Posted by: Subway Conductor | February 5, 2021

Drasha on Yitro

A Derasha on Parshat Yitro

           The giving of the Torah takes place in this week’s Torah portion which includes the Decalogue (also known as the Ten Commandments.) The question that cries out for an answer is: Why is this portion called by the name of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro? It is noteworthy that almost every time Jethro is mentioned in the portion, he is referred to as “the father-in-law of Moses.” If I had written the Torah, I believe I would have named the portion containing the revelation at Mt. Sinai Parshat Moshe (Moses). After all, it was Moses who went up on Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from G-d and transmitted it to the Jewish People. The fact is, there is no Parshat Moshe in the Torah. But why Yitro – Jethro?

           We need to look into who Jethro was. There is a midrash in the Talmud concerning the first chapter of the Book of Exodus where Pharaoh decreed to throw every male Israelite child into the Nile. According to this midrash, Pharaoh had three advisors – Balaam, Job, and Jethro. Balaam was the advisor who promoted this plan. What eventually happened to him? We encounter Balaam in the Book of Numbers where he is engaged to come and curse the Jewish People by the Moabite King Balak. His animosity towards the Israelites is made manifest and ultimately he is killed. The Book of Joshua records that Balaam died “by the sword.” (Joshua 13:22) The second advisor, Job, remained silent even though he opposed the plan. What happened to Job? There is an entire book in the Bible devoted to his story which is the central work in all of literature on the question of why do bad things happen to good people. Job was a pious person who suffered numerous afflictions including the loss of his family, impoverishment, and physical ailments. The body of the book of Job presents the discussions that Job had with his friends, who came to console him, trying to understand why these afflictions came upon him. The midrash provides an explanation. Job had remained silent in the face of Pharaoh’s evil plot to kill the Israelite male children.  The third advisor was Jethro who opposed the plan and fled from Egypt to escape Pharaoh’s wrath. What eventually happened to Jethro? He became the father-in-law of Moses, converted to Judaism, and some of his descendants became members of the Sanhedrin – the high court in Jerusalem.

           Jethro is a convert to Judaism and this, I believe, is why this portion containing the revelation at Mt. Sinai is called by his name. It is meant to inform us that the Torah was given not as an exclusive gift to the Jewish People, but as a teaching intended for all of humanity. The question is whether people choose to accept the Torah and live by its commandments. Judaism is not an exclusive religion – anyone can become a Jew. Moreover, any non-Jew can live in accordance with the Torah by observing the seven Noachide commandments.

           We see this same theme played out elsewhere in the Jewish tradition. On the festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, there is a custom to read the Scroll of Ruth in the Synagogue. The Scroll of Ruth tells how Naomi and her husband Elimelech went to live in Moab. Their two sons married Moabite women. Elimelech and the two sons die and Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law. She urges them to return to their fathers’ homes since she has nothing to offer them. One of them indeed abandons Naomi, but Ruth cleaves to her saying, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17) Ruth is the model of a convert. It is made clear through her example that a convert becomes a full member of the Jewish People. She links her fate to that of the Jews – “where you go, I will go, where you die, I will die.”   So why do we read the Scroll of Ruth on Shavuot? I believe for the same reason that this week’s parsha is called Yitro. To highlight the universal nature of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. To teach us that the Torah was given for the benefit of all humanity.        

Good Shabbos!


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