In Essays

Parsha Yitro | God Promises Guilt and Moses Speaks The Ten Commandments

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Beshalach.

Moses can’t do it all on his own and God isn’t above guilting future generations of Jews. That’s the gist of Parsha Yitro.

The narrative gets us to that realization by putting Moses in the wilderness with his father-in-law, Jethro (not of Beverly Hillbillies fame). Moses recounts the miracle of the exodus and gives Jethro a little insight into his busy schedule, sitting “as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.”

Could you imagine being available to people, day in, day out, without a break? Moses must’ve been buried in an unwatched Netflix queue.

Jethro, for his part, can’t believe how overworked his son-in-law is.

“Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” he asked Moses.

“It is because the people come to me to inquire of God,” Moses explained. “When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

Jethro focuses on Moses’s overbooked schedule, but another glaring issue is that Moses seems to be serving as judge and jury for all disputes. That’s a crappy legal system.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro counters. “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

In their conversation, a judicial branch of their wandering society is born. “Capable” and “trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain” are to be selected to solve minor disputes. Only the major issues are to be presented before Moses’s supreme court, as it were.

God The Cloud

Our story continues at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai wilderness where Moses and the Israelites are camped. God gives Moses a message to relay to the Israelites: “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

This bit intrigued me because the authors seem to acknowledge the very human desire to be given proof of the divine. But when God presents Himself to the Israelites, He doesn’t don an image that would prove comforting to His followers. Instead, he scares the shit out of them.

Three days later, God appears in the form of thunder, lightning, “and a dense cloud upon the mountain.” Then, there’s the sound of a horn or a shofar. “All the people who were in the camp trembled.”

Nice entrance, God!

Moses meets with God on the top of Mount Sinai, who warns that the Israelites should not look at him, “lest many of them parish.”

What a lovely quality in a God––one you can’t look at without dying. Then again, attempting to gaze at God is precisely what melts Nazi faces in Indiana Jones, so I guess it balances out in the end.

Guilt of a Thousand Generations

God seems to be ready to chat it up with the Israelites, but Moses and company have already sanctified the mountain––meaning nobody else could come up. So instead of getting to meet their Lord, Moses simply relayed yet another holy monologue. This time, we get a preview of what will become the ten commandments as God-through-Moses gives the Israelites laws to live by.

Here’s my favorite line:

“For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

Well, don’t I feel seen. Also, in terms of how the Torah describes God, I think “impassioned” is a bit of an understatement. It’s like describing Jack the Ripper as a knitting enthusiast.

Moses then continues, finishing to speak The Ten Commandments to his band of terrified Israelites.

Onward with Parsha Mishpatim.

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