The concept of “ein mukdam umehuar baTorah” (Torah narratives are not necessarily in chronological order) is nowhere more 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 in handling the legal caseload. This is followed by Matan Torah, the receiving of the law on Sinai. Clearly Matan Torah had to precede the adjudication process. After all, 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 — Moshe’s wife — Zipporah have been all but abandoned by their father and husband. 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 Yisrael his people…” (Exodus 18:1).It is unclear whether “his people” refers to G-d’s people or to Moshe’s people. But the news that reaches Yitro is somewhat stale at this point. By now the Exodus is history. Much has transpired since then.
Indeed, so estranged has Moshe become from his family that, upon arriving at Moshe’s tent with Zipporah and his grandsons, Yitro, quite sarcastically says; “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. “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 took pleasure in being put on the spot like that without warning. And this seems borne out by the fact that, at the first opportunity Moshe sends Yitro packing (Exodus 18:24).
It is clear that Yitro is hardly ready to include his daughter and grandsons among the nation that has been redeemed by G-d; “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.
In one of the remarkable sub-stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, we have Yitro virtually dictating to Moshe how he should structure a functional judicial system, which thus far has been limited to Moshe himself — a rather daunting task for one man among 600,000 argumentative, stiff-necked, whining and litigious people.
“The thing you are doing is not good” (18:17) Yitro tells Moshe before outlining a method of delegating responsibility; “…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 Moshe listened to his father in law’s voice and he did everything he said (18:24).
Yet no sooner had he 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)
It happens all the time: A CEO is given a great idea by a more junior executive. Immediately after implementing this fine innovation, the CEO fires the underling. Moshe was human after all, and likely he was still smarting from the embarrassment of Yitro’s chastising manner.
An echo from Genesis
And yet there is something more in verse 27, an echo from Genesis 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 any less important for the progeny of Midian. 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 their unique contribution to the world as a whole.
About the Tenth Commandment
It is worth noting that 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 (kal va-homer) 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. That the rich can be jealous at all, let alone of someone who has less, seems counterintuitive. And yet, in real life, one often sees how jealousy and greed is far more prevalent among those who have too much than among those who have too little. 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 mostly not about one’s natural desires, or personal preference, or taste. More often it is 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.