Friday, February 10, 2012

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ: כִּי יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם לִדְרֹשׁ אֱלֹהִים. כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָיו. - And Moshe said to his father-in-law: 'Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they will have a matter, it comes unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.'
(Exodus 18: 16-17)

In previous Divrei Torah on this Parsha, I have taken a look at why Yitro's story is told before that of the the giving of the Torah. This year I continue with that theme, albeit from a different angle.

In his commentary on this passage, Rashi goes to great lengths to explain how, even though it is possible that this series of events was preserved and written down in their true order, we should not consider this as far more likely than the possibility that its chronology was purposely rearranged. Irrespective of whether or not this episode was told out of sequence, we can be sure of one thing: there is a definite meaning to the fact that Yitro's story is related before that of the giving of the Torah. But what could that meaning be?

One event related is when Yitro rebukes his son-in-law, Moshe, for sitting in judgment before all of Israel. Yitro felt that it was improper for one man to be the sole judge over an entire nation and suggested that he should set up an hierarchical system instead. (Not too dissimilar to the kind of judicial system we are familiar with, might I add.)

I would like to tender that the reason this episode had to come first was so that we understand the nature of the ten commandments. These commandments were split into two categories; commandments that man was to keep between himself and God, and commandments than man keeps with others.

Looking at the verses above, we see that Moshe writes "כי יבא אלי העם - When the people will come to me", with the word יבא in the singular, but a little later the plural להם (to them) is used when it says, "כי-יהיה להם דבר - When they will have a matter". The explanation for this discrepancy sheds light on why this entire episode is placed here in the first place.

In D'rash V'Iyun, it is written that whereas people are often very particular with laws between themselves and God, they can often be less pernickety when dealing with the laws pertaining to inter-personal relationships. If someone has reason to believe that they might have mixed their meaty and milky utensils, for example, some people will be sure to go to their Rabbi and ask what to do. But when it comes to accidentally charging someone too much for something, for example, some people might permit themselves a degree of slack that would be inconceivable to them in the framework of the commandments that are related more directly to God. This was precisely the case in the verses above; the people would come to Moshe so he could settle disputes between them, but only when they had another reason for doing so. Only when the people had what they thought to be a more pressing concern - an issue pertaining to their observance of commandments in the category of Bein Adam l'Makom (Man-God commandments) - would they come before Moshe.

In setting up more courts, we may contend that Yitro encouraged the Jewish people to stop prioritising their relationships with God over their relationships between themselves. To be truly holy, it is necessary to observe both aspects equally. For this reason, I believe, this episode was related before that of the giving of the Torah; its lesson had to be absorbed first.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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