“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Never was there a more profound moment not just in Jewish history but arguably in humankind than the Divine Revelation witnessed by the Jewish Nation as they stood at the foot of Sinai. Cloaked in thunder and lightning, humankind heard first-hand the word of G-d. Yet, the Parsha commences with an unusual preface.
The precursor to that momentous moment seems out of place at best or redundant at worse. The portion announces Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, arriving on the scene and immediately observing Moses sitting morning to night adjudicating disputes.
Jethro instructs Moses to establish a hierarchical judicial system. Perhaps even more baffling is Moses’ response, not a murmur of complaint; instead, he immediately takes the constructive criticism and sets about implementing Jethro’s suggestion immediately.
The commentators disagree as to the correct placement of the portion for some this was immediately prior to the giving of the Torah, with that in mind we may wonder what would be the point of Moses going to great lengths to establish a new judicial system if, in a matter of days, the Torah would be given, and a new order would naturally come into force. On the other hand, for those commentators that are of the persuasion that this portion is out of chronological sync, and in fact, it occurred after the giving of the Torah. If so, Moses would certainly not need suggestions as to how to establish a judicial system since he would have the guidance from the Torah itself.
What was the significance of this portion as an introduction to the giving of the Torah? There are two episodes in the oral tradition that will offer us a fresh perspective.
The Talmud in Bava Metzia 59a is discussing a legal question relating to the susceptibility of ritual impurity of an oven that was cut into parts. On that day, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.”
The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say 400 cubits. Said they to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.” Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it.” The water in the aqueduct began to flow backward. Said they to him: “One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct.” Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…“
Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven! … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G-d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.‘” Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G-d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me; my children have triumphed over Me.‘”
What are we to make of this enigmatic section of our oral tradition? How could the rabbinic leadership not listen to the heavenly voice that clearly indicated the will of G-d original in this area of law? The answer is even more fascinating. The Oral tradition was handed at Sinai to Moses and the Jewish people at that point in time we became entrusted as custodians, responsible for its sanctity but also for the development and application of the Torah principles according to human reason and logic. For this reason, the Rabbis were correct that the Torah is no longer in heavenly realm; it is our Torah and therefore it is in our domain and for us to apply.
The principle of the Torah being our heirloom is manifest not only in determining the law but in the very revealing of new laws and aspects of the Torah that even Moshe was not consciously aware of.
The Torah has two aspects, the Written and the Oral; both were given to Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai. The written Torah has not changed for the last two thousand years, the slightest deviation of a missing letter invalidates the Sefer Torah. The Oral Torah is equally the word of G-d but in this respect, the principles were given to Moses on Sinai but understanding and its interpretation and application is an ongoing process, a living breathing organism.
A further astonishing illustration of this principle arises concerning Rabbi Akiva from the greatest exponent of the oral tradition
Rabbi Yehuda, quoting Rav, said: `When Moses ascended (to receive the Torah), he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters (adding crowns to the Torah’s letters). He asked, “Master of the Universe, for whom are You delaying the Torah’s granting on Mount Sinai (for whom are you adding these crowns)?” God replied: “A person who will appear a few generations from now and who will be called Akiva, son of Joseph. He will explain each and every thorn on these letters and will generate mountains of laws from them.” Moses said: “Master of the universe, please let me see him.” God answered: “Walk backward.” Moses went and sat in the eighth row of benches (in Rabbi Akiva’s academy). He could not understand what the others were saying. His strength dwindled (he felt weak due to his sadness over not understanding anything). When Rabbi Akiva reached an item (a certain item), his students (Rabbi Akiva’s students) asked their teacher: “Rabbi, how did you reach that conclusion?” He answered: “(The source of my statement is that) Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on to succeeding generations.” He (Moses) felt relieved (because he heard Rabbi Akiva citing him). Babylonian Talmud, Menahot Tractate, page 29B
We refer to the Torah as a tree of life for those that grasp it is very much a living breathing organism that constantly evolves and develops on the very same principles that have their roots at Sinai and yet we have the capability to be a part of its development and unbroken transmission.
It was perhaps for this reason that the portion concerning Jethro was required to preface the Torah by way of introduction to the receiving of the Torah. It set the tone and gave perspective. One could be forgiven for believing that the Torah was an inanimate object, a book of law that was frozen in time and eventually would be archaic, a relic of the past confined to the museums and genizahs.
The positioning of Jethro’s portion, highlighting his advice and personal contribution was not necessary; it was essential. From Moses’ perspective, he was well aware long before Jethro came on the scene that it was imperative to establish a legal system. Jethro’s intervention highlighted the unique aspect of our Torah. The fact we can to this very day contribute to its development in some small way, reflects the unique heirloom that has been bequeathed to us all.