Parshat Yitro: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained

02/09/2012 10:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012
  • Josh Fleet Former Associate Editor, HuffPost Religion

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Yitro with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Enter Jethro, the high priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses. He's heard all about God's kindness to the Israelites: the redemption from Egypt, the split sea, the war with Amalek, the manna and the water in the desert. He's heard and he's gathered Moses' wife and two kids to come join the chosen nation.

Moses knows this because Jethro sent a message ahead of him. So he gathers a welcoming committee and sets out to greet Jethro. Moses bows and kisses his father-in-law. They exchange pleasantries and enter the tent, where Moses recounts the divine favor bestowed upon Israel.

Jethro rejoices over the miracles. He blesses God, who rescued the Israelites from mighty Egypt, from mighty Pharaoh, from evil tyranny: "God is great! Egypt sought to drown and was drowned in return. God is greater than all other gods. God is the greatest!" He sacrificed various offerings to God and all the elders of Israel come to dine with him. Moses personally serves the meal.

Now, Jethro prods: "Moses, what are you doing? The people stand before you morning to night with their problems and you judge them morning to night. Why do you do this?"

"The people come to me with their problems, so I teach them the way of God."

Now, Jethro offers advice: "This isn't good, son. You'll burn out. You can't do this alone. Of course, God should agree to this, but you should bring the people's problems to God. You should represent them, and you should teach them. But you should also appoint judges. Righteous judges. And you should divide them into courts. Only the major cases will come to you for judgment. Get God's consent and you will not become worn out."

Moses does all of this, and sees his father-in-law, the new convert, off to convert his own family.

Questions and resources:

Why weren't Moses' wife and kids with him in the desert already? Why does Moses recount the recent miracles if Jethro has already heard about them? And why does the brief appearance of Jethro -- a non-Jewish high priest from a foreign nation -- become the namesake for this Torah Portion? Also, can Yitro really be considered a convert after merely blessing God?

The animated Parshat Yitro from G-dcast explains why Jethro receives this honor, while the weekly Torah commentary from AJWS examines why Jethro is both "Same" and "Other." From Jethro, we learn the spiritual energy of the week is one of receiving wisdom from every person. The ancient commentator Rashi suggests that Jethro leaves to convert his family, yet we never hear from Moses' father-in-law again.

Three months after the Exodus, the Israelites arrive in the Sinai desert in a state of repentance. With one heart, the nation encamped below the mountain.

In the morning, Moses ascends the mountain, where God instructs him: "Say this to the women and then tell this to the men: 'You have seen God's miracles. You have received God's protection. Now, listen to God and keep his covenant. Do this, and you will be God's treasure. Do this, and you will be kingdom of priests. A holy nation.' Say this to the people, no more, no less."

Moses returns to the people, relays God's message, and the nation of one heart responds: "We have heard and we will do!"

The next day, Moses ascends the mountain and relays the words of the people to God. And God says to Moses: "Look! I will descend to you deep within a fog. The people will hear me speak to you, and they will believe in you and your prophets forever."

Again Moses returns to the people to relay God's words. But the people wish to hear God's voice for themselves. Moses ascends the mountain again to tell God.

"Very well," says God. "Return to the people and help them prepare. They should wash and purify themselves. In three days, I will descend before their eyes upon Mount Sinai. Set fences around the mountain, with warning signs. Whoever touches the mountain will die. When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, the people may ascend the mountain."

Moses returns to the people and prepares them for God. He instructs man and wife to separate.

The third day. Thunder claps and lightning flashes around the mountain. A thick cloud. The sound of ram's horn. All the people shudder beneath the mountain. God descends in fire. Violent shaking. Shofar blast growing louder. God descends to the mountain's peak. Moses ascends to God. God says, "Warn the people not to come up the mountain. No one should approach the mountain. Not even the firstborn priests. If they approach, I will destroy them."

"But," Moses says, "I don't need to warn them. We've already set up fences. They will not approach."

"Go down and warn them again. Then you should ascend again to the peak. Aaron can ascend, but not as high. And the priests can climb some, but must remain lower still. The people must remain where they are. Or else."

Moses warns the people.

Questions and resources:

Why does God tell Moses to speak to the women first and then the men? Why does Moses have to tell God what the people said -- shouldn't God already know? What does it mean that the people prepared themselves for God? And what is the significance of standing beneath the mountain?

Rashi explains why Moses relayed God's message twice and why Moses repeated what God surely already knew. The preparation was a lesson for future generations about living a holy life. Some suggest God held the mountain over the Israelites, coercing them to accept the new laws.

In one single sound, God speaks the entire Ten Commandments to the people. Then, God specified each individually:

"I am God, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery."

"Yes!" the people say.

You shall not posses an idol of another god. You should not make idols or any image of something from heaven. You shall not bow before idols, for I am God, your God, and I am zealous and punish generations for their hatred. To those who love me and keep my commandments, I will be kind for 2,000 generations."

"No!" the people say.

"You shall not take my name in vain."


"Remember the Sabbath day and sanctify it. Six days you will work for in six days I created the heavens and the earth. On the seventh day, I rested. Therefore, I bless and sanctify the seventh day. You will rest, then, too."


"Honor your father and mother, so that your days will be lengthened in the land of Israel."


"You shall not murder."


"You shall not commit adultery."


"You shall not steal."


"You shall not bear false witness."


"You shall not covet your neighbor's house or anything that belongs to him."


All the people can see the sounds that God speaks. The torches. The sound of the shofar. The smoking mountain. They see this. They tremble and jump back a thousand yards. They cry to Moses: "We will listen to you, but do not let God speak to us or we will die!"

Moses consoles them: "Have no fear. God only wishes to lift you up. Seeing God, you should not sin." But the people remain far off, trembling, while not the darkness, into the cloud, into thickest fog, Moses draws near.

God speaks to him: "Say to the Children of Israel, 'You have seen God's fire. You shall not make graven images of my servants. You shall not make angels of silver, or gods of gold. You shall make for me an earth-bound altar, and near it you should sacrifice offerings from your sheep and cattle. Where I allow my name to be mentioned, I will come bless you. When you build an altar of stones, the stones should not be cut. Do not build steps up to my altar; rather, you should use a ramp so that you will not be exposed."

Questions and resources:

What is the connection between having one God and coveting something that doesn't belong to you? What does it mean that the people "saw the sounds" of the trembling mountain? And why couldn't the stones of God's altar be cut?

Canfei Nesharim addresses the contrast between love of God and material desire. The Jazz Rabbi thinks seeing is better than believing, and Rashi explains the significance of a hewn stone.