Exodus 18:1 - 20:23   Lesson Notes 17
Torah Portion  Yitro


We're going to spend a significant amount of time this week on that text that is familiar to us as  the Ten Commandments. But, before we do, we're going to take a good look at this fascinating fellow, Yitro (Jethro), for whom this portion is named. Think about that for a moment: the portion on the 10 commandments is given the name of a priest of the Midianites. We'll talk in a moment about that. 

 I. A. First, let's read a little about Yitro (Jethro) in Exodus 18:1, 6-12. 

 What have we learned about Yitro, and what is its significance?

 (In contrast to Amelek, we see here a major figure of another clan who "rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord showed Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians." "Blessed be Adonai," he says. "Now I know Adonai is greater than all gods."

Wasn't this a primary goal of the Redemption?! To have God's sovereignty seen and accepted by all, including leaders of other peoples. True, Yitro is Moses' father-in-law. But doesn't he stand for more?

I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but don't we begin to think as we ponder the point I made at the beginning that one reason for this portion's title is the great hope we learned in the prophets, that on one day, all will come to God's mountain? The account of Jethro is intended, in part, to show the promise of that hope right here at the outset of the portion. 

So, the 10 commandments we'll explore in a moment may very well be part of what is hoped to be a more universal revelation, one that in many ways is intended for the broader world, and not just this people.)

B. Next read a rather long but incredibly telling and meaningful account of advice Yitro gives to Moses. Exodus 18:13-24. 

What is significant in this tale?

(First, it's very wise advice that Moses follows, to his benefit and to the benefit of the people. Note Yitro's insistence that judges be "capable men who fear God." Note that the adjective in Hebrew is chayil. I said "capable." Who has a different translation?

Here's a fun fact: when we studied Proverbs, we studied toward the end about the wonderful woman of valor. Remember? The Hebrew word for "of valor" was chayil! This is a remarkable and complex trait. Strong, perhaps as in an army. Valiant. Capable. Wise.  Virtuous. Excellent. Tough criteria for a very important job. Do we rigorously apply these criteria today in the appointment of judges?

Second, it represents principles of judicial organization that we follow to this day. 

But, maybe most interesting, these rules, first laid out by a Midianite Priest, are subsumed into the broader mitzvot that God lays out for the people! In other words, here's yet another tie of Yitro to the commanded way of the people, as represented by 10 of those commandments we'll discuss in a moment. In other words, the universal reach of God's revelation is illustrated here as well, in the reality of Yitro's advice being consistent with, if not predictive of, mitzvot themselves.) 

 II. The Covenant at Sinai

 A. Read Exodus 19:1:8. 

These are obviously among the most significant words in the Hebrew Bible. Let's spend some time with them. First, it manifests the understanding we've discussed before - that God freed this people to be His people. But there's more, indeed more than in any statement of the covenant before. 

1. A small point that's really a large point. See the words in verse that "Israel encamped there in front of the mountain. The Hebrew verb is vayichayn. This is a singular verb. All other verbs for Israel beforehand have been plural. What is the significance of that?

(The people is unified enough now to receive the revelation as one. Etc.)

2. We've talked about covenant before, with God and the patriarchs. We've talked about the idea that God needs man, and, obviously, that man needs God. We've talked about following God, living in certain ways that God favors (kindness, righteousness, justice), and God's rewarding us with land and with blessings. But what do you see here that adds richly to our understanding of covenant from our earlier discussions?

(It's that, "if you obey me faithfully..., you shall be My treasured possession...But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Wow! That's new. Meaning? 

We're now to have instruction by which we're to obey. And, in some way, we're to be committed to them in a holy way, separate maybe, if need be, BUT also then to be priests in service of God and the Divine instruction, and, through its perpetuation in the world, in service to others, because indeed "all the earth is Mine."

Further, though Moses is there somewhat in an intermediary role, this covenant is between God and the people. So, the people are all answerable. 

Though there have been lapses, of course, this compact has been seen as binding, enduring, and life sustaining ever since. The people were, and are, witnesses to a history with God's intervention, beneficiaries of Divine grace, and now now followers of God's demands and expectations. For Jews certainly, this Great Moment is as real today as it was then. We live as if we are still standing at Sinai.)

3. Why Sinai? What does it mean that this remarkable revelation came from a mountain outside the land and at a place we really can't for sure specify today?

(This isn't owned by us. The physical space is not to be venerated. It was public. It was not in a preferred place so that those who own it feel entitled. In the desert in a place belonging to no one.)

B. The Decalogue - now we come to the 10 Commandments, really words or utterances, not literally mitzvot. I don't want to stop on that issue or the one of "is it really 10?" There are indeed 13 mitzvot in 13 (or more) sentences. And there are numerous ways of seeing which is the first and which the second and so forth. All of that's not for now. 

Plus, let me set some practical limitations here. Talking about this text for 30 minutes and thinking we're doing it justice would be foolish. We all have studied this text. We all have some foundation in it. So, we know how truly monumental it is. 

Let’s set the modest goal that we'll get to some fresh insights and enhance our understanding a little, knowing that we're just beginning with it to explore the fuller discussion of God's expectations that follow.  

We must begin with the uniqueness and power of these words. It's not that other cultures and peoples didn't have rules about murder and theft and so forth. But these are more than rules. They're fundamental notions of the requirements of our relationship with God and our fellow human beings, behavior that God expects of us, and behavior that is wrong and must be avoided. 

Fundamentally, it's that our God, the God that freed the people of Egypt to be their God, cares about us, and has expectations of how we are to be with Him and each other. Absolutely revolutionary!

The first group of utterances are oriented to God. The second group are oriented to our fellows. 

1. Note the verbs are second person singular, that is, these directions are to apply to each person. Let's read 20:1-4. 

a) Why do you think these come first, and what do these words mean? Why is this crucial? (Keep in mind that the Hebrew for "beside Me" means "upon My face.")

(So, it's as if to say the start of all this is grounded in the understanding covenantally that God is eternal, that there is to be no god alongside, infringing near or on the Divine Face, or having us act face to face with a created thing, as if it were God. (Recall our emphasis on face-to-face.) There is to be no competitor in position, or as to the authority of Instructor or Partner, and certainly no created object that purports to be a symbol or representative of God. 

This says that this relationship, its duties, and our living true to our acceptance of God's expectations - these are the central features of our lives, uncontested by devotion or attention or commitment to any other "god" or creation.)

b) Some say the words, "I am HASHEM your God" is its own "commandment." What's the power of this utterance?

(It's to the people as a whole. And it comes in a moment of stillness. It cuts through all distractions, all our thoughts about the way the world works. It forces us to God, that God is the Master of all. All is the work of His hand. He plants here the Divine presence and indeed its unity in our senses and our souls. In this moment, and in our reliving it, time after time, these words thunder through the world.)

Summary: These two commandments, thus, establish the foundation for the rest. Note in this Book of Names the care we must take in the use of God's Name spelled out in the 3rd.)

2. Read 8-11. Why the emphasis on the sabbath day?

(Recalls creation. Places us as co-creators with God, as well as separating this day. The ritual keeps us from becoming machines or devoted to machines. 

We break from time of work/creation as God broke from it, and in doing so, we ponder and reflect and separate to put ourselves in the way of holiness to think of, and strengthen ourselves to,  our covenant duties and re-dedicate ourselves to the requirements of the covenant, leading to serve in the direction of holiness. 

The applicability to all within our gates suggests a universal hope and application, which is where all this drives after Egypt.)

3. 12. What does the verse about honoring  father and mother mean?

Note it has a purpose: so that your days on the earth be long! What does that mean?

(Our relationship from our ancestors and these early moments of commitment to God go through our parents and then us to the future. It's a chain. It may be that our own lives are full and long if we honor our parents. Or it may mean that our lives in this chain are long if we honor the link in it that's nearest to us. 

Are we more or less likely to be dutibound to this way of life if we honor our parents. And, by the way, does it say honor or love? What difference might that make?)

4. Look at 13. Read it. What do all your translations say? The Hebrew word is ritsach. This means murder, not kill. There's a big difference. What is it?

5. Read 14-17. Is there a theme in all of these? Ideas?

(Create respect and honesty among people, and in community.  Limits on one's behavior, especially when our "extension" reaches across a line that unfairly hurts another. Respect for others and our duties to them, especially those that are weak or at a disadvantage.  Curb on appetites and power, to discipline oneself from slipping into evil. Self-control. Etc.)

6. Read 24. Note a more explicit mention of a concept we've experienced a bit before but will see a lot more later - that of sacrifice. Now is not the time to answer these questions. But I want you to begin to ponder whether there's something underneath ancient practices we moderns would never follow. What was essential to the ancients in these practices? And could they possibly have meaning for us moderns? I can't wait to get into that one!


These "10" are really a sort of foundation to, or maybe, a framework for, the mitzvot. We get a good idea of where we're headed with them: loyalty to our God, a sense of life led in service to God, a rounded notion of ethical life with our fellows. This is a sort of a profound introduction to what's to come, really a constitutional basis for understanding and discussing God's expectations.  Much of what we will learn through our further study has a grounding in the "10." 

Let me close with a lovely reflection from the mystical book of the Zohar. It looks to Psalm 93 for a description of what happened on that day when God revealed Torah to the people at Sinai: "The Lord is King, he hath put on glorious apparel; he hath put on his apparel, and girded himself with strength." "Strength," according to the Zohar, "signifies the Torah." How does this mysterious book get to that? "The Lord giveth strength to his people; he blesseth his people with peace (this, from Psalm 19). Blessed be the Lord for ever. Amen and Amen."

God's revelation to us of His expectations of us gives us strength, gives us peace? Ah, it's to the study of that lovely notion that we turn in earnest next week. Come back!

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Torah Portion Yitro     Exodus 18:1 - 20:23 

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