Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
The story of the liberation of the Israelites continues this week in Parshat Yitro. Named for Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, the saga of freedom opens with a tutorial for the great leader Moses by Jethro. Jethro is a Midianite high priest. He heard of the great exodus led by Moses. And he goes out into the wilderness to meet Moses and to bring Moses’ wife Zipporah and his two sons to him.
In Moses’ retelling of the story to Jethro, it becomes clear that Jethro recognizes the power of God. He offers a beautiful blessing and praise of Adonai. “Blessed by YHVH who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians,” (Ex. 18:10). Jethro seemingly has a moment of conversion. He recognizes the power of YHVH as the Supreme Entity. Surprisingly he offers a sacrifice to God. Jethro isn’t afraid of crossing over. The elders of Israel along with Aaron and Moses partake in this sacred meal of thanksgiving, communing with the Divine.
Jethro models for Aaron (who will be the High Priest) and Moses and the leadership a way to organize their thanks. Moses wrote a victory poem. Miriam sang and danced their joy at the crossing of the Red Sea and their deliverance. But Jethro prays and offers God sacrifices. This will become the Israelite way of worship and service to YHVH.
Jethro sets about teaching them the way to also organize their justice system. He recognizes that his son in law Moses’ can’t be the only one to settle disputes and squabbles. This is what Moses’ has been doing and it is draining him. Jethro realizes that Moses can’t do this alone. It is Jethro that suggests a system of delegation so that Moses wouldn’t be overwhelmed as he herded the people through their journey. Jethro taught Moses to empower others to share in the leadership of this people.
Jethro has prepared the Israelite leadership for what may lie ahead. And what lies ahead is the Revelation at Sinai. It takes preparation to receive the Ten Commandments. It takes internal preparation, spiritual preparation, and external preparation of both individuals and the people and its leadership. Jethro has begun to prepare the leadership and has helped Moses with the external organization of the people. He has helped prepare the leadership spiritually.
The next chapter, Exodus 19, God will give parameters for the people of Israel for spiritual preparation and the people’s own internal preparations by having them engage in acts of purification at Mt. Sinai. For three days they may not go near the Mountain, they must wash their clothes, refrain from sexual intimacy and not eat meat. These disciplines are meant to open them up as individuals and as a group so that they can more clearly hear the words of the revelation and decide if they want to accept or reject the offer by God. The Torah makes it clear that the people had to opt in. “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the words that God commanded him” (Ex. 19:7). They had to prepare themselves to hear the words of the covenant. And when they do they are ready to accept them.
This teaches us a great lesson. We too need spiritual and physical preparation to hear life changing words. We often don’t take time to pray, to purify ourselves to receive God’s blessings and hear God’s call to us. Sometimes we need a mentor like Jethro, who even though an outsider, can help us see the beauty and strength of our God.
So even as we receive the Ten Commandments again this week. Take some time to pray. Take some time to listen to God’s voice within you. Take some time to spiritually prepare yourselves, so that you like your ancestors will answer: “All that Adonai has spoken, we will do!” (Ex. 19:8).