January 27, 2020 |

Parshat Yitro: Walkthrough

Loyalty to the literal text, with a modern voice [All editorializing in brackets]

Meanwhile, Jethro (Moses’father-in-law, the Midianite priest) heard about how God had taken the Israelites out of Egypt. He took Moses’ wife and sons (whom Moses had sent away) [!!], and brought them to the desert where Moses was camped, near the mountain of God. [Recall, this is where Moses had first encountered God when shepherding Jethro’s sheep, so it was reasonably close, probably the closest Moses had been since he returned to Egypt.]

Jethro re-introduces himself, as well as Moses estranged family. Moses embraces Jethro [doesn’t seem too interested in his family, though], and they get caught up. Moses told Jethro about everything God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as well as all the problems they’d had on the road since they left. Jethro was elated for all the great things that God had done, and he proclaimed that he now knew that the Israelite God is most powerful among all the gods. Aaron and the elders joined the party and they all offered sacrifices to God.

The next day, Moses sat to judge the people, all day long. Jethro saw what he was doing and asked, “What are you doing, sitting and working alone all day?”

Moses explained, “People come to me to arbitrate when they have various interpersonal conflicts, in order to find out what God thinks.”

Jethro replied, “What you’re doing is not good. You will totally burn out, both you and the people themselves. It’s too much work, you can’t go at it alone.

“Listen, I have a better idea. You be the people’s primary representative to God, as you’ve been doing. But then, find a few good men, and set up a managerial hierarchy, such that smaller issues can be handled at the lower level, and the more difficult things can be appealed up the chain to you. If you take my advice, you’ll be able to do your job, and the people themselves will find peace in getting what they need.”

Moses thought this was a great idea and followed every word. Then he sent his father-in-law back home.

In the third month since the Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the Sinai desert, where they set up camp next to The Mountain. Moses went up to the mountain, where God appeared to him, saying, “You all have all seen what I did to Egypt, as I brought you to me on wings of eagles. Now, if you listen to what I have to say and follow my covenant, you will be my favorite nation on earth, a nation of priests, a holy nation.”

Moses presented this to the Israelites, who unanimously said that they would do everything God said. Moses conveyed this to God, who continued:

“Here’s the plan: I will appear to you in a thick cloud, so that they will listen to me and believe in you. Go tell the people to wash their clothes and get themselves ready for the third day, because that’s when I will descend on Mount Sinai in full view of everyone. Set up blockades around the mountain, and tell everyone that whoever touches it will be killed.

Moses passed this on as well, and the Israelites got themselves ready.

On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud on the mountain and a strong shofar blast, and the people trembled. But Moses got the people out of camp, and set everyone up at the base of the mountain.

Meanwhile, Mount Sinai was full of smoke, since God had descended on it with fire. In fact, the entire mountain itself was shaking. And the shofar sound grew louder, as Moses spoke and God answered him audibly.

So God came down to Mount Sinai, where he called Moses up to the mountaintop. He told Moses to go back down and remind the people to keep their distance, even the priests. Moses replied that the people can’t go up, since they cordoned the whole thing off. But God insisted, and so Moses went back down and told them.

Then God spoke all these things, as follows:

“I am God, who took you out of Egypt. Don’t make any others, as I am a jealous God, and I bear a grudge for generations. But I’m really great to those who obey my commandments.

“Don’t invoke My name when it is not warranted; I will not forget such an act.

“Remember to keep the day of rest distinct. You can work for six days, get all your work done, but on the seventh day God rested, so don’t do any work – you or any member of your household or even your community. After all, God created the entire world in six days and then rested on the seventh, which is why He set aside the day of rest to begin with.

“Honor your father and mother, you’ll live longer.

“Do not murder.

“Do not commit adultery.

“Do not steal.

“Do not testify falsely.

“Do not desire someone else’s house.

“Actually, don’t desire someone else’s wife, or servants, or property, or anything else.”

Meanwhile, everyone’s watching the fire, and thunder, and shofar blasts, and lightning, and the mountain filled with smoke, and the people kept their distance. They told Moses, “Why don’t you talk to us, so we can listen – if God speaks to us we’ll die.”

Moses replied, “Don’t worry, all this is to test you, and to make sure that you are properly frightened so you don’t sin.”

Still, the people kept their distance, and Moses approached the cloud where God was.

And God told Moses to tell the people, “You saw that I spoke to you from the sky. Do not make gold or silver gods for yourself – for me, make an altar of stones, which you should use wherever you offer up sacrifices to Me. Don’t even use metal in its construction, because you might be tempted to use your sword and defile the altar in the process. And don’t use steps to ascend to the altar, in the interests of modesty.

[More laws to come next week.]


Jack Kustanowitz

Joined: July 15, 2007

Jack is an Internet professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He is a proud alum of the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ as well as Boston University, where he was active at BU Hillel.

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