Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Parshat Yitro

Revelation and Distance

This week's parsha discusses ancient Israel's Judiciary system, how Yitro advised Moshe to set up different levels of courts, with Moshe being the Supreme Court. It then follows on to discuss how those very laws were given to Israel, with the revelation of God to Israel at Mount Sinai.

Both these episodes have common themes running through them. One of them includes the need for closeness but the practicality of distance.

The scene is set when Yitro encounters his son law sitting in session: "people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening" (Shemot 18:13).

Yitro finds this procedure inpracticle: "You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (ibid 18). He goes on to suggest a system of lower courts and Moshe readily agrees.

Before we try to understand the process underlying this innovation, we will take a closer look at Matan Torah.

There, God suggested distance: "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever" (ibid 19:9). God does not plan to reveal the Torah directly to the people. He intends to give it to Moshe, who will the deliver it to the people. This is to be done in the sight of all the people so that they understand that Moshe is actually delivering God's words and not his own.

However, the plan seems to change suddenly. God told Moshe that the people should prepare themselves for three days for "on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai" (ibid 10-11).

Rather than receiving the Torah directly through Moshe, the people were now to receive it directly from God. To find out why this plan seemed to change, we must find what happened in between passuk 9 and passuk 10.

All we have is: "Moshe relayed the words of the people to the Lord" (ibid 9). This means that Moshe told the people of God's plan, i.e. that God would speak to Him in front of everybody. The people responded and Moshe told God their response.

Rashi says that the people were not pleased with this plan. They wanted to receive the Torah directly from God. God therefore changed to plan B and gave them explicit instructions as to how to prepare for a close encounter with Him.

As it turns out, the direct revelation was too much for the people: "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die" (ibid 21:16).

Moshe wanted direct contact with the people and the people wanted direct contact with God.

These are wonderful ideals and perhaps that is why Moshe originally judged all Israel on his own; and why God accepted Israel's request.

Nevertheless, the reality was that closeness was too bothersome at best and deadly at worst.

The world is a complicated place. It is important for us all to have high ideals to aim for, but at the same time it is important for us to be rooted in the reality of the real world..

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "The Chosen People" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "Midyan, Amalek and Matan Torah" appears at

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Anonymous SBA said...

Are you from the Veitzener Abelesz family? (I am.)

Here is something I post on the Areivim/Avodah forum some time ago re this parsha - plus some of the later comments:
Date: Sun, 15 Feb 2004 14:36:59 +1100

From: "SBA"

Subject: Yisro's advice

I was thinking about Yisro and his advice "VeAtoh Sechzeh" - to Moshe Rabeinu .

How come MR - or even Aharon or any of the other leaders of Am Yisroel - didn't think of this idea?

And where did Yisro himself, learn this from?

Venireh li [I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already written this],
Klall Yisroel were coming out of 400 years of slavery and misery -
and were in no way and organised communal or religious society.

So, after receiving the Torah and Mitzvos - all they knew was that MR had been spoken to by Hashem and he was the only one who knew all the answers and it was to him that one must bring all their doubts and queries. (And MR himself obviously though the same way.)

Yisro, however, came from Midyon a structured and organised nation with an established religion/church/Avodah Zarah - of which, in fact, he had been the head ["Cohen" Midyon see meforshim] who knew all about delegating authority and
appointing religious functionaries - at various levels and power. [eg, the catholic church with its pope/cardinals/archbishops/bishops
and further down the drain...]

Thus, being experienced in this field - it was indeed Yisro, who could advise MR on how to establish a 'chain of command' and infrastructure for psak
halocho and dinei Torah etc.


Another interesting note.
The Targum Yonoson on Vehizharto es'hem es hachukim vegomer.. [18:20] translates the posuk as Yisro advising MR to inform them of the 'tefilos that they should davven in shul [!]', how to be mevaker cholim, to be kover meisim and be gomel chesed,...and they should do lifnim mishuras
hadin for reshoim...

Shlomo Boruch Abelesz

Subject: Yisro's advice

From: Gershon Dubin <>
>> The Targum Yonoson on Vehizharto es'hem es hachukim vegomer.. [18:20]
>> translates the posukas Yisro advising MR to inform them of the 'tefilos that they should davven in shul [!]', how to be mevaker cholim, to be kover meisim and be gomel chesed,...and they should do lifnim mishuras
hadin for reshoim...<<

Isn't the derasha "es haderech yelechu vah" a Gemara? And, isn't it Yisro only restating what MR was doing anyway, not advice to do something new?
Yes it is from Chazal [one of who was the baal Targum Yonoson].
But if the idea was originally Yisro's or MR thought of it first,
I don't know.

Isn't it possible, that just like MR needed Yisroy's advice on how to
set up the Rabbinate etc, he may have needed advice on Bikur Cholim,
Kevuras meisim.

Finally, Yisro's advice on tefilos in Shuls...
Were there Botei Kenesiyos Litefilo in those times???


From: Harry Maryles
......Moses knew Torah better than anyone else ..... His father in law, Reuel, OTOH was an Oved AZ and even in his greatest moment of revelation ...his concession to God was only that He is the greatest of all gods. IOW he did not concede to God being the only Deity. Only the greatest of
deities clearly retaining his status as an Oved AZ.<<<

SBA: Lav davka.

See how the Targum Unkelos [18:11]translates it: "..Ke'an yodano arei rav Hashem v'leis aloh bar minei..."

And MR himself says [Devorim 10:17]: "..Ki Hashem Elokeichem hu Elokei Ho'elohim..."

And in Tehillim 136 [which we say it every Shabbos]: "Hodu l'Elokei Ho'elohim..Ki le'olom chasdoy..."


5:31 AM  

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