Shabbat Yitro

Exodus Chapters 18-21 - Father-in-Law

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The most important feature of this week is arguably Judaism’s greatest contribution to the world, the so-called, Ten Commandments. A commandment in Hebrew is a Mitzvah. But these Ten Commandments are called the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Statements or Principles. Principles are much broader and need to be qualified, clarified, and explained. They are great for legal theorists and noble sentiments, but not much use in the courtroom. For example, we all know the fourth statement tells us not to work on Shabat. But it does not tell us what work is. The sixth of the ten, in Hebrew, is Lo Tirtzach. Which is usually translated as “ You shall not kill” and really should translate as murder. The Hebrew word for to kill is Laharog. In courts of law, they will argue about the difference between murder and manslaughter, with intent and without intent, with malice or with cause. And we need to know the difference between killing in self-defense or war. So that principles are fundamentals but cannot stand alone. Some commentators find sixteen commandments within the Ten Principles.

We are used to thinking of Torah as revealing a specifically Jewish way of life with an emphasis on rules and regulations. But we also need to look beneath the surface for some hidden messages. In the narrative, the Torah gives us clues as to the spirit behind the rules and laws. This is where an often-overlooked feature of the Torah has something important to say.

This week’s reading includes God’s revelation to Moses on Sinai. But it is named not after Moses but after his non-Jewish father-in-law, who was a Midianite priest coming from a different background and culture. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and two children. He expresses his delight at Moses’s success and God’s protection. When he goes out on a tour of the camp, he sees how Moses is trying to manage his community. God might give the moral, ethical and ritual laws but management cannot be regulated in the same way. Jethro then gives him advice on how to run his community by delegation. Whereas the Torah can give an ethical way of living, the practical skills of management can come from outside sources too.

Remarkably Jethro is mentioned seven times by name and thirteen times as the father-in-law of Moses, all in the first part of chapter 18. Repeating his name is a way of bestowing respect and honor on Jethro regardless of his background. And mentioning him as Moses’s father-in-law indicates how much Moses respected him and by implication that we ought to respect our in-laws too!

The most important message here is that we should not assume that we are the sole source of knowledge and morality. Even if we are privileged to have Torah as our guide for life. As the rabbis say, “If anyone tells you there is no wisdom amongst other nations, do not believe it.” There are many good and wise people from whom we can learn and respect, no matter what their background. Jethro was a priest of another religion, yet if you like the first outside consultant, who saw what was needed practically for good governance, over and above the letter of the law.

There is a lot to be learned from other sources, particularly on a political level and how to govern. As we see at the moment all systems are flawed. Therefore, we have to look beyond current practices, to see what system works and what does not and have an open mind.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.