The concept of אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה (Torah narratives are not necessarily in chronological order) is nowhere more glaringly apparent than in Parshat Yitro. In this parsha the two main narrative elements appear in reverse order. The parsha opens with Yitro arriving and criticizing the manner in which Moshe is handling the legal caseload. This is followed by מתן תורה the receiving of the law on Sinai. Clearly מתן תורה had to precede the adjudication process, as it was on Sinai that Moshe first received the law by which to adjudicate in the first place.
Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro has apparently been acting in loco parentis to Moshe’s children who, along with his daughter Zipporah– Moshe’s wife – have been all but abandoned by their father and spouse. After sending them back to Midian, Moshe seems to have forgotten about them entirely. Not a postcard, not a phone call, not an email, not even a message via Pony Express.
Indeed Yitro first “hears about all the G-d has done for Moshe and Israel his people…” וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן, חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ (Exodus 18:1).It is unclear whether “his people” refers to G-d’s people or to Moses’ people. But the news that reaches Yitro is somewhat stale at this point, as the Exodus is by now history, and much has transpired since then.
Indeed, so estranged has Moshe become from his family that, upon arriving at Moshe’s tent with Zipporah and grandsons, Yitro, in what can only be understood as laced with sarcasm says; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֲנִי חֹתֶנְךָ יִתְרוֹ, בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וְאִשְׁתְּךָ–וּשְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ, עִמָּהּ “I am your father-in-law Yitro come to you, and your wife and her two sons with her” (18:6)
The subsequent verse seems out of place here both in time and tenor. וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה לִקְרַאת חֹתְנוֹ, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ-לְרֵעֵהוּ, לְשָׁלוֹם; וַיָּבֹאוּ, הָאֹהֱלָה “And Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked concerning each other’s welfare; and they came into the tent.” (18:7)
Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of softening the rebuke, or an attempt to spin the story so that Moshe does not appear in such an unfavorable light. More likely it was the correct etiquette regardless of what Moshe may have felt inside. It is highly unlikely that Moshe enjoyed being put on the spot without warning. And this seems borne out by the fact that, at the first opportunity Moshe sends Yitro packing (Exodus 18:24)
Nevertheless Yitro is hardly ready to include his daughter and grandsons among the nation that has been redeemed by G-d; וַיֹּאמֶר, יִתְרוֹ, בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעֹה: אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶת-הָעָם, מִתַּחַת יַד-מִצְרָיִם “And Yitro said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.” (18:10) Neither “You” nor “the People” would appear to include Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer. And why should it? Moshe himself didn’t seem to feel it necessary to include them either.
Yitro’s suggestion for a judicial hierarchy
In one of the remarkable sub-stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, we have Yitro now virtually dictating to Moshe how he should structure a functional judicial system. Until now this work has been limited to Moshe himself – a rather daunting task for one man among 600,000 argumentative, stiff-necked, whining and litigious people.
לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה “The thing you are doing is not good” (18:17) Yitro tells Moshe before outlining a method of delegating responsibility; וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת–שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת “…you should provide out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, who detest unfair profit; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (18:21).
It is astonishing, to say the least, that Moshe hadn’t thought of this himself. Assuming even that G-d had not instructed him how to structure a judicial system, and even if it had not occurred to Moshe to inquire of G-d how to manage such an insurmountable challenge, surely Moshe knew the Seven Noahide Laws, one of which is to establish courts of justice and a judicial system. Yet, to Moshe’s ears this all seems to be new, and originates with Yitro.
Indeed Moshe listens to Yitro: וישמע משה לקול חתנו ויעש כל אשר אמר לו “And Moses listened to his father in law’s voice and he did everything he said” (18:24)
Yet no sooner had Moshe done so and he unceremoniously sends Yitro on his way: וישלח משה את חתנו וילך לו אל ארצו “And Moshe dispatched his father in law and he went to his land” (18:27)
This happens all the time: A political or business leader is given a great idea by a more junior executive. Immediately after implementing this fine innovation, the leader fires the underling. Moshe was human after all, and most likely he was still smarting from the embarrassment of Yitro’s chastising manner.
An echo from Breishit
And yet there is something more in verse 27, an echo from Bereishit when G-d tells Avraham לך לך מארצך which is eerily paralleled here when it says וילך לו לארצו for indeed the מארצך of Avraham is the same country (Midian) as the אל ארצו of Yitro. And the curious and unnecessary addition of Leha -לך and Lo– לו cannot be mere coincidence.
Perhaps what the Torah is trying to say is that each nation has its own land. Yes, for the progeny of Avraham it is the Land of Israel. But this does not make the Land of Midian, for example, any less important for the progeny of Yitro. Indeed there is something exemplary and important about loyalty to one’s own people and place. And it is only in their national habitat that a people can flourish and make its unique contribution to the world as a whole.
About the Tenth Commandment.
It is worth noting that the Commandments 6,7,8 and 9 are very perfunctory. ‘Do not murder’. ‘Do not commit adultery’. ‘Do not steal’. ‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbor’. Yet suddenly when it comes to lust, G-d becomes rather verbose and quite specific: “Do not lust for your neighbor’s house. Do not lust for your neighbor’s woman. Do not lust for your neighbor’s slave. Do not lust for your neighbor’s ox. Do not lust for your neighbor’s ass. And for all that belongs to your neighbor.”
One might think that a simple “Do not lust” would suffice. Or perhaps Do not lust for your neighbor’s ass, and we would understand a fortiori that we may not lust after his ox, or slave, or wife.
The need to drive the message home six different ways is significant because it recognizes the power of jealousy that inhabits the human being. One might think that only the have-nots are, understandably, jealous of the haves. For the rich to be jealous at all, let alone of someone with less seems counterintuitive. And yet, in real life, one often sees that jealousy and greed are far more prevalent among those who have far more than they need than among those who have far less. And often this jealousy is not only of those who have even more, but surprisingly for those who have much less.
The pursuit of money and property and expensive toys and baubles is less about one’s natural desire, or personal preference, or taste and more often a function of what someone else has, what someone else received, what someone else drives, what someone else owns. The Tenth Commandment is obsessed with this aspect of the human condition not because of the harm it might do to another person (as is the case in Commandments 6-9) but rather because of the damage it does to oneself. Envy is poison, and its victim is first and foremost the one whom we see in the mirror.