may help us to realize our vision.

Parashat Jethro reminds us that what we defined as a “right way” for judging and for “God’s love” is not necessarily true, and that we may have good will and intention, but be on the “wrong train”, and therefore doing wrongly. We have to renew and be renewed, and from this to build a nation that knows God and “keeps the law”, because “Happy are they that keep justice”  (Psalms 106:).


This Dvar-Torah was published 2 years ago in RRHH website

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