January 22nd, 2022: Parashat Yitro – The Unshakable Kingdom

This week’s parashat is taken from Exodus 18:1—20:23. Listen in as David jumps into the story about Jethro - Moses' father-in-law, and the pivotal impact he made in Moses' life/work balance.

Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:

Exodus 18:1—20:23

So, it is in this week’s Torah portion that the Children of Israel arrive at Mount Sinai for the Giving of the Torah. This is such a pivotal, momentous event that must have been such a spectacular, mind-boggling sight and experience to behold. But before we get to this event, let’s back up a little. At the start of the parashah, the narrative takes a bit of a detour and tells us about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, coming to visit him at the “Mountain of Elohim”. But, at the end of last week’s parashah, we are told that the people were at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8), and it is not until Exodus 20 that we are told: “In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai.” So, what is going on here? I find it quite interesting that Jethro is the first point of focus this week. Why this bit of detour to tell us about Jethro’s visit? Moreover, why does Jethro – a gentile man who was known as a pagan priest in Midian – merit to have his name on this week’s parashah?

We open up this week’s Torah portion by reading in Exodus 18:1:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Jethro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God did to Moses and to Israel, His people.

Jethro heard all that Hashem did to Moses and to Israel, Hhis people. He heard about the destruction of Egypt through the 10 Plagues, the dividing of the Sea of Reeds, and the war with Amalek, and his interest was piqued. So much so that he opted to get up from Midian and visit Moses in the wilderness. Remember, the last time he saw his son-in-law, Moses was asking permission to leave Midian to follow Hashem’s calling to go down to Egypt and remove the Children of Israel from their bondage.

Jethro and Moses reconnected, and Moses shared with him everything that had happened. It says in Exodus 18:9 that “Jethro rejoiced” (“וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ”). What is interesting is that the Hebrew word here is “yichad’e” (“יִּחַדְּ”) – a very uncommon word to use in this circumstance, and only used 3X in Scripture (the ideal word to use is “samach” which is used 150X). This word (“יִּחַדְּ”) denotes a phenomenon of sudden, intense joy producing a deep-seated physical response. Jethro had a unique experience. Moreover, it is interesting that the parashah starts out by using Jethro’s title as “kohen” (“priest”) of Midian, clearly a position of authority and status in Midian. Yet, that is the only time. Thereafter throughout the rest of the chapter, Jethro is referred to as the “father-in-law” of Moses. Interesting that it goes from a position of status that is connected to paganism, to a title that connected him to Moses. These are all indications that Jethro converted – that he became a Jew, all due to the revelation that Hashem was the One and Only.

We also find out a notable contribution that Jethro provided – that of wise counsel. We see beginning in Exodus 18:13 that Jethro watched his son-in-law as he judged the people from morning until evening. It was Jethro who advised Moses to set up a judicial system for judging the people. And what was implemented? An hierarchy of 78,600 judges! Remember, the size of the multitude (only counting the men) at this point numbered around 600,000. Not only that, it wasn’t just “wise” and “learned” men that were suggested to be chosen, but rather – first, “men of valor” (i.e. wise, efficient and upright); second, “God-fearing men”; third, “men of truth”; and fourth, “men who despise bribery”. In previous parashot, we learn that there were elders for the tribes, and of course, leadership provided by Moses and Aaron. This appears to be the first administrative decision made, and in my opinion, it shows just how important the judicial system is – especially for a congregation of people that were about to become a full-fledged nation. Moreover, as we learn through the remainder of the parashah, the Children of Israel were about to receive the Torah. Without law and order, without a functioning legal system, no nation would stand up for long.

In Exodus 19, the people arrived at Mount Sinai – 3 months following the Exodus. This was a momentous event. This is the same mountain where Hashem visited Moses in the Burning Bush and sent him on his mission to Egypt. At that time, Hashem told Moses that it would be a sign to him that Hashem would reveal Himself to the people on this very mountain. As such, what is the first thing that Moses did? In Exodus 19:3, it says “Moses went up to Elohim” – talk about alacrity and enthusiasm, Moses took the initiative and went up without even being called. In Exodus 19:5, Hashem tells Moses to tell the people: “And now, if you hearken well to Me and you will keep My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples.” “Now” speaks of repentance as the people were soiled with the stains of their earlier sins committed in Egypt, and more recent acts of rebellion in the Wilderness.

Hashem goes on to say in Exodus 19:6: “You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Priests. Why priests? Why not some other title that denotes royalty or authority or status? Also, now don’t you find it interesting that the parashah started off by using Jethro’s “former” title of priest of Midian? Remember too at this point, the Levitical priesthood didn’t exist yet (it didn’t come into effect until after the sinning of the Golden Calf). What is the function of a priest? A priest is an advocate, a mediator between the people and Hashem. A priest is consecrated exclusively to Hashem… consecrated in holiness… set apart for Hashem. But here, Hashem said a “kingdom of priests”. So, if all of the nation were to be a “kingdom of priests”, who would the people be? None other than the rest of the nations of the world! Israel’s role was to be a light to the rest of the world – in this age, and in the World to Come. And might I add… Israel’s role remains the same – to be a light to the rest of the world! And remember, these are all preparatory words for the people prior to the Giving of the Torah.

Then, in Exodus 19:9, Hashem said something interesting: “Behold! I come to you in the thick of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will believe in you, also forever”. Note the words “in you”. In Hebrew, this reads “becha” (“בְּךָ”). “Becha” is best translated “in you”. What does Hashem mean by this? This was to set up a very important foundation for the Jewish nation moving forward. The people would stand at the base of the mountain and they would hear as Hashem spoke to Moses the 10 Commandments. They would witness from the early morning, thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very powerful shofar growing continually stronger, smoke ascending like the smoke of the lime pit, and the entire mountain shuddering exceedingly as Hashem descended upon the mountain in fire. All of this powerful experience was to ingrain in the minds and hearts of the nation a lasting imprint of the 10 Commandments, and the mediator through which Hashem was operating – Moses. Why was Moses such an important figure in all of this? Because it was through him that Hashem was communicating His blueprints… His instructions to His people. Hence, Hashem using the language “becha” (“in you”). Moses was setting the precedent for the future. What Hashem was speaking through Moses here in the Torah was the authority, the official “litmus test”. In the future, this is how it was to be determined who was a true prophet of Hashem and who was a heretic. Moreover, the people had already witnessed Hashem’s signs and wonders in Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds, the manna and quail, water from the Rock of Horeb, and the battle against the Amalekites – all through the hand of Moses. It is interesting that in Deuteronomy 18:15, Hashem later teaches Moses: “If a prophet performs a sign, to him you shall listen”. Bottom line, Hashem was putting in place a precedent for future generations.

In Exodus 20, Hashem finally gives Moses and the people the 10 Commandments:

1. There shall not be unto you the gods of others before Me

2. You shall not make for yourself a graven image

3. You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your God, in vain

4. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it

5. Honour your father and your mother

6. You shall not kill

7. You shall not commit adultery

8. You shall not steal

9. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow

10. You shall not covet

Then, we see in coming parashot, the Torah is expanded upon to include a total of 613 commandments, all of which go on to establish the legal framework for the Jewish nation. The reality in this world is that many complexities arise with a large and growing nation of which a solid legal foundation is a necessity, especially for the nation that is betrothed to Hashem. As we learn in the first chapters of Proverbs, the Torah is the foundation for knowledge (“da-at”) of Hashem; knowledge of Hashem is the foundation for fear (“yirat”) of Hashem; and fear of Hashem is the root of wisdom (“chochmah”).

Nevertheless, the reality is that all of the Commandments can be summed up in the first 2 Commandments, which are the basis for everything in the Torah – 1) belief in Hashem, and 2) the rejection of idolatry – these are the pillars upon which the entire Torah is founded. It is all ultimately summed up in the Shema: “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

The sad reality is that it didn’t take long – a mere 40 days – for those amongst the people to cast this experience aside and sin. And yet Hashem in His abundant grace and mercy forgave them. Again and again and again. The nation of Israel had one powerful experience at Mount Sinai that was imprinted in their minds and hearts and was passed on from generation to generation to generation. Yet, as time passed, especially as one generation passed to another, and the generation that witnessed the mighty experience began to become ancient history, it became easier to forget and easier to remove the yoke of obligation. Just like the plagues of Egypt, or the crossing of the Sea of Reed, the experience of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai only happened once. A long, long time ago.

By the time we reach the days of the prophet Isaiah, the nation was in a precarious situation, so much so that Hashem showed a powerful vision to Isaiah of the Heavenly Court, clearly an encounter too difficult to put into words. When the Seraphim would say “Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole word is filled with his glory” to each other, the doorposts “moved” many cubits and the Temple became filled with smoke. The word “move” (“nu-u” “נֻעוּ” [root is “נוּעַ”]) here is interesting. It doesn’t mean “to move from one point to another”, but rather “to shake back and forth”. Interestingly, the same word is found in Exodus 20:18, speaking of the Children of Israel as they stood at Mount Sinai, that they “were afraid, and shook and they stood afar off”. The people shook in absolute fear and awe in the presence of Hashem. In Isaiah’s vision, the earthly Temple shook at the utterances of praise and exaltation to Hashem in the Heavenly Court, reflecting on the precarious situation of the nation at that time. When Hashem asked: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” to take the message of warning to the people, the prophet Isaiah emphatically volunteered: “Hineni, shelacheni!” (“Here I am, send me!”) Ten kingships later, as prophesied, the First Temple was destroyed and the nation was sent back into exile.

By the time we reach the days of Yeshua, the nation was a shadow of the past. Sure, the people were back in the Land and a Second Temple is standing, but many more were scattered across the Diaspora. A puppet Roman kingship was set up by the Hasmonean dynasty, and the nation had been sold out to the Roman Empire. There was a corrupt priesthood, and the Second Temple was an empty shell, with Hashem’s Presence having left a long time before. The Sanhedrin was ruled by Sadducees – those “students” of the Torah that didn’t believe in anything beyond the literal interpretation of the Torah. It was a nation of Torah scholars that were well versed in the letter of the Torah, but were so completely disconnected from the essence of the Torah.

Our master Yeshua came to the nation of Israel at such a dark time. Similar to Isaiah, just imagine Hashem sitting on His Throne of Glory asking the same question: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” And Messiah Yeshua standing up emphatically saying, “Hineni, shelacheni!” Yeshua embodied the essence of the Torah… he was a living Torah. John says in John 1:11: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” For crying out loud, they didn’t even recognize what a living Torah looked like, what it meant to live out the Torah. All throughout the Gospels we see Yeshua who went beyond the letter of the law in observing the Torah, and he taught the Torah in a way that it could be understood by the masses. Not only that, he performed mighty acts and miracles in their midst. Remember what it says in Deuteronomy 18:15: “If a prophet performs a sign, to him you shall listen”? But most importantly, Yeshua never veered from the Torah taught by Moses.

In Matthew 22, we see that the Sadducees gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Yeshua a question to test him, “Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?” How did Yeshua answer? “You shall love the Lord your God in all your heart and in all your soul and in all your mind.” And he went further: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” which is certainly an addition, but is completely grounded in the first one. All different wording, but the same essence of the Torah.

Yet, Yeshua our Messiah was killed. All because the nation had forgotten everything that Hashem told them back at Mount Sinai. They didn’t recognize one who taught the true essence of Torah, the same one they inherited from Moses and claimed to know. 40-odd years later, the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was scattered abroad again.

We read in Hebrews 12:26-29: “At that time His voice shook the earth [speaking of the Mount Sinai experience], but now He has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken – that is, things that have been made – in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to Hashem acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Think back to Isaiah’s vision, of the shaking Temple. The First and Second Temples were destroyed. The nation was exiled. Everything that was made was shaken, including the structure of the nation. Think back to the advice that Jethro gave to Moses on setting up a judicial system. These were all critical elements involved in the foundation of the nation and the worship of Hashem. But they only empowered the people to accomplish what their purpose was in this world – the rest was left up to the people to act. Remember Hashem’s statement to Moses in Exodus 19:6? “You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.This is what is unshakable. This is what is grounded in “a kingdom that cannot be shaken”.

The reality is that all of this is applicable to us today as well. We follow the same cycle today that was played out at various times throughout the history of the Jewish nation, as they went in and out of exile, all because the nation did not “hearken well to Hashem and keep His covenant.” Today, we – as Jews and non-Jews alike – have the foundation of the Torah and the rest of the Scriptures, as well as those righteous ones that have gone before us to trailblaze a clear path for us that leads us closer into relationship with Hashem. Even more impactfully, we have the living Torah, that was lived out in the life of Yeshua. And as Hashem said to Moses: “You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, may we take up the mantle as priests to represent the unshakable kingdom – a kingdom that cannot be shaken – in our lives, households and communities at large. Amen.

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