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The High Priest of Midyan

Parashat Yithro (Ex.18:1–20:23) records the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. It was a seismic meeting between God and His nation that represented a monumental reset for the world. When the Creator spoke, the people “saw the sounds”, experiencing an interface of pure, unified and undiluted perception of the inner workings of the natural world and Israel’s unique place in it. Yet, this Torah portion is named for Yithro, who brought it all down to earth, teaching Moses how a nation functions in the everyday world by empowering a governing body to administer the nation’s laws.


Moses acknowledged that,“wisdom is given to flesh and blood.” This hearkens back to Noach who was commanded to Establish Courts of Justice to insure stability of a post-Flood world. Moses demonstrates that humility is the hallmark of great leaders by accepting Yithro's guidance, which is wholly endorsed by the Creator. This sets a profound precedent for Israel to serve as a model nation and the reason that this Torah portion is named after Yithro. At its core, his advice to delegate the work of the nation’s judicial system is based on the original plan for our world: God and humanity working as co-creators.


Like Avraham, Yitro was “a friend of God’s” who pursued justice and kindness. This wise and pious man was also called Reuel and, in his youth, served as advisor to pharaoh. Reuel defended the Children of Israel against the slander of another young court advisor named Balaam. When the pharaoh sought the advice from his seers, asking what to do about the growing Hebrew population, Balaam instructed the king to destroy them because they posed an internal threat. Reuel stepped forward to speak on the behalf of the Children of Israel, reminding the court what Joseph had done for Egypt. Moreover, the God of the Children of Israel had continually delivered Joseph's ancestors and preserved them from annhilation. The king then asked his other advisor, Job. He deferred to the king telling him that he should do what he believed was the proper course. Thus, the fate of Israel was sealed, when the pharaoh agreed with Balaam that every male child should be thrown into the Nile.


According to Me Am Lo Ez, Yithro/Reuel would eventually depart Egypt and settle in the land of Midyan. He would later meet Moses when he saved Yithro's daughters while they were watering their livestock. One day while Moses was praying, he noticed a rod planted in the ground. Curious to see what it might be, he easily plucked it from the earth. When Yithro heard of this, he knew that Moses was the one who would deliver the Children of Israel from their bondage. This was the very same rod used by Moses when he stood before pharaoh.


But it was for his wonderful counsel to Moses year later at Sinai as well as his total, joyful embrace of the God of Israel that Yitro’s descendants were privileged to sit as scribes with the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.


Reading of Yithro’s departure from the camp of Israel in the Sinai also dispels a major misconception--that Sinai is located in Midyan. The Torah tells us that Yithro departed Sinai and returned “to his own land.”


Yithro is the model for all non-Jews who reject idols and embrace God as the only Reality. That is reason enough to name this Torah portion after Yitro. The Torah portion concludes with instructions on building a mizbeach, an altar of earth for burnt offerings. The Torah prohibits the altar being made of hewn stones. The Rambam writes, in his Guide For the Perplexed that this is to prevent the builders from hewing the stones into specific shapes that might seem as endorsements for idolatry. Other commentaries suggest that is that hewn stones would require iron iron tools, noting that swords are made from iron, and "iron is the destroyer of the world. " This is why the earthen altar is a model for modesty and humility. It teaches that, like the altar, our earthy, material world must be elevated in service to the Creator and humanity.

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