This portion tells of a visit from Moses’s father-in-law, the eponymous Jethro, and of the Revelation at Sinai. It marks a turning point in the narrative, as from this point forward, more of the text is spent on expounding the law than telling the story.
Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, hears the news of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and decides it is time to reunite his son-in-law with his family, whom Moses had evidently sent away. Overjoyed, Moses and Jethro spend the evening catching up, with Moses filling his father-in-law in on the details of God’s miraculous intervention. Jethro brings sacrifices of appreciation to God, saying he now understood the God of Israel is greater than all other gods. The men break bread together, along with Aaron and the elders of Israel.
After a night of celebration, Jethro is stunned to find that Moses spends his time all day, every day, judging cases for the people. He points out the inefficiency of the system: “Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.” (18:18) Instead, Jethro suggests, Moses should appoint representatives, wise and honest men, to judge straightforward cases, coming to him only when the matter is beyond them. Moses should spend his time teaching and guiding the people in the ways of God so that they know what is expected of them.
Moses takes his father-in-law’s wise advice, appointing leaders over tens, hundreds and thousands of men. Matters that cannot be decided by a lower judge get passed up the ranks until the truly complicated cases are brought before Moses. When Moses himself doesn’t know the answer, we discover later in the Torah, he turns to God Himself.
When Jethro advises Moses on setting up what is essentially a court system, he tells Moses, “If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.” (18:23) The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who points out the asymmetry in the verse: if the verse were merely telling us the people would go home faster, it should say “their places” (the homes of the individuals), rather than “their place” (implying a common location). The Rabbi explains that the verse is actually hinting that this system of justice will allow the nation to arrive in its place — the Land of Israel — in peace, as the verse in Isaiah states, “Zion shall be redeemed with justice” (1:27).
Points to Ponder
Jethro is identified as “the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law” (18:1), clearly indicating he is considered a gentile. However, he makes a significant contribution to the system of Torah law that continued as long as the Jewish people had their own court system. Based on this story, how does the Torah envision the relationship between the Children of Israel and the other nations? What made Jethro so respected?
Preparing to Receive the Torah
The Israelites travel from Rephidim to the Sinai Desert, where they encamp opposite the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people of all He has done for them thus far. He tells them if they hearken to His commands, they will be most precious to Him: a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The people commit to following in God’s ways.
God then tells Moses that He will speak to him from a cloud on the mountain, so that the people will hear and believe forever in the Revelation at Sinai. He tells Moses to instruct the people to sanctify themselves for two days and wash their clothing, and on the third day He will descend upon the mountain. He also warns the people to stand clear of the mountain itself, because anyone who touches it at this time, until the shofar (ram’s horn) sounds, will die.
The day of the Revelation, there was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud covered the mountain. The sound of the shofar could be heard, getting louder and louder. Hashem descended towards the mountain and called Moses to ascend. He tells Moses to again warn the people against approaching the mountain, then tells him to return with Aaron.
In calling the Children of Israel a kingdom of priests, the Israel Bible points out, God is giving the nation a responsibility to serve as a light unto the world, guiding the nations by example. Although the giving of the Torah at Sinai was an experience shared only by the Israelites, its impact is felt by the entire world.
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the purpose of the elaborate preparations for the giving of the Torah? If the people couldn’t approach the mountain in any case, why did they need to sanctify themselves ahead of time.
God begins His powerful communication with the Children of Israel by outlining ten essential instructions, known colloquially as the Ten Commandments, that, according to Jewish tradition, encompass all the concepts of the 613 Biblical commands.
God commands the people to accept His authority, not to believe in any other godly powers, not to take his name in vain, to keep the Sabbath and honor parents. He also forbids murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and covetousness.
The people are overwhelmed by the sensory experience of the revelation; the text describes the people seeing sounds of thunder and the shofar blasts. The people ask Moses to hear God’s word on their behalf and bring it back to them. Moses reassures them that they will not be struck down; God showed them His glory so that they will not be moved to sin.
Immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments, God again reiterates the command not to create any images; even the things they had seen that day should not be recreated in His service. He then explains that the correct way to serve Him is by building an altar of earth and bringing sacrifices. Wherever sacrifices are brought, He will cause His name to be mentioned, and blessings to be bestowed. As the Israel Bible points out, nowhere is that more true or more powerful than in the Land of Israel.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God singled out these Ten Commandments to highlight at Mt. Sinai? Does this make them more important than the other things He commands elsewhere in the Torah?