17. YITRO 5780


Exodus 18:1-20:23

Israel’s exodus from Egypt began with the denouement of the Tenth Plague.  In last week’s Sedra Beshalach, God’s protection continued to see Moses and Israel through various attacks, deprivations and barriers, in the wilderness.  The Eternal divided the Red Sea for Israel to escape an Egyptian pursuit and for Him to demonstrate His power against Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s chariots.  The Eternal quenched Israel’s thirst with an antidote to bitter water and with water from a rock.  He ameliorated their hunger with the miraculous appearance of quail and manna.  He invested the staff that struck the Nile with power to defeat Amalek.  In this week’s Sedra Yitro, Moses is reunited with his family at “the mountain of God,” and he applies a lesson from his father-in-law.  But the foundational lessons come to Israel from the God that is in the mountain.


Jethro (Yitro), priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, hears of all that God has done for Moses and Israel when the Eternal brought them out of Egypt.  Jethro’s daughter Tsiporah, was Moses’s wife, but she had been sent away.  She has two sons: Gershom, whose name was explained as meaning, “I was a stranger in a foreign land” (18:3), and Eliezer, so named because “the God of my father was my help because He rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh” (18:4).  Now Jethro brings his daughter and grandsons to Moses in the wilderness, where he is encamped, at “the mountain of God” (18:5).

Moses receives word of their coming and goes out to meet his father-in-law.  Moses bows low and kisses him.  They ask after each other’s welfare, and then they go in to the tent.  Moses recounts to his father-in-law all that the Eternal did to Pharaoh and to Egypt on behalf of Israel and how the Eternal has rescued Israel from the hardships of the subsequent journey.  Jethro rejoices and blesses the Eternal for rescuing the people from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh.  “Now I know,” he says, “that the Eternal is greater than all the gods because of the matter in which they acted arrogantly against them.” (18:11)  Jethro also takes a burnt offering and sacrifices for God.  Aaron and all the Elders of Israel come to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before God.


On the next day Moses’s father-in-law observes how Moses sits in judgment for the people all day from morning until evening.  He asks Moses to explain why he is the sole judge.  “The people comes to me to inquire of God,” explains Moses, “and I adjudicate disputes between one party and another and make known the statutes of God and His teachings.” (18:15-16)  “What you are doing is not good!” says his father-in-law. “You will wear yourself out, and the people also who are with you; this is too hard for you to do alone!” (18:17-18)

Jethro advises Moses to appoint lower judges, worthy men who are God-fearing, honest, and averse to unjust gain.  They should be ranked as “magistrates of thousands…of hundreds…of fifties and…of tens.” (18:21)  These will hear all cases and decide minor disputes themselves.  They will bring major cases to you, Moses.  You represent the people before God, and so you will bring those matters to God.  By letting the lower judges share the burden with you, you can also impart to the people the statutes and the teachings, the way that they should go, the practices they should follow, and both you and the people will be able to endure the process and return to your places in peace.

Moses applies the advice of his father-in-law and appoints the various ranks of magistrates that he recommended.  Moses bids his father-in-law farewell, and Jethro returns to his own land.


In the third month of the exodus of the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt, on that day, they come to the wilderness of Sinai.  They had journeyed from Rephidim, and now they encamp in front of the mountain.

Moses goes up to God.  The Eternal calls to him from the mountain and instructs him: “Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and speak to the Children of Israel.” (19:3)  You have seen what I did to Egypt and how “I bore you upon the wings of eagles and brought you to Me.” (19:4)  If you heed My voice and keep My covenant, then I shall hold you “as My own treasure from among all peoples” (19:5) as all the world is Mine.  Be for Me “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation!” (19:6)

In the presence of the Elders of the people, Moses puts before them all of the words which the Eternal imparted to him.  Together, all of the people respond: “All that the Eternal has spoken we shall do!” (19:8)

Moses then repeats the words of the people to the Eternal.  The Eternal tells Moses that He will be manifest in the thickness of a cloud “so that the people can hear when I speak with you and thence trust you always.” (19:9)  Moses recites the words of the people to the Eternal.  The Eternal instructs Moses to go to the people and to sanctify them today and tomorrow and that they must wash their clothes.  They should be prepared on the third day for the Eternal to descend, in the sight of all the people, upon Mount Sinai.  Set bounds for the people around, and caution them against ascending the mountain, or even touching its edge on pain of death.  One who touches the mountain—beast or man—becomes himself untouchable and shall be stoned or shot to death.  At the sounding of the ram’s horn they may go up upon the mountain.

Then Moses comes down from the mountain and sanctifies the people, and they wash their clothes.  Moses instructs them to prepare for the third day and to “not approach a woman.” (19:15)

On the third day, as the morning dawns, amid thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud upon the mountain, and the very loud blast of a shofar, all of the people in the camp are trembling.  Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God, and they take their places at the foot of the mountain.  Smoke is rising from Mount Sinai like the smoke of a kiln, for the Eternal has come down upon it in fire, and the mountain is shaking violently.  The sound of a shofar grows increasingly loud, as Moses speaks and God answers in thunder.  The Eternal descends to the top of the mountain and summons Moses to come up.

The Eternal instructs Moses to descend and adjure the people not to break through to the Eternal in order to see, lest many of them fall.  The priests also, who draw near to the Eternal, should be sanctified to prevent lethal contact.  Moses responds that the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai because You warned us to set bounds around the mountain and to sanctify it.  The Eternal directs him to go down and come up with Aaron, and He warns him that the priests and the people should not break through to go up to the Eternal “lest He break out against them” (19:24).  So Moses goes down to the people and speaks to them.


Then God speaks all of these words:

I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

You shall not have other gods besides Me: make no sculptured image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth; do not worship them or serve them.  For I, the Eternal your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon their descendants for three and for four generations of those who hate Me, but exercising lovingkindness for thousands of generations to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Eternal your God.  For the Eternal will not sustain one who swears falsely by His name.

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy: do your work for six days, and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to the Eternal your God; do no work on the Sabbath, neither you, nor your children, nor your servants, nor your cattle, nor the stranger within your gates.  For in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and on the seventh day He rested.  Therefore the Eternal has blessed the Sabbath day and hallows it.

Honor your father and your mother in order that your days may be many upon the Land which the Eternal your God is giving to you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not testify against your neighbor as a false witness.

You shall not covet anything of your neighbor: neither his wife, nor his servant, nor his animals, nor anything of his house.


As the people witness the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, they move away and ask Moses to speak with them instead of God, and that they would listen to him.  They fear that if God speaks with them, they will die.  Moses tries to reassure them that God does not intend their harm but that He has come to impress upon them awe of Him, in order to prevent them from sinning.  Nonetheless, the people stays far away, and Moses approaches the thick cloud where God is.


The Eternal tells Moses to deliver to the Children of Israel the following message.  You have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven.  Do not create deities for yourselves of silver or gold.  Make for Me an earthen altar for your sacrifices: your burnt offerings, your peace offerings, of your flocks and of your herds.  Wherever I assign My name, I will come to you there and bless you.  If you make for Me a stone altar, do not use cut stones, for by wielding your sword upon it you profane it.  Do not ascend to My altar by steps, so that your nakedness is not exposed to it.


Haftarah for Shabbat Yitro
Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6

Isaiah reports his vision of God the King
and his ensuing commission
as a prophet of God.
It is a long and frustrating tenure
of bringing repentance and healing
to an unredeemed world.

The Haftarah concludes
with a consoling vision
of redemptive kingship.


In the year of the death of King Uzziah:
I see the Lord sitting upon a raised throne,
His robe filling the Temple.
Seraphim hover over Him,
each with six wings:
two covering His face,
two covering His feet,
the remaining two for flying.

One calls to the other and says:
“Holy, holy, holy,
is the Eternal of hosts;
His glory fills all the earth!”
Their words shake the doorposts,
and the Temple is full of smoke.


I think:
Woe is me, I am ruined:
I am a man of impure lips
living among a people of impure lips,
and my eyes have beheld the King,
the Eternal of hosts!

Then one of the seraphim
takes a glowing coal
off of the altar
with tongs
and flies over to me.
He touches my mouth with it
and says:
With this touching your lips,
your iniquity is taken away,
your sin is atoned.

I hear the voice of the Lord:
Whom shall I send?
I answer:
Here I am, send me!


He tells me to go and tell this people:
You may hear, but you do not understand;
you may see, but you do not comprehend.
Unless the people sees and hears
without impediment,
unless it has the will to understand,
it will not repent and be healed.

I ask:
How long will this be?

Until cities have crashed into ruins,
and the Eternal has exiled people.
Yet a tenth shall remain and repent.
When it comes to destruction again,
like the terebinth and the oak,
whose stock survives their felling,
its stock is the holy seed.


In the reign of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, there was an alliance of Aram and Israel against Judah.  Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekach ben Remaliahu, king of Israel, attacked Jerusalem but could not prevail.  This shook the House of David and its people.  So the Eternal dispatched Isaiah to go out, together with his son She’ar-yashuv (“A remnant shall return”), to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the Upper Pool by the road of the fuller’s field, in order to allay his concern that Aram and Israel might breach Judah and set up a usurper, the son of Taval, in its midst.


A son has been born to us,
and government is placed upon his shoulder—
his name is
Peleh Yo’etz El Gibor Avi-Ad Sar-Shalom
(“Wonderful Counselor of Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”)—
to strengthen the authority
and for well-being without end
upon the throne of David
and upon his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
in justice and in righteousness
from now and forevermore!

Zeal of the Eternal of hosts
shall accomplish this.


Exodus Rabbah 27:2

“Jethro…gives heed to
all that God has done for Moses and Israel…”


“The wise inherit the gravity of the divine.”
(Proverbs 3:35)

How did Jethro inherit the gravity of the divine?  “He says to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you…’” (18:6)—Rabbi Joshua explains these words to mean that Jethro is communicating with Moses through a messenger, while Rabbi Eliezer explains these words to mean that Jethro is sending Moses a letter, stating: “’I am coming to you’” (ibid.), that is, do it for my sake, “’and your wife’” (ibid.), if not for my sake, then for the sake of your wife, “’and her two sons with her’” (ibid.), and if not for her sake, then for the sake of your children!

Rabbi Eliezer continues to explain. “Moses goes out to meet his father-in-law…” (18:7)—the Holy One, blessed be He, has told Moses to go out, Moses goes out, and “He says to Moses” (18:6): I am He who spoke whereby the world came into existence, as was said, “God is divine, the Eternal spoke, calling the earth into existence…” (Psalms 50:1).  I am He who brings near and puts far, as was said, “’I am surely God of the near,’ attests the Eternal, ‘and not only God of the far’” (Jeremiah 23: 23), I am He who has drawn Jethro near and not left him far.  This man who has come to Me has come for no reason other than for the sake of Heaven and to become one of Israel; so you, bring him close and do not push him away!  Immediately, “Moses goes out to meet his father-in-law…” (18:7)  The Rabbis taught: Moses went out, Aaron went out, Nadav and Avihu went out, and the Seventy Elders went out; and there are those who say: The Ark came out with them, as implied by the words, “The wise inherit the gravity of the divine!”

Exodus Rabbah 27:7

“Cast your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will find it.”
(Ecclesiastes 11:1)

Are people fools,
that they would release their bread upon the waters?

Rather, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) here is speaking about Jethro, who gave his bread to Moses when his daughters told him about the “Egyptian man” who rescued them from hostile shepherds at the well and watered their flocks.  Jethro asked, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man?”  They sought him out and brought him to their home, and Jethro shared his bread with him. (2:20)

Jethro released his bread “upon the waters,” the waters being Moses, whose name means, “I drew him out of the water” (2:10), and “after many days” he found Moses and bread, as he was honored by Aaron and the Elders, who “come to eat bread” with him before God. (18:12)

Exodus Rabbah 27:9

“Jethro…gives heed…”

In the spirit of

Heed the word of the Eternal,
O House of Jacob…”
(Jeremiah 2:4)

In keeping with

“My son,
if you would be involved
with your fellow
(Proverbs 6:1)

Rabbi Nechemiah taught:  As long as one is a chaver (a regular scholar), he has no concern for the community and he has no responsibility for it, but these verses relate to one who is appointed rosh (leader) and takes upon himself the tallit (mantle of leadership).  He may not say, “I am responsible for my own benefit, and I have no concern for the needs of the community”; rather, he bears upon himself all of the community’s burden.  If the rosh sees someone treat another unjustly or commit any transgression and fail to intervene, then the rosh is culpable for that which he did not correct and the Holy Spirit cries out, “My son, if you would be involved with your fellow…,” you bear responsibility concerning him, “…you have pledged yourself security for another!” (Proverbs loc. cit.)

“You have become entrapped by the words of your mouth…” (ibid. 6:2), wherein “words” refers to the Torah’s instruction, as is shown nearby: “My son, keep My words…and My commandments” (ibid. 7:1) and “My son, incline your ear to My words (ibid. 4:20)!  Make it your will to know what to do, since you have accepted upon yourself the responsibility of a rosh.  “Do this, therefore, my son, and be rescued…” from punishment “…as you have come under the power of your fellow…”; “…go humble yourself…” in the dust of your teachers “…and the royalty (cf. Psalms 87:4) of your colleagues” (ibid. 6:3)!

Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 1

Mount Sinai was in the wilderness.  Why was the Torah given so openly as in the wilderness, in unclaimed territory?  If it had been given in the Land of Israel, they might have said to the other nations: you have no portion in it.  Therefore it was given in the wilderness, in an open, unclaimed place, so that anyone who desires to receive it can come and receive it.

Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 2

When Israel encamps at Sinai, the Eternal describes to Moses how He brought the people from Egypt safely to Mount Sinai: “I bore you upon the wings of eagles and brought you to Me!” (19:4)

How is the eagle different from all other birds?  Other birds carry their children between their feet because they are afraid that another bird will attack them from behind.  But the eagle, who carries his children upon his wings, fears only that a man might shoot an arrow at him, so he thinks it better that the arrow reach him rather than his child.

Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 30

“At the sounding of the ram’s horn they may go up upon the mountain.”

Rabbi Chananiah ben Dosa teaches:  No part of the ram that was created at dusk of the Sabbath of Creation went to waste…its left horn was blown on Mount Sinai…and its right horn, which was larger than its left horn, will be blown in the time to come, as was said by the prophet: “On that day a great shofar shall be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and the outcasts in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Eternal at the holy mountain of Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:13)

Exodus Rabbah 28:3

Moses dutifully relays to the people the instructions that the Eternal provides for being ready for revelation on the third day.  These include setting bounds around the mountain to prevent the people from touching it.  (19:10-15) Then Moses goes back up the mountain at God’s command. (19:20) There the Eternal commands Moses to go down and warn the people not to break through. (19:21) But Moses reminds the Eternal that the people cannot break through because of the previous warning of setting bounds around the mountain. (19:23) Finally, the Eternal commands Moses to go down and come back with Aaron. (19:24) Moses goes down to the people and speaks to them. (19:25) Then God delivers the Ten Commandments. (20:1)

What is going on here between God and Moses?

When Moses comes back up the mountain at God’s command (19:20), God wants to speak the Ten Commandments directly to the people.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, thought, “How can I do this when Moses is on the mountain?  If I open the heavens and say, ‘I am the Eternal your God’ (cf. 20:2), Israel will wonder, ‘Who spoke? The Holy One, blessed be He, or Moses?’ So let Moses descend with the command to bring up Aaron, and while he is engaged in it, I will declare, ‘I am the Eternal your God!’”  This is what God did: as soon as Moses went down to the people, we have God declaring directly to the people, “I am the Eternal your God…” (20:2).  While Moses is with the people, there is no question that God is speaking!

Exodus Rabbah 28:6

“Then God speaks all of these words…” (20:1):
not just “these words,” but the entirety of these words!

Said Rabbi Isaac: What the Prophets eventually would prophesy in each and every generation they received from Mount Sinai.  Thus Moses says to Israel years later, when he reassures them, that the covenant is made “with one who is here with us standing today before the Lord our God and with one who is not here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:14): Only the words “with us today” are written in the second part in order to indicate the persons who are yet to be created, who lack actuality and therefore “standing” is not said of them.  For although they did not exist at that time, each and every one received his own.

This is exemplified in, “A pronouncement, the word of the Lord to Israel in the hand of Malachi” (Malachi 1:1).  It does not say, “In the days of Malachi,” but “In the hand of Malachi”, for the prophecy was already in his hand from Mount Sinai, but until that moment he was not permitted to prophesy.

Similarly, Isaiah said, “From the time of its existing I was there” (Isaiah 48:16): The prophet is saying that from the time the Torah was given at Sinai, I was there and received this prophecy, “but,” he continues, “now the Lord God has sent me together with His spirit”: Until now he did not have permission to prophesy.

Not only did all the Prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also the Sages who arose in each and every generation, each and every one of them received his from Sinai.

Exodus Rabbah 29:3

Said Rabbi Toviah son of Rabbi Isaac:  “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt…” (20:1) means that I brought you out of the land of Egypt on the condition that you should accept My divinity over you! (Otherwise, the pronoun your would be unnecessarily limiting, since the Eternal is God of all!)

Mirkin Commentary:  This explanation of the opening words of the Ten Commandments addresses the problem of why they would seem to limit God’s divinity to be over Israel alone instead of acknowledging His divinity over the entire world.  The midrashic solution is found in the juxtaposition of “who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” to “I am the Eternal your God”: You are obligated to accept My divinity over you “because I [more literal than “who”] brought you out from the land of Egypt…,” while the other peoples are not so obligated!

Another Interpretation: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” may be likened to the relationship between a princess who was captured by outlaws and the king who liberated her.  After the rescue the king wanted to arrange for her to become the wife of an eligible man.  “What would you give me for this?” she asked the king.  He said to her: “Is it not enough that I redeemed you from the hand of outlaws?!”

Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh 5

“I am the Eternal your God…” (20:1)

The Ten Commandments imply
that the Eternal will reign over us,
leading to the question:
Why were the Ten Commandments not said at the beginning of the Torah?

This may be likened to one who first enters a realm
and says to its inhabitants,
“I shall rule over you!”

They ask him,
“What benefit have you provided us
that you should rule over us?”

So he built a wall for them,
brought in water,
and defended them in war,
after which he said again,
“I shall rule over you!”

This time they responded:
“Yes, indeed!”

So the Eternal
brought Israel out of Egypt,
divided the sea for them,
brought down manna,
prepared the quail,
and assured their victory
against Amalek.
Only then could He say,
“I shall rule over you,”
and they would answer,
“Yes indeed!”

Exodus Rabbah 29:5

Another Interpretation of
“I am the Eternal your God” (20:1):

Said Rabbi Abbahu:  This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood.  He rules, but he may have a father or a brother.  In contrast the Holy One, blessed be He, is saying here: I am different!

“Thus says the Eternal…”
“I am first”—I do not have a father.
“I am last”—I do not have a brother,
“and besides Me there is no God”—I do not have a son!
(Isaiah 44:6)

Midrash on Psalms 8:3-4

 “From the mouths of infants and sucklings,
You have founded strength…” (Psalms 8:3)

“My son, if you have stood surety for your fellow…
you have been trapped by the words of your mouth…” (Proverbs 6:1)

These verses speak about Israel at the time of the Ten Commandments.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to give the Torah to Israel, He said to them, “Provide Me guarantors that you will uphold the Torah.”  They said to Him, “Let our ancestors be our guarantors.”  He said to them, “By your life, they are already indebted to Me; instead give me guarantors who are not indebted to Me.”

This may be likened to one who needed to borrow.  They told him, “Bring a guarantor and borrow however much you need.”  He went and brought one who was already indebted to the lender.  The lender said to him, “You brought one who is indebted to me; would that he could stand on his own!  Go and bring someone who is not indebted to me, then take what you seek.”

They asked Him, “Then who are those who are not indebted to You?”  He answered them, “The children,” whereupon they brought the children who were still in their mothers’ wombs and from their mothers’ breasts, and their mothers’ bellies became like glass so that the children could see the Holy One, blessed be He, from inside their mothers’ bellies and speak with Him.  Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, “You are standing surety for your parents, such that I give them the Torah so that they will uphold it, but if they do not uphold it, you will be seized on their account.”  The children answered, “Yes.”

He said to them, “I the Eternal am your God…” (Exodus 20:2).  They answered, “Yes.”  He said to them, “You shall have no other gods…” (Exodus 20:3).  They answered, “Yes.”  And for each and every commandment they answered, “Yes,” for the positive commandments and, “No,” for the negative commandments.

He said to the children, “By your word do I give the Torah,” as was said, “From the mouths of infants and sucklings, You have founded strength” (Psalms 8:3), “strength” meaning Torah, as was said, “The Eternal gives strength to His people…” (Psalms 29:11).

Exodus Rabbah 29:9

What is the meaning of:
“The lion has roared: who will not fear;
the Lord God has spoken: who will not prophesy?”
(Amos 3:8)

Said Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah, no fowl cried out, no bird took flight, no ox lowed, the ophanim did not fly, and the seraphim did not declare, “Holy! Holy!”  The sea did not rage, and God’s creatures did not speak.  The world was quiet and silent, and a voice came forth: “I am the Eternal your God!”

And upon review it was said:
“These words were spoken by the Eternal to all of your congregation
in the mountain from the midst of fire, cloud and thick darkness,
a great voice,
and it did not continue…
(Deuteronomy 5:19)

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained:  If one calls out to another, there is an echo after his voice.  But the voice that came out of the Holy One, blessed be He, had no echo.  This can be inferred from what happened at Mount Carmel, when Elijah assembled the idolatrous priests and told them to “call out in a loud voice, for he (Baal) is a god” (I Kings 18:7).  The Holy One, blessed be He, quieted all the world and silenced those above and those below.  All the world was turned back to its inchoate beginnings, as if the world had not experienced Creation, as was said, “There was no sound, no answer, no attention” (Ibid. 18:29), for if there had been, they would have said, “Baal has answered us!”  How much the moreso, then, when the Holy One, blessed be He, speaks upon Mount Sinai, He silences all of the world in order that His creatures might know that there is none but Him, saying, “I am the Eternal your God!” (Exodus 20:1)


Copyright © 2020 Eric H. Hoffman

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