And finally we arrive. This week’s parsha contains the monumental event that is the Jewish nation receiving the Torah; an event which, according to Rashi, the whole world was created for, and the whole of creation depended upon (Rashi, Bereishit, 1:31). The Jewish nation stood at Har Sinai, heard the voice of G-d and accepted his commandments. And yet the parsha begins with a seemingly insignificant story about Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to join Bnei Yisrael and giving Moshe some advice about the court system. Did this story of Yitro really have to be related here? Why is this a fitting introduction to Matan Torah?
Further, according to Rashi, Yitro came to join Bnei Yisrael only after they had received the Torah, in the second year of the Jewish people being in the desert (Rashi, Shemot, 18:13). Yitro observes the people flooding to Moshe with all their questions, and Moshe judging between them. How could Moshe judge and “make known the laws of G-d and His teachings” (Shemot, 18:16) before the Torah had been given? Therefore, Rashi maintains that he only arrived after the Torah was given. And this strengthens the question. According to this opinion, the Torah specifically went out of its way to take the story of Yitro out of its chronological place and put it before Matan Torah. Why? What is it teaching us?
When Yitro comes to Bnei Yisrael, he does not come alone. The pasuk tells us that he brought “Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he (Moshe) had sent her (home) and her two sons” (Shemot, 18:2-3). The last time we saw Tzipporah was when she was travelling with Moshe to Egypt, after G-d had commanded him to go and redeem the people. The pesukim, very briefly and cryptically, relate how Moshe was almost killed on this journey. This was only averted by Tzipporah performing brit milah on their son (Shemot, 4:24-25). Tzipporah saves Moshe’s life.
The pesukim after this incident do not tell us that Tzipporah was sent home, as the pasuk in this week’s sedra suggests. Rashi, quoting the Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (18:2) fills in this gap. Aharon left Mitzrayim in order to meet Moshe. Moshe introduced his brother to his wife and children. Aharon asked “aren’t the Jews who are already in Egypt suffering enough, that you come to add to their number?” In response to this, Moshe sent Tzipporah back to Yitro’s house (Rashi, Shemot, 18:2). Moshe took Aharon’s advice.
In this week’s parsha, after realising how busy Moshe was, and how tiring it was for him to answer all Bnei Yisrael’s questions, Yitro says “this which you are doing, it is not good! You will definitely wear yourself out, you and this people with you, because this task is too heavy for you” (Shemot, 18:17-18). Yitro suggests a tiered court system, in which there are different levels of judges and Moshe only deals with the most difficult questions. Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice and other judges are appointed to help Moshe. When Yitro says “you will definitely wear yourself out”, he uses the root “naval”, which is also the root of the word meaning “carcass”. Yitro is perhaps suggesting that Moshe would eventually die of overworking if he continued in this manner. Yitro, like Tzipporah, acts to save Moshe’s life.
Within these pesukim, therefore, a clear theme emerges. We have references to many people – Tzipporah, Aharon, Yitro, the other judges appointed – who help Moshe out. Who save his life, who give him advice, who help him with his work. There has never been anyone like Moshe in the history of the Jewish people (Devarim, 34:10). He was a unique individual, who spoke to Hashem like no one else could (Bamidbar, 12:8). He spends forty days on Har Sinai, not eating and not drinking, learning the entire Torah directly from the mouth of G-d in this parsha. And yet, Moshe sometimes needed help. From his wife, his brother, his father-in-law, other people.
Perhaps this is one message the Torah is trying to teach us by placing the story of Yitro before Matan Torah. To show us that even the greatest of people sometimes need help from others. To show us that regardless of how much Torah one knows, even if one has learnt that Torah from Hashem Himself, everyone needs people around them who can help them out, who can assist and guide and advise. The most righteous people are not those who place themselves above everyone else, unwilling to accept help and guidance. The most righteous people are those who appreciate those around them, who know when they need help, and who listen when that help is offered. And appreciating others, the way you treat others – that is more important than any amount of Torah you can learn.