06 Feb 2015

Yitro 5775 – Terms and Conditions

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  — Albert Einstein

Perashat Yitro is the parasha that tells of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a parasha filled with grandeur and fanfare. Yet, the parasha is named for the introductory vignette that tells us about Moshe’s father- in-law Yitro. Yitro was not born a member of Israel, but came to be part of the nation upon his recognition of the relationship that G-d had with the people. He was essentially the first convert. In the eyes of the Hakhamim, Yitro’s story is used to introduce the giving of the Torah to teach the central importance of our relationship with G-d within the framework of Torah. Yitro insists that paramount to law and academics, is the sanctity of relationships between man and G-d, and that Torah must be presented as such.

Yitro saw it as vital that the nature and terms of our relationships, the highest of which is the one we build with G-d, would become the ultimate context for engaging in Torah.  To Yitro it was imperative that living life within the law be primarily sensitive to human connection. A true and proper relationship with G-d would not be achieved if our human interactions were not recognised and treated as sacred. For this reason, he takes issue with the manner in which his son- in-law chooses to conduct legal business with the nation.

Moshe sat to judge the nation and the nation stood before Moshe from morning until evening. The father in law of Moshe saw all that he was doing to the nation and he said ‘What is this that you are doing to the nation?! Why are you sitting by yourself and the entire nation is standing before you from morning until night? ‘What you are doing is not good!’ (18:13-17)

 — It bothered Yitro that Moshe should demean Israel in such a fashion…. (Rashi, ibid.)

 Yitro saw that the gruelling need to queue all day was damaging the people’s perception of the nature of G-d’s care and respect for them. It would taint the people’s desire to build a close relationship with G-d, and it was certainly ‘not good’. The fact that Yitro uses the words ‘not good’ is itself telling. There is only one other place in all of Torah that the phrase ‘not good’ or לא טוב is used. It is in the Creation story and G-d emphatically states that:

It is not good – לא טוב that the human should be alone. (Gen., 2:18)

 It is used at the point of human creation to indicate the essential social nature of human beings. We are here to love and be loved and to form cooperative connections. The experience of finding meaning in our connections with others is the core thrust of our human existence and the key ‘good’ in the world. We are meant to draw from those experiences and ultimately connect to G-d.

The law is an essential element of the relationship. It sets the terms, and clarifies the expectations. When people who love each other know each other’s limits, likes and dislikes and how words and acts affect them, their relationships grow strong and subtle interactions gain greater importance. Yitro, therefore, did not suggest that Moshe dilute the law, only that the experience in accessing and studying it should be sensitive to the value of the individuals who came to seek it. Moshe heeded Yitro’s advice and set up a court system that was more efficient and engaging[1], and that preserved the integrity of the information it sought to convey. Torah then served to cultivate a dynamic and stimulating connection between G-d and the nation. When we compromise substance for warmth or warmth for substance in Torah, we miss its intrinsic point. Yitro’s advice is as relevant today as it was three-thousand years ago. Content should not be compromised, for it creates the clarity and vibrancy of the connection, but human dignity and sanctity must always be treasured.

Say this to the children of Israel:…I lifted you on the wings of eagles and brought you to me…you shall be a treasure to me…a holy nation. (19:3-5)

With all of its beautiful detail, Torah shines brightest when it is conveyed through caring and sharing.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] 18:21-23