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Yitro and the Ten Commandments

This week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments.  According to Jewish tradition, these ten are delineated as follows and are called instead Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings.  Part of the reason for this name is that the first commandment is not in fact a commandment but instead a foundational principle.

1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
2. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and you mother that you may long endure on the land.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not commit adultery.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. (Exodus 20)

It is interesting to note as well that this week’s portion is named for someone who is not an Israelite.  It is called Yitro.  He is the father in law to Moses and not only a Midianite, but a priest.  In other words he is a religious leader of another nation.  While the rabbis argued that Yitro must have converted, the Bible suggests only that he and his tribe are aligned with the Israelites—at this time.  Later the Midianites become Israel’s enemy. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra reminds us: Although there are always Amaleks there are also Yitros.  Not every outsider is our perpetual enemy.   

The implied message for the portion’s name is clear.  These commandments contain universal truths.  They were given in the wilderness, a place belonging to no one.  They are found in a portion named for someone outside of the Jewish people.  They do not belong to a select few.  Instead they belong to all.  They belong everywhere.

If they are to having lasting meaning then they must have such meaning for all.  If they are to have universal import then they must belong to all.  This is why it is Yitro and not Moses who opens this week’s reading: “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1)

Sometimes the greatest truths are found in the mouths of others and not even in our greatest heroes.