February 14, 2020
I have always found it surprising and instructive that this week’s portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), which contains the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is named for a pagan priest. What could be more important in our tradition than the giving of the Torah at Sinai? And yet our Torah portion opens by telling us about the reunion of Moses and his father-in-law, and how, without Jethro, we would not know how to apply the Torah to our daily lives.
The Sages explained this by claiming that Jethro was a convert. Upon hearing the miraculous story Of Israel’s redemption from slavery, he says, “Blessed is the One who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh!” And yet I think they were wrong. Jethro never stops being a pagan. Even as he praises the God of Israel as powerful, he acknowledges the existence of other gods. He says, “Now I know that Adonai is greater than all the other gods…” Having delivered Zipporah and her sons to Moses, he takes leave of the Israelites and returns to the land of Midian.
It is surprising then, to learn that it is Jethro who teaches Moses how to apply the newly received Torah to his people. When he sees Moses overworked and understaffed, he offers advice to his son-in-law. He says, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out and these people as well…Now listen to me and I’ll give you council and God will be with you…you shall seek out among all the people capable men…let them judge the people at all times…” Thus, it is with Jethro’s advice that Moses creates a judicial system. That system was not a product of Sinai but the advice of a non-Jew speaking to Moses. When he says, “God will be with you,” Jethro suggests that these are not just his laws but part of God’s plan.
As I have learned from others, it is not an accident that this week’s Torah portion is named after Jethro. In fact, this is meant to teach us an important lesson about the nature of revelation – how God speaks to us. Parshat Yitro teaches us that God speaks in many voices. Not only does the Holy One speak in thunder and lightning on a mountain top, sometimes God speaks to us in the ordinary voice of human beings, in the wisdom we learn from others, and in diverse voices of the people around us outside of our own community. Jethro does more than offer advice; he completes God’s teachings.
This means that while we have been taught that God’s will is contained in the Torah it does not end there. If we listen carefully, we can hear revelation all throughout and from all people who are blessed with the divine presence, and in the continuing interpretation of our tradition. God is speaking to us – sometimes through the unlikely voices of pagan priests and modern-day leaders. Jethro is as much a part of the unfolding truths of Torah as Moses and Mount Sinai.
Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way, “The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally, to imagine that God spoke to the prophet on a long-distance telephone. Yet most of us succumb to such fancy, forgetting that the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness…. The error of literal-mindedness is in assuming that things and words have only one meaning. The truth is that things and words stand for different meanings in different situations…”
I realize that “revelation” is not the daily concern of the modern Jew. We don’t spend very much time thinking about this topic – and yet I would suggest that it is at the heart of how we understand ourselves. Parshat Yitro challenges the conventional wisdom. God speaks to us in many ways. We must ask ourselves: are we really listening?