Yitro, for Something Completely Different

This week’s Torah portion “Yitro,” Exodus 18:1-20:23, famously relates Revelation at Sinai, including the Ten Commandments. Vital Torah. But I always like to put in a good word for the portion’s namesake Yitro (or Jethro) — introduced both as “Priest of Midian” and “Father-in-Law of Moses” — and his daughter Zipporah.

There are midrashim that identify Yitro as a convert to Judaism — and we do see him offering a sacrifice and very prominently eating with “Aaron and all the elders of Israel,” after having declared “Now that I know that HASHEM is greater than all the gods…” (Exod 18:11-12).

Yitro has come to deliver Zipporah — “after she was sent away,” presumably before Moses and Aaron faced down Pharaoh — and the children Gershom and Eliezer. While there, Yitro sees that Moses is exhausted by his leadership burdens, as people stand in line all day to hear directly from him on many matters.

Perhaps no one within the community saw the strain on Moses. Maybe no one inside felt able to challenge Moses about sharing power. Or, maybe, Yitro — being an outsider and someone, by virtue of his priestly position, with some experience of leadership — just has a better vantage point. Whatever the reason, it is Yitro who tells Moses that things are out of control and suggests that he institute the system of judge which became part of Jewish history.

With that innovation in place, Moses and the people are ready — as ready as they can be, anyway — for Revelation at Sinai.

Earlier (Exod 4:20-25, Zipporah was the one who saved Moses and/or their son (pronouns are unclear) when “HASHEM encountered him and sought to kill him,” in what is sometimes called the “bridegroom of blood incident,” or more obliquely, “the incident at the lodging place.”

Zipporah, too, is considered a convert to Judaism in much commentary. But, like her father, Priest of Midian, Zipporah — convert or not — represents an outside perspective, a different way of doing things…which proves, quite literally, “a life-saver” for Moses and the people.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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