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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Exodus/Shmot - Yitro 101
Posted March, 2001
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Starting this week, the commentary will take on a little different form than previously.  As you will see below, everything has been divided into sections.

Parasha:

Yitro

Sefer (Book)

Shmot (Exodus)

Beginning Perek (Chapter):

Yud-Chet (18)

Beginning Pasuk (Verse):

Aleph (1)

Concluding Perek:

Chav (20)

Concluding Pasuk:

Chav-Gimel (23)

Key Points of Parashat Yitro:

  • Yitro (the father-in-law of Moshe [Moses]), for whom the Parashah is named, arrives and provides Moshe with the idea of creating a counsel to help him manage the business of the people.  Thus, the first Sanhedrin is created. 

  • B'nei Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) arrives at Har Sinai (pronounced See-neye) (Mount Sinai). 

  • God gives the Ten Commandments 

This Week's P'sukim - Perek Yud-Tet (19):

1. In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai:

2. They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain:

3. Moses ascended to God, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel:

4. 'You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me:

5. And now, if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world:

6. You shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel.":

(The translations above are taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash)

The Focus for This Week:

  1. Why does God use the House of Jacob and the Children of Israel in the same sentence? 

  2. What is meant by God's descriptions of what Klal Yisrael will be to Him? 

Commentary from the Stone Edition Chumash:

(3) This verse begins a series of communications from God to the people and their responses. These communications concerned whether Israel was willing to receive the Torah -- for it had to be voluntary -- the rules governing their preparation for the Revelation at Sinai, and how they were to conduct themselves while it took place. Each time Moses went up the mountain, as described in this chapter, he ascended early in the morning. His first ascent, recorded in this verse, took place on the second day of Sivan, the day after they arrived at Sinai (Rashi).

Moses ascended. A thick cloud representing God's Presence covered the summit of the mountain, and from it the voice of God spoke to Moses after he had ascended part of its slope (Ramban). Moses went up the mountain before being called because he had been told in his first revelation, at the burning bush, that Israel would serve God at this mountain. Upon arriving there, he showed his readiness to do so. This represented human endeavor, which is the prerequisite to eliciting a Divine initiative (Or HaChaim).

Say ... relate. The word "say" implies a mild form of speech. When Moses spoke to the House of Jacob, which refers to the women (Mechilta), he was to express the commandments in a manner suited to their compassionate, maternal nature. Women set the tone of the home and they are the ones responsible to inculcate love of Torah in their children, a task to which their loving nature is best suited. Because of this role, a mother should pray when she kindles her Sabbath candles that in the merit of the Sabbath flames, her children should merit the illumination of the Torah, which is also likened to flames. The words "and relate" implies firmness or even harshness, for when Moses spoke the Children of Israel, which refers to the men -- he was to teach the commandments in a firm manner. This implication of firmness is derived because the Hebrew alludes to a word meaning a bitter tasting root (R' Bachya). 

(5) The most beloved treasure. Although God is the Master of the entire world, He chose Israel as the object of His special love, and rejected the others (Rashi). Sforno, however, sees the flow of the verse differently. The entire world is God's and all human beings are precious to Him, for they are higher than other forms of life, but even within this category, Israel is the most precious.

(6) A kingdom of ministers ... Although usually translated as priests, the word kohanim in the context of this verse means that the entire nation of Israel is to be dedicated to leading the world toward an understanding and acceptance of God's mission. In the ritual sense, priests, too, can be seen as having this function.

And a holy nation. The "holiness" of the verse refers to separation and elevation. A holy person is apart from others because he tries to remove himself from the temptations and urges that drag human beings down from the estate to which they should aspire. 

Commentary by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch: (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash)

3.  While the people were camping opposite the Mount, Moshe, as their ambassador, went up to God, to express their readiness to carry out what had been destined for them.  But as he was ascending, God called down to him from the summit "ko t'omar v'goy" (thus say to the nation).  This contains the fundamental ideas of what God understands "advodat Elokim" (the work for God) to be.  It is to "beit Yaakov" (the house of Jacob), the family, and especially to the pillars of home life, the women, into whose minds this fundamental idea is to be impressed and explained; to "b'nei Yisrael" (the children of Israel) (where, as here, used in contrast to Beit Yaakov, this refers especially to the men), "tagid" (tell [a command]) you are to make it completely realistic (from "negad" [to oppose, beat or flog]) and put before them so that they never lose sight of it. 

5-6. God is saying that Klal Yisrael has come to this place to enter into His service.  However, it is not a commandment but a request to be accepted or rejected.  Acceptance requires obedience and to continue the bond and relationship that has started.  The fundamental condition of the relationship is that the people become, more than all the other nations, "s'gulah" (exclusively) God's.  In other words, the nation becomes a special possession unto God, its sole owner.  It is as if God is saying, "For this relationship you are to bear toward Me is really nothing exceptional, is nothing but the beginning of the return to the normal condition which the whole world should bear toward Me.  The whole of humanity, every nation in the world really is destined to belong to Me and will be ultimately educated by Me, up to Me. 

And it is just for this ultimate destiny of the whole world that you are to become a "ma'm'lechet kohanim" (kingdom of priests) and a "goy kadosh" (holy nation) unto Me.  Each and every individual of you is to become a kohen (priest), inasmuch as he is to allow all his action to be regulated by Me, to take the obligations faithfully on his shoulders and become a true kohen who by his word and example spreads the knowledge of God and loyalty to Him, as Yeshayahu haNavi (Isaiah the Prophet) expresses it in 61:6, "But ye shall be named the Priests of God, men shall call you the Ministers of our God."  And "goy kadosh," just as individually you are to appear priest-like, so is the impression which Israel as a nation is to make on the world to be one of holiness to God.  You are to be a unique nation amongst the nations, a nation which does not exist for its own fame, its own greatness, its own glory, but the foundation and glorification of the Kingdom of God on Earth, a nation which is not to seek its greatness in power and might but in the absolute rule of the Divine Law - the Torah - for that is what "kedushah" (holiness) is.  As our sages say, "No less, and no more, but 'ay-leh' (these)."

Commentary by Reb Yosef

Before getting onto the commentary, the word ay-leh (aleph-lamed-hay) has multiple meanings.  Hebrew is like that.  One word can mean many different things depending on what words are in proximity to it and how they are in proximity.  Some of the other meanings are:  oath, curse, to put under an oath, God, and (within the same root) to deify or worship.  I find these comparisons to be most interesting considering the that this is where God dictates the relationship that shall exist between Himself and Klal Yisrael. 

Initially, my attention was drawn to this section because of pasuk gimel (verse 3) wherein Moshe is told to say to the house of Yaakov, and to relate to the Children of Israel.  Prior to reading the commentaries, the question arose - what is the difference.  There is another question that I raise which is not answered in these particular commentaries.  Why are the women assigned to the name Yaakov and the men to Yisrael?  Consider the person who was Yaakov prior to his entering into a new, more direct relationship with God when he becomes Yisrael.  During the time that our patriarch was Yaakov, he had wives who bore him children, and together they raised these children and gave them instruction.  In other words, the emphasis during this period was on the home - the nurturing, foundational part of any relationship and family.  Therefore, God designates the title "House of Yaakov" for the women, the nurturers.

I take a different viewpoint than the commentators on who is referred to in "B'nei Yisrael."  I believe this includes the entire people of Israel.  The commandments are for all.  Yet, there was a special emphasis on and for the women because, as already stated, women provide the foundation of the family and of the earliest (meaning most important) development in our young. 

Now we get to the entire point of this section.  These two psukim - hay and vav (5-6) set out one of the most misunderstood and most negatively propagandized points concerning Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It is the concept that Jews are the Chosen People.  Jews are the Chosen People - that is clear.  What few people seem to understand is "chosen for what."  I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people from other religions say, "I really love the Jews because they are God's chosen people."  At the same time, I don't think more than one or two knew the answer to the question I posed, which was, "What does that mean?"  If you don't mind a little kidding, I would not be so sorry if God had chosen someone else.  The term chosen indicates a special relationship - we see that in pasuk vav.  But that entire relationship is based on keeping Torah.  More important, as very clearly stated, we are obligated to live in such a way as to be an example to all the other nations, to be a light to the nations. 

We know, through the Nevi'im and Ketuvim (Prophets and Writings) that the result of our fulfilling this mission will be the inauguration of the messianic era when the world will be at perfect peace, all the Jews will return to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), and the world will accept Hashem as the only God and Master of the Universe. 

I am reminded of something we will read later in the Torah - the commandment of "love others as you love yourself" - Ahavat Yisrael, to love all Jews no matter their similarities or differences.  Many times, I see this as being the most important of commandments because I have seen, historically, how we have fared, as a people, in direct correlation to our practice of this commandment. 

Likewise, this is one of the first things, the other nations use as a measuring stick of our worthiness to be the Chosen of God - how we treat each other.  Perhaps the two go hand in hand.

________

Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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