Yitro – “Yitro,” is translated as “Jethro”, as in the name of Moshe’s father-in-law. He hears of the great miracles, comes from Midian to the Israelite camp, bringing with him Moses’ wife and two sons. He advises Moses to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people. And then the revelation at Har Sinai, or mount Sinai is described. The famous words – we should be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Are said by God, we respond by saying “all that God has spoken, we shall do.” As the revelation is occurring, the people are scared and beg Moshe to receive the Torah and convey it to them. This is one of the few moments when the triennial cycle and the annual cycle have no difference whatsoever, as it would make no sense to read the Aseret HaDibrot only once in three years.
Kabbalat Shabbat – important converts
Our reading is famous because of how it is utilized by our Christian neighbors, who are constantly implying that the Ten Sayings are really Ten Commandments, as in THE ten commandments, and there are no other commandments in the Torah. The Jewish tradition respectfully disagrees, and we see the ten sayings as part of a continuous revelation that contains 613 mitzvot, or commands.
The Ten Sayings are called Sayings because they are paired up with different tens, particularly the Ten Sayings that are the basis of the story of Creation. If you go back to Genesis 1, you will find that the words “God Said” appear 10 times. Those 10 times are also connected to the prayer Baruch Sheamar that we say in the morning, in which the word “baruch”, blessed, appears 10 times. In the Jewish mind, all those things are connected in an organic reality, the reality of ten fingers and ten sefirot, in which ten is a number that indicates a basic makeup of the universe.
Our portion has an important characteristic – it is named after a person. There are six parshiot named after people, three non-Jews and three Jews. Noach, Balak and Yitro are the non-Jews, Sarah, Pinchas and Korach are the Jewish ones. But Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, is different than Balak and Noach in which in our very portion, he becomes Jewish. Whereas we do not have really a ceremony for Moshe’s wife Tzippora, there seems to be a ceremony with Yitro. First the translation says that Yitro heard all that had happened to Yisrael from Moshe, then that he was jubilant, then that he says “baruch Ad-nai” and “now I know that Ad-nai is greater than all gods”, he offers sacrifices to Ad-nai and then all the dignitaries of Israel come to eat bread with Yitro.
The word “jubilant” is yached, in Hebrew, that is connected in the midrash with Echad, one. And so of course, say the rabbis, Yitro has joined the Jewish people. It is not just about what he heard – the exodus, according to the plain meaning of the text, or the exodus and the aseret hadibrot, the ten sayings, according to Rashi and the midrash. It is not just that he heard, but that he decides to act on what he hears: he unifies his own experience through the lenses of there being one God, guiding and nurturing and energizing all creation and all creatures.
“Now I know” says Yitro – indicating an arrival. When you talk to converts in general, most of them will express to you this feeling of having come home. Of things finally making sense. Of the experience of exile ending, and a new phase, a moment in their lives that all is connected, and I can see what brought me here, at this moment, even through the darkest periods of my life I see a guiding nurturing force behind it all, lovingly tending to my future.
Jews never think that just a few verses of the Torah get to be more important, and that Torah is reducible to ten verses or even ten actions. Even when Hilel says “what is evil to you do not do to your neighbor” he adds: now go and study. The ten sayings are a portal – and stopping at the portal because you believe that the portal is the castle is to loose the vision of the castle, and forget the existence of a Ruler and a force behind all of it – the path, the portal, the castle.
Yitro, and many others in Tanach, such as Rahav, Rut, the daughter of Pharaoh, Tzipporah, all looked at the entrance and entered into the palace, according to the rabbis. Nowadays, there is an interesting influx of people becoming Jewish, not only in America but worldwide. Entire families, entire communities, go through a process – whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – and throw their fate and their future with our people. And the moment they became one of us, two incredible things happen: the collective unconscious gets transferred to them, and they are supposed to be seen like a Jew in all things. Indeed, it is forbidden to remind them of their past, according to the rabbis.
It is not by accident that the portion is named after this character, one who had another religion – if you remember he was described way back as a priest of Midian. And then he joins our people. Yitro is really a stand in for all Jews who have become Jewish after birth, who have chosen the Jewish tradition as home.
May we all merit like them, to choose Judaism as our ethical, moral and spiritual home, seeing with new eyes and a new spirit the story of our lives.
Shabbat morning – eyes for wonder
Count how many times the word “voice” shows up in our reading.
One of the questions of careful readers of our text is how does one understand expressions such as “their saw the voices” at the moment of revelation. Moreover, there are six times when the word “voice” appears in our text, one of those are in the plural, so you could count really seven. One of those voices are of the shofar – and if you recall the extra sentences we say on RH, the shofarot are there, and one of them has to do with the revelation at Sinai.
Now the rabbis in Pirkei Avot say that the shofar that was blown in the revelation moment was from that same ram that Avraham sacrificed in place of Itzchak, AND that particular, metaphysical ram was created together with other NINE miraculous things at the twilight of the sixth day of creation. Those things are all things that will make or be miracles in the rest of the Torah: the rainbow, Bilam’s donkey, the pit that swallowed Korah, manna, the well that accompanied the Israelites in the desert, the staff of Moshe, letters, writing, the tablets. There are other rabbis that add other things to this list, but the idea behind is the same: as creation happens, God makes sure to insiert at the last minute all things that will be needed later.
In a sense, there is nothing new under heaven, as Kohelet says. What is new is our eyes to appreciate and to see the miracles that are already there. In that sense, as we read in Maimonides, creation has a set of springs, ready to deploy when the right times for the miracle happens. So miracles are not haphazard moments, but things that were there just to happen at the precise moment they are needed. In a sense this can be incredibly comforting: everything we need is already there, we just need to open our eyes to see it.
We have what is needed.
Now the voices of our reading are connected by a mimdrash found in the Talmud, with another set of voices, found in Jeremiah 33, and popularized by Shlomo Carlbach: kol sason vekol simcha, kol hatan vekol kalah – the verse continues: ko omrim hodu ki tov ki leolam hasdo. What to make of that?
I think it is a reminder to all of us that with listening to God’s voice, to God’s loving invitation to be in relationship with our Creator and our tradition, we are also needed to make others happy. To make others rejoice. To rejoice and be content ourselves: we have all that we need to support each other and the planet in this journey called Life. Let’s use this, all our powers, already in us and in nature, to truly make the world a place worthy of God’s presence.