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Parashat Yitro

Parashat Yitro is the seventeenth weekly portion in the Torah and the fifth in the Book of Exodus (18:1-20:22). Though it is the shortest portion in Exodus, it is arguably the most important, containing the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.

In Chapter 18, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) comes to meet him at the Mountain of God. This closes a circle, recalling Exodus 3:1: “Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the Mountain of God.” It is there that Moses sees the burning thornbush (seneh), and the mountain is henceforth renamed Sinai.

Now, a year later, it is Jethro who is shepherding Moses’ flock, as it were: his family. As important as it was for Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer to stay away from Pharaoh’s Egypt, it is equally important for them to be present for the Giving of the Torah. Moses warmly welcomes his father-in-law, and Jethro gives him advice for administering justice to the people. Though he is the greatest of the prophets, Moses is still a man; his being a husband, father and son (-in-law) is an asset, not a liability.

Chapter 19 tells of the preparations for the Revelation at Sinai; since this will be a mass experience, it requires care and caution. On the third day, God’s Presence descends on Sinai, amid smoke, thunder and lighting, with the clarion call of the shofar. Moses is summoned to ascend, while the people remain below.

Chapter 20 contains what are colloquially called the Ten Commandments. However, the term in Hebrew for commandment is mitzva (plural: mitzvot), while davar is the term used in the Torah for each of these ten components, which can mean word, thing, matter or proclamation. Indeed, what we call the Ten Commandments add up to nine paragraphs in the Torah scroll or fourteen mitzvot. In any case, these principles are the foundational elements of Judaism: believing in God, not serving foreign gods, not misusing God’s name, observing the Sabbath, honoring one’s parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not falsely testifying and not coveting.

The portion concludes with some additional mitzvot, as the Israelites establish the precedent: they have seen God, but His Presence is so overpowering, they need Moses to convey His words.


The portion from the Prophets is the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. This revelation of God on His throne is considered the greatest vision of the post-Mosaic era — though it pales in comparison to the Revelation at Sinai.

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