At the start of the Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:22), we read about Jethro’s visit to Moses in the desert before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Moved by the news of the remarkable miracles God had performed for the Israelites, including the splitting of the sea and the victory over Amalek, Jethro decided to see his son-in-law. He brought along Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and their two children, aiming to reunite the family.
When Jethro arrived in the desert, he noticed Moses working from morning to night, judging and advising the Israelites. Seeing that this workload was too much for one person, Jethro suggested setting up an organized system of courts. On what grounds was Moses making judgments before the Torah was formally received?
Rabbi Yehuda Amital answers this question by referring to Nachmanides’ comments on the incident at Marah, where the Israelites found only bitter water. There, the scripture states: “There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test” (Exodus 15:25). Nachmanides explains that Moses taught them basic principles of morality, such as respecting each other, listening to the wisdom of elders, and treating strangers with kindness. In essence, Moses was laying down fundamental rules of ethics.
It was these basic ethical principles that Moses used for making judgments. Rabbi Amital suggests that by placing the story of Jethro and a description of the court system before the revelation at Sinai, the Torah emphasizes that ethical behavior and a sense of morality exist even before, and independently of, the formal commandments. It shows that concepts of justice and righteous conduct are not limited to the Torah’s commandments but are part of a universal moral understanding innate to all humans. It also teaches us that behaving with ethics and morality precedes the formal commandments of the Torah. First and foremost, you must make sure that you are a good person and moral person. This idea is reflected in multiple places in the prophets (see for example Isaiah 1).
While the formal commandments given by God are critically important, they’re not the entire picture. Rabbi Amital warns against strictly following commandments at the expense of being a good person. The placement of Jethro’s story reminds us not to let the technical aspects of the laws overshadow the core values of human kindness and moral sense. The structured and ritual parts of our faith are crucial, but they should work in harmony with a continuous effort to develop moral awareness and compassion, ensuring that kindness and morality are not overlooked.
Placing Jethro’s account before the significant event at Sinai teaches us about balancing formal divine laws with moral understanding. It confirms that true morality comes from combining God’s teachings with a sense of what’s right and wrong. And it demonstrates that all of humanity shares a framework of ethics and morality, even those who are not commanded to keep all 613 laws of the Torah.
As we go through life’s spiritual journey, Jethro’s story encourages us to blend the teachings of our faith with our inherent sense of justice and kindness, creating a life that’s both spiritually rich and morally grounded.
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