We are in the midst of significant times, moving events in history that shape our future and inform our past. Around the world, things are happening that define nations and the people of those nations. Some of these events are rewarding, while many are challenging, and in some cases, frightening. Looking back through history, however, gives us a glimpse into other significant times that were both influential and moving. As we reflect on these experiences, we can use that history to help inform how we understand the placement of these experiences.
In our reading of the Torah, we are also in the midst of significant times. Just last week, we read Parashat Beshallach, which details the Israelites escape from Egypt and their crossing of the Red Sea. The Torah outlines this tremendous journey culminating with "Shirat Hayam," the Song of the Sea, which the people sang as they walked on dry land with water raised high on either side.
This week, we follow the Israelites into the next phase of their existence beginning with Moses, and his father-in-law, Yitro, setting up a judicial system and concluding with the handing down of the Ten Commandments. This seemingly out-of-place story of building the judicial system is the subject upon which we will focus.
According to the JPS Torah Commentary, commentators debate whether Yitro actually appeared chronologically in this section of the Torah or was later placed here. Yet, there seems to be some reasoning to why he appears. To understand the reasoning, we look back to the end of last week's parasha where the Israelites encounter the Amalekites, a people who attack Israel from behind. We are then commanded by God to "blot out the name of Amalek" (Exodus 18:14).
In what seems like an abrupt transition, immediately after Amalek, we meet Yitro, a Midianite man. The commentator Radak speculates why Yitro follows so closely after Amalek. He explains that Yitro serves as a positive transition to the Ten Commandments. Had Yitro not appeared in the Torah in this place, he goes on, the Ten Commandments would have directly followed feelings of intense distrust and even possibly hatred. To separate this treacherous attack from the power and positivity of the Ten Commandments, the Yitro story is inserted.
Why, though, is this Yitro story so important? Commentators point out that Yitro and Moses' interaction highlight a positive relationship between the Israelites and the Midianites. Yes, there is the familial relationship that should not be overlooked. But the instance of exchanging advice is an important one in the relations of two nations.
A second interpretation of Yitro's place brings a link between the implementation of the laws (setting up the judicial system) and the giving of the laws themselves. When viewed in the context of the Ten Commandments, it makes perfect sense that a system be put in place to administer the laws that the people are about to receive.
Both commentaries ask us to reflect on the place of one event in context with other events around us. Moses clearly was aware of the significant times in which he was leading. We, too, are in the midst of significant times, moving events in history that shape our future and inform our past. How we relate to those times lays the foundation for what shape that future will take. As we continue forth on our path, may we collectively view the challenging times as steps toward something larger and the rewarding times as the culmination of determination and effort.
Written by Adam Broms, human resources fellow at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center.
For more information on Parshat Yitro visit myjewishlearning.com.