Parshat Yitro  Exodus 18:1-20:23                                                      

This week’s parasha is one of six in the Torah, and the only one in the book of Exodus, which is named for an individual. Jethro (Yitro, in Hebrew), the father-in-law of Moses, has heard of the miracle of Israel’s liberation, and he brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to the Israelites, who are encamped at “the mountain of God.” Moses welcomes him warmly. In joy, Yitro offers burnt offerings and sacrifices, which are consumed by Moses, Aaron, and the elders. The next day, Yitro notes that Moses has not organized the justice system very well: From morning to night Moses is killing himself by listening to every case that is brought to him for judgment. Jethro recommends that Moses share this burden and delegate all but the most difficult cases to the tribal elders. Moses accepts his father-in-law’s advice.

Three months after they have left Egypt, God offers the people a special covenant confirming the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. Chapter 19 describes the preparations, a process that involves Moses’ going up and down the mountain a number of times. God’s invitation to the Hebrew includes the famous verses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. If you obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

When Moses reports these words to the people, they respond in unison: “All that Adonai has spoken we will do!” For three days the people purify themselves. On the morning of the third day they hear thunder and lightening, see a dense cloud over the top of the mountain, and a loud blast of the shofar. Moses climbs to the top of the mountain and God comes down. God speaks the words of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God; You shall not worship any idols; You shall not swear a false oath; Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy; Honour your father and your mother; Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Don’t tell lies about other people; Do not covet.

Seeing “the thunder and the lightening,” so awed the people that they begged Moses to intervene and to speak to God on their behalf from that moment on. The parasha ends with God’s instructing Moses to remind the people that they had heard God speak and thus must remember never to worship idols.


  • Many of our people’s formative experiences took place in the wilderness – midbar, in Hebrew. It is interesting to note that this word has the same three-consonant root as does the word for “words,” “speaking,” and “having a conversation.” Indeed, it is from this root that we get the expression “aseret ha-dibrot” – Hebrew for the 10 Commandments (literally, the 10 statements). In Hebrew, these concepts fit quite naturally and poetically. Moreover, in Aramaic – one of Hebrew’s sister languages – the root d-b-r means “to lead.” It was not until we entered the midbar that Moses could emerge as a leader. It also was not until the events of the Sea and Sinai, when we joined together in the midbar, that we were ready to be led, not as slaves bowing to Pharaoh’s will, but willingly and lovingly as best exemplified by the words: “All that the Lord has spoken (dibair) we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

  • The Torah teaches us that when the Holy One spoke at Sinai, the people perceived the kolot – a word which in this context is translated as “thunderings,” but which usually means “voices.” The Midrash explains this double meaning as revealing that the divine Voice went forth to all Israel, to each and every person according to his or her particular strength – to the elderly in keeping with their power, to the young in keeping with theirs; to the men keeping with their experience, and to the women in keeping with theirs. If you are surprised at such an assertion, the Midrash continues, then learn from the example of the manna which nourished Israel for 40 years in the wilderness. Although the manna was a single substance, tradition tells us that it varied in taste according to each person’s particular need. To the young it tasted like bread, to the elderly like sweet wafers; to babies it tasted like milk from their mothers’ breasts, to the sick it tasted like fine flour mingled with honey. A second midrash teaches that not only were all those who left Egypt present at the foot of Sinai – so, too, were the souls of all those yet to be created in generations to come. In other words, each and every one of us stood there. How did you hear the voice of Torah?

  • The Midrash also tells us that before God revealed the Ten Commandments, God asked the Israelites for a surety – that is, the guarantor of a promise or collateral – that the Torah would be kept and obeyed by the people. The people responded that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be their surety. God responded that the patriarchs were not adequate. The people then said that the prophets would be their surety. Again God said that the prophets would not be adequate. The people then said that their children would be their surety. And God agreed that the children would be their surety for the gift of Torah. What does it mean to you to personally be a guarantor of Torah? How have the generations of your family acted as guarantors of Torah and Jewish tradition? What must you do to maintain that role as guarantor in the next generation?

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Moses needed to choose capable individuals to share the role of leader. What qualities do you think these individuals would need? Who are the individuals we choose as leaders today? Would the qualities needed by leaders in the time of Moses be the same or different from the qualities required for contemporary leaders? Do you think Moses will be a stronger or weaker leader by establishing judges? How does sharing leadership make us partners in decision making? What do you think are the benefits of sharing the burden of leadership? What are some of the disadvantages? How might these disadvantages be overcome?

  2. What does it mean that the people “saw the thunder?” This is the only place where God, while dealing with humans, thunders and lightenings and causes the earth to tremble. Usually God either talks to humans directly or appears in “a thin small voice.” What do all these fireworks accomplish?

  3. How do you view what happened at Sinai? Our rabbis maintain that God spoke directly to the people at Mount Sinai. But the early Hassidic teacher Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1815) held that Israel at Sinai heard only the letter aleph – i.e., the first letter of anochi, the opening word of the 10 Commandments. (And what is the sound of aleph?)

  4. The mountain from which the 10 Commandments were given is called Sinai or Horeb. Jewish tradition has not preserved its exact location. Why do you think that this is so? Does our tradition benefit or lose by ignoring the location of this revelation? What does Sinai mean to you? Is it more than just a place?

  5. Although Jethro was not an Israelite, it is evident that he was wise and that Moses respected him. Indeed, according to Rabbi Hayyim Ben Alter, an 18th-century mystic and author of the commentaryOr Ha-Hayyim, the essential purpose of Jethro’s visit to the Israelite community was to demonstrate the need for including the wisdom of other peoples into Jewish life. Consider those non-Jewish people who have had a significant influence upon Jewish history. How are these people role models for you in your Jewish life?