Jethro and the 10 Commandments

The Torah reading that contains the 10 Commandments is called Jethro. It commences with the state visit of Moses's father-in-law, Jethro. Some rabbis feel that this entire story of Jethro and his visit, which we shall describe shortly, took place after the 10 Commandments were given. Why, then, is it written beforehand?

Some claim that it is because of a common theme connecting Jethro and the revelation at Mount Sinai: Conversion. Jethro became convinced of the Jewish faith and converted. The entire Jewish people, upon receiving the 10 commandments, could be considered as converts as well. This is a perfectly acceptable explanation. I'd like to suggest another as well.

Both the Jethro story and the Sinaitic Revelation story contains three parts. Jethro comes to visit the Israelites and is welcomed in a grand ceremony. He then blesses God for having brought the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Finally, he observes Moses attempting to judge every single bit of litigation that the people have all by himself. He counsels Moses to appoint judges of "thousands and hundreds and tens," to help bear the burden. Moses follows Jethro's instruction.

The Revelation starts with the dramatic and festive preparations for the event. The mountain is cordoned off, the people are to prepare themselves and purify themselves. Next, the first five of the 10 Commandments are given. Finally, the last five of the 10 Commandments are given. There is a reason why I divided the 10 Commandments into two parts, which is one of the reasons why they were given on two tablets. Allow me to explain my theory.

I believe that the 10 Commandments are more than simply 10 special mitzvot. These Commandments were singled out because they give Israel its identity. We are taught who is our God, and who are we to be. The first commandment is "I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of Egypt." Some ask why God did not identify Himself as the Lord who created the heavens and the earth? The answer is that these Commandments are to give Israel their identity. The fact that God created the heaven and the earth does not impact our identity. The fact that God brought us out of Egypt does.

In fact, way back at the burning bush, Moses was puzzled by the question of what merit the Israelites had? Why did they deserve to be redeemed? God responded, "When you bring them forth from Egypt, they will serve Me on this mountain." In other words, the Exodus and the Revelation must go together. Why?

Israel is a nation with a purpose in the world. We were afflicted with Egyptian slavery and oppression. We experienced firsthand man's inhumanity to man. A theme in the stories of the book of Genesis is fraternal tension and violence. It starts almost at the beginning, with Cain and Abel. God wants the world to be fixed, and that is the problem that needs fixing. When you read the newspapers today, you realize that almost all human suffering is the result of other humans. Would that we could wave a magic wand and make that disappear!

That is our main purpose. God, therefore, tells us that He is the One who brought us out of Egypt, so that we must appreciate the need to eliminate what we suffered in Egypt from the face of the earth. The other four of the first set of the commandments serve to further define that goal.

We are told not to have any other gods, meaning, not to espouse any other ideology or national goal.

We are told not to take the Lord's Name in vain. In other words, do not distort God's goal for the world by using His Name to justify any other ideology.

We are told to observe the Sabbath day, in order to make this mission a part of our conscious existence. We need to take time to reflect on it, meditate upon it, and recommit to it.

We are told to honor our parents, those who teach us the traditions and transmit this crucial mission to us. Our parents, our rabbis, our sages, are the way that we connect to God's teachings and our national goals.

The third section, the latter five commandments, are teaching us the potential obstacles to fulfilling these Divine goals. Any of the five character traits that lead to these sins will push the individual off of the track. Do not be consumed by hatred – thou shalt not kill. Do not live a life of lust – thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not be consumed by greed – thou shalt not steal. Do not live for jealousy – thou shalt not bear false witness against your compatriot. Finally, do not live in the pursuit of honor and the throes of jealousy – thou shalt not covet what is thy neighbor's.

I see a parallel to all of this in the introductory story of Jethro. Very often, we are incapable of seeing ourselves as we really are. When Jethro comes, he bears witness to the national character and potential of the children of Israel. His arrival is festive, just as the preparations for the Revelation were festive and dramatic. In both cases, we are about to get information about the most important question: Who are we and what are we supposed to do?

The answer to that is the first five of the commandments. And, in Jethro's case, he blesses God who "saved you from Pharaoh and Egypt. I now know that God is the greatest of all of the gods, because of that which they attempted to do to you." In other words, man's inhumanity to man, Egypt's attempts to harm and destroy Israel, were the very reason for God's redeeming them. Thus, this is a nation that must dedicate itself to eradicating that form of hatred from the face of the earth.

Thirdly, the second part of the 10 Commandments deals with the potential obstacles. Jethro sees a potential obstacle to the entire national project in Moses's insistence on being the sole judge. If he continues this way, Jethro implies, the people will never reach the promised land. Judaism can only survive when the Torah is accessible to everyone, in every generation. Moses's job is twofold: to receive and teach the people Torah, and to ensure that there will be future teachers of Torah to keep the tradition alive.

Thus will we achieve our national mission, and thus will any individual achieve any important project in their life. The first step is to recognize that importance, as symbolized by the festivities at the start of both stories. The second step is to define what that mission is, as symbolized by the first five commandments and Jethro's blessing of God. The third step is to be aware of, and prepare for, the obstacles that can prevent the mission from being accomplished. That is symbolized by the final five commandments, and by Jethro's correcting Moses's system for transmitting the message and the mission.

Look Who's Watching

Jethro wanted to go home. His son-in-law, Moses, did not want him to leave. Jethro had come to the Israelites immediately prior to their receiving the Torah, and had witnessed the revelation. Now he wished to return to his land, the land of Midian, and this made Moses concerned. "Please do not leave us," he said, "for you have known our encampment in the desert, and you will be for us [like] eyes."

The commentators are divided on the question of whether Jethro agreed with Moses and stayed with the Israelites or returned to his land. There are also a number of interpretations as to why he Moses wanted him to remain. The Torah gives great emphasis to this dialogue, so it must be of tremendous significance for the future of the Jewish people. What is that significance?

The most literal reading implies that Jethro would be helpful as a guide in the desert. I have trouble accepting this, as the Israelites were led by God sending a pillar of cloud to direct them through the desert. There must be more to it than that.

The Kli Yakar suggests that the phrase, "encampments," implies more than geographical locations. Every place where the Israelites encamped, they struggled with God. They misbehaved, they complained, they staged minor rebellions. Jethro had proven his worth earlier by urging Moses to revamp the judicial system of the Israelites. He proposed a system of smaller and larger courts, so that no Israelite was too far from justice.

Moses saw that Jethro had unique insight into the social fabric of the children of Israel, and that he might have the key to preventing his episodes of misbehaviors and minor rebellions. "You shall be for us [like] eyes," means you will guide us to be more faithful to our God. The Kli Yakar implies that Jethro remained with the Israelites, agreeing with Moses. The observation I have on that is that it seems to not have worked. Immediately after this section in the book of Numbers, the rebellions begin in earnest, culminating with the sin of the spies and with Korach. It would be easier to say that Jethro left, and that's why everything fell apart.

Perhaps, according to this interpretation, the lesson is that even though the plan was implemented, it failed. Often, we plan everything as best we can to succeed, but success does not come. The big question is, what does one do after the disaster? Give up? Try the plan again? Try a new plan? There is no one proper answer, although I am sure the giving up is the wrong one.

The Oznaim Latorah follows the Seforno who claims that Moses's intention was actually directed outwards, towards the rest of the world. Jethro was a great theologian, who had explored all the other religions before arriving at Judaism. Indeed, he converted. Moses was concerned, however, that should he leave the Israelites, the Gentile world would take that as a sign that he was also rejecting the Israelites Faith. This would constitute a great desecration of God's Name.

Jethro responded to Moses by saying that he intended to convert his people to the Jewish faith, and that's why he wanted to return unto them. This, however, did not alleviate Moses's concerned, but Jethro had a solution for it. His children would remain with Israel, thus no one would doubt that Jethro had indeed embraced the God of Israel and his Torah. He, himself, would then be free to travel amongst the nations of the world and share the Divine message with them. A worthy compromise.

These two interpretations have Moses looking inward and outward, respectively. He looked inward by seeing Jethro as a positive influence on the children of Israel, and he looked outward by seeing Jethro as a role model for the nations of the world. My feeling is that Jethro chose not to remain, but did leave his children with the Israelites, as the Seforno writes. Why, though, did Moses not think of this compromise? Did he not feel that it was important for a Jethro to reach out to humanity?

I am sure he did, but I believe he also was greatly afraid of the potential disintegration of the Jewish people. The Kli Yakar's concern was a valid one. How would Jethro ensure that they improved? By being there and being Jethro. When Moses says, "you shall be for us [like] eyes," I believe he is saying something very powerful. The eyes he refers to are not Jethro's, but the people of Israel's. The literal translation would be then, "You shall be for us, for our eyes [to look upon]." The Israelites will look to you, and realize that this great theologian is watching them. That will make them behave better. If, indeed, Jethro left, Moses's plan was never implemented and never tested. If he remained, then it failed, as we mentioned before.

The Seforno's approach makes another powerful point. I believe that Moses was saying to Jethro that he can still accomplish this goal of converting his people, and, at the same time, make the Israelites better. How?

The answer is Purpose. As long as a person has a Purpose in life, a goal that inspires them, all other things become secondary. I rarely feel hungry on Yom Kippur, because I'm so focused on the prayers and rituals of the day, that my attention and energies are elsewhere. As soon as the day is over, I can think about my stomach, and I realize how much I would love to have that bagel and lox.

Jethro reminds the Israelites of their mission in the world, to spread knowledge of God and adherence to His morality. When the Israelites look at him, they see the whole world looking back at them. They realize that their actions send a message. If they are committed to fixing the world, they will take care to send the right message. A responsible parent will not behave dangerously or foolishly if their children are watching.

But once a mission is no longer ones focus, indulgence in temporary pleasures becomes very tempting. When Jethro left, even if he left his children behind, the immediacy of the mission of Israel became weakened, and they started to slip into materialism. First, they rebelled against the Manna that God provided for them and, instead, craved meat and fish and other foods. Then came their ultimate rejection of mission, in the form of the sin of the spies and the people's refusal to go up into the Promised Land.

Having a life mission is not a luxury, is the only way to ensure that one lives and inspired life of meaning and high ethical standards. Having a Jethro to remind us of this is an important part of having that mission.