What goes without saying in Parshat Yitro: Identifying the core of our experiences
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Growing up, my family regularly traveled to Washington D.C. We attended inaugurations, went on lobbying missions, celebrated at Chanukah parties and did some sightseeing. Over the years, one comment that my father shared numerous times stands out in my memory. We would look at the monuments to the Founding Fathers, and he would say that one monument is missing. Alexander Hamilton has no monument.
My father’s explanation was always the same: “All of Washington, D.C., is a monument to Hamilton.” It was Hamilton who developed the centralized structure of the federal government and set up its institutions as Washington’s treasury secretary. So, Hamilton does not need a monument.
Yitro, the namesake of this week’s parsha, comes to join his son-in-law Moshe. Yitro’s arrival is sudden, and a date is not given in the Torah. This leads to ambiguity, and the timeline is unclear. Did Yitro join before the Torah is given or after? The Torah is given less than two months after the Exodus, so it is possible that Yitro would not have made it in time. Rabbis and commentators from the Talmud to today search for textual clues to shed light on this question.
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The Ramban, Nachmanides, the 13th-century leader, scholar and kabbalist, offers a systematic investigation of this question and cites verses from throughout Tanach to attempt to identify the chronology. One suggested proof revolves around a brief conversation between Moshe and Yitro. In our parsha, Moshe excitedly recounts to Yitro, who had just arrived, God’s great miracles that completely changed and elevated the Jewish people. He shared “all that God had done to Pharoh and to Egypt to protect the Jewish People, and all the events that occurred on the journey” (Exodus 18:8) when the Jewish people were saved at the Reed Sea and from the attack of Amalek. Notably missing are the sui generis events of the giving of the Torah.
How could Moshe leave out from the account how Mount Sinai had blazed with flame, the Earth shook, God spoke directly to His people and presented them with the Law that would change them and the course of human history? Ramban argues that this proves that Yitro arrived before the Torah was given. Otherwise, Moshe would have included that in his recounting, too. Ramban, however, waives away this question with the following suggestion.
The Torah does not list that Moshe recounted the giving of the Torah because it goes without saying. Obviously, Moshe shared that event. He regaled Yitro with descriptions of the flowers that miraculously bloomed on the barren hillside, how the birds had been silent and the universe itself shook as God uttered his first words to the Jews as a people. All the highlights and details of the experience were explained to Yitro, who probably sat with his mouth agape, overwhelmed by the magnificence
of the events. It is not mentioned in our narrative because readers understand this on their own. It need not be stated, just like Hamilton needs no monument in the city he fostered.
The idea that something is so evident that it transcends enumeration is powerful. The giving of the Torah was one such idea, but only for that time. Today, and forever, we are required to constantly recall that foundation of Judaism: that God created the world, that God directs history and gave the Jewish people the Torah. What is blatantly obvious in one moment needs consistent promotion over time.
This passing conversation between Yitro and Moshe needs to be seen both for what it includes and for what it leaves aside. We need to actively identify the ideas that are so important that we feel they do not require mention. This exercise helps us understand who we are and how we present ourselves. It also should remind us that even if it is clear to us now, it may not be clear to everyone or forever. We must then dedicate energy to ensure that those ideals find some active voice, so that they can be recognized and preserved for the future. PJC
Rabbi Yitzi Genack is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.