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Why the Ten Commandments Didn't Get Top Billing Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The division of the Torah into weekly portions predates the division into chapters and verses by many centuries. Most of the divisions seem pretty obvious and new portions begin new stories. But that isn’t always the case.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, has raised a lot of questions, because, as Emily and Rachel have mentioned, the portion includes not only the Ten Commandments but also the story of Moses’ father in law Jethro and the good advice he offers Moses. Commentators argue that the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is certainly important enough to deserve its own Torah portion, or at least to come at the beginning of a portion, and so give it its name. In addition, some commentators point out, the story of Jethro really belongs with the previous portion.

Last week’s Torah portion Beshallach, ends with an attack on the Israelites by the Amalekites a tribe of desert marauders. The violence done to the stragglers, those most vulnerable of the Israelites, is in violation of the laws of war at that time. It becomes an object lesson in the dangers from the outside world and the Amalekites become the symbol of those who would attack in the Jews in every generation. The portion as it now stands ends with the words, “The Eternal will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”

The well known Jewish commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 11th century, argued that the story of Jethro comes to balance the conclusions drawn from the attack by Amalek. Here the text gives us the model of a non-Israelite, who celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and ends up offering guidance that helps them make their way through the desert wanderings. Not only are non-Jews not presented as enemies in this story, but Jethro becomes the hero after which, this Torah portion, which one could argue is the most important in the whole Bible, is named. Just as we are urged to remember the cruelty of Amalek, we are also instructed to recall the kindness of Jethro, and to protect his descendents in every generation. Further this story reminds us that no one has a monopoly on wisdom or on Torah. God can speak through a gentile priest as well. A later scholar, Moshe David Cassuto, of the late 19th and early 20th century, points out that the many linguistic parallels between the stories point us to the connection between these texts highlighting their opposite conclusions about the outside world.

This connection between Jethro and the previous portion has led past generations to wonder even more. Why then move the story of Jethro to the beginning of this parashah? Why are we forced to hear this story first, when we come to the synagogue to listen to the Ten Commandments?

One very practical theory is that Moses would not have been able to go up Mt Sinai for 40 days to receive the Torah without putting some alternative leadership structure into place. Jethro’s advice that Moses appoint judges to help him in administering justice was a necessary precondition for the giving of the Torah.

A second theory considers the process of Jethro giving advice, more than the content of the advice itself. Some rabbis argue that the connection between the story of Jethro and the giving of the Ten Commandments, is to be found in Moses’ openness to Jethro’s advice. Moses was modeling being open to learning from others, so that the Jewish people would be open to learning from these new laws. The Torah had to be given at a teachable moment, so that the people would be open to learning.

Finally, the midrash provides an entire biography of Jethro. It explains that Jethro was originally an advisor in the court of Pharaoh, who gave up his position, with all the glory associated with it, when his advice to the Pharaoh concerning the Israelites was ignored. He is the model of the religious seeker and righteous convert, who sacrifices a great deal in his search for truth. According to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, an early 20th century Musar teacher, this very important Parsha is named Jethro to teach us that the way to acquire Torah is to follow the ways of Jethro. Search for truth and be critical. Reject falsehood. And when you discover truth, be ready to sacrifice everything for it!

That high standard of religiosity, learned from a non-Israelite priest of Midian, is meant for all of us, as, according to tradition, we all stand at Sinai, in our own lives. We each have our own path of religious discovery and must each be attuned to what God is asking from us in our own generation.

Emily and Rachel, even as you are part of a chain of generations of our people, you are also each individuals, setting out, as you begin your adult lives, on your own quest for the spiritual truths that will guide your lives and enable you, when necessary, to find the strength to move away from what is not in keeping with your values. May you go on from strength to strength.

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