The Torah can be a confusing book. Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page. Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details. But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting. In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.
Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections. Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system. Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
But there is a problem. These events seem to be out of chronological order. Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order? Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility. (BT Zevachim 116a)
The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…” (Ex. 18:1) “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert. As expected, there is a disagreement. Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away. Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees. He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.
The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek. The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.
The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.
First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.
Two. As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built. That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Three. On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long. They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes. When asked, Moses describes what he is doing: v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.” (Ex. 18:16) The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?
Four. In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp. There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide. Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11) It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.
Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.
But he does not have a problem with that. According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites. They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers. Israel has to go to war. Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious. Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.
Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation. But first – to us as readers – a point must be made. The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point. Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites. Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place. They grow up together. And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics. Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.
Internal biblical evidence supports this. The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere. In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.” (I Sam. 15:6)
This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad. In fact some of them can be quite good.
This might seem obvious to us. But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted. In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing. A person’s group identity was existentially important. The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.
But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern. How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school? One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that. I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.
It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet. He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise. And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites. This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.
After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.