One of the downsides of creating any work that ensconces an idea – whether book, video, audio recording or what have you – is that you don’t get a second crack at it once it is published. The idea is gone, separated from you and out in the world – and you can’t just “reel it back in” for fine-tuning.
At least, so it was until the creation of blogs.
A blog, I think, can give a writer a second crack at the bat. At least, that’s what I’d like to try to use this blog post for – a second chance at the bat at Parshat Yitro.
Last week, we released a video on Parashat Yitro. It gave rise to some fantastic discussion on our note boards (and on Aish). I want to highlight some of those posts and address them – and in the process, try to clarify and refine some of the ideas I raised. But a quick warning: The implications are not all so terribly sunny. There are some dark possibilities here as well, so let the adventurous reader be forewarned!
Let me begin by summarizing my central thesis on the video:
Yitro I and Yitro II: Parallel Stories?
In the Yitro video, I took the position that there seemed to be an intriguing correspondence between Moshe’s first encounter with his father-in-law Yitro, and Moshe’s second encounter with him. The latter encounter, of course, takes place in the aftermath of the Jews’ salvation at the Sea of Reeds. I went so far as to suggest that these two stories so closely aligned with one another that they constitute “parallel narratives” as it were.
Now, a word of caution here: Whenever one might suggest that two narratives are genuine “parallels” of one another – i.e. that the Torah actually means for us to understand them this way – it is not really enough to cite one or two things about the stories that seem to be similar. One or two similarities might just be the product of coincidence. Indeed, to really make the case, you need to show similarities that are fairly numerous and compelling. Failing that, your argument can be fairly easily dismissed with a wave of the hand.
So with that in mind, let us examine the available evidence.
Let’s take a moment to run through what happens the first time Moshe meets Yitro. In that encounter, a savior [Moshe], had just saved a potential victim [the daughters of Yitro] from enemies. Right after that, Yitro encounters the ones who were saved [namely, his daughters] — and in that encounter, the “saved persons” tell Yitro exactly what happened; that is, how the savior saved them. Following that, Yitro tells his daughters: “Why did you leave the man where he is? Call him and let’s break bread with him!” Following Yitro’s feast with “the savior”, the next thing you know, is that the savior marries the saved: Yitro gives the hand of his daughter in marriage to Moshe.
OK, and now let’s go to the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro, chapters later. Here is what happens there:
A savior [God], had just saved a potential victim [the Jewish People] from enemies [the Egyptian army]. After that, Yitro encounters a representative of the one who was saved. That representative is Moshe [who is part of the Jewish People]. In that encounter, Moshe, tells Yitro exactly what happened – how God saved them. And then, as if on cue, Yitro responds with: “Let’s sit down and have a feast”. Just as before, Yitro “invites” the Savior to join in the feast – he offers offering, and eats “in the presence of God”.
And now, let us ask: What happens next?
My conclusion on the video, was that if these parallels are real, the next thing that should happen in the chain of parallels is some sort of event that corresponds to the marriage between Moshe and the Daughter of Yitro.
Indeed, in what I’ve come to call “YItro II” – the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro — the next event we witness is Moshe judging the people who come to “seek out God” by virtue of their arguments. They want to know what God thinks of their disputes, how God will settle them. I suggested that perhaps this very event – this “seeking out of God” – is a kind of connection between God and Humanity, a connection sealed and consecrated by Divine Law. This constitutes a kind of “marriage” in the text between the Savior and the Saved. The Savior is God. The Saved is the Jewish People. They are now connecting deeply in a loving way. They are married. The ring, as it were, is the Divine Law.
OK; I See That; but is it Real?
Now comes the moment of truth: Was that all real, or just idle homiletics?
I’d say that the parallels described above are certainly suggestive – but I do concede that they leave room for reasonable doubt. One could counter that perhaps this is all the product of coincidence (and Fohrman’s overactive imagination). So let me to try and flesh out the argument just a little bit more. Let me show you a couple other points of correspondence that didn’t make it into the video version of this…
Remember the first time Moshe meets Yitro? If you look carefully at the text (Exodus 2:19), you’ll find that his daughters recount three things to him. They tell him that:
The savior [Moshe] saved them from enemies.
They then tell their father that the savior went on to provide for them in other ways, drawing water from a well.
Finally, they tell how Moshe then gave their thirsty flock of sheep water to drink.
Now let’s go to the corresponding point in “Yitro II”.
It turns out that when Moshe tells Yitro how God saved the people, he actually says, in effect, three things, too. Not only that, but each of the three things appear to correspond to the three things the daughters said in “YItro I”.
What does Moshe say in Yitro II? Well, first, he tells Yitro that a savior [God] saved has the people from Pharoah and the Egyptian army. OK, that corresponds to what the girls told father about a savior saving them from enemies. But now, ask yourself: How, exactly did God effect that salvation? How did God save the people from the army of Pharoah? The answer is that He did so through the event we know as the Parting of the Sea. In that event, God took a single body of water, and drew some of the water away, making, in effect, two bodies of water…
So what does that remind you of in Yitro I?
Well, go back to what the daughters said to Yitro: “He drew water from the well for us… Think, now: What happens when a person draws water from a well? First, before lowering the bucket, all the water is in the well. Then, after you lower and raise the bucket, you draw part of the water away, making two bodies of water.
At the well, in an act of everyday kindness, Moshe drew a small body of water apart vertically.
At the splitting of the Sea, in an act of supernatural kindness, God drew a body of water apart horizontally, in the greatest miracle known to mankind.
The Third Correspondence
But let’s continue further. In “Yitro II”, Moshe goes on to tell of how the people met up with “travails on the way”, difficulties from which God saved them. Now, ask yourself: To what travail does Moshe refer?
Well, let’s see. Moshe had just spoken of God’s deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. What was the very next travail the Jews met up with in the desert? The answer is that the people thirsted for water, and there was none – so God provided them with water.
They came to Marah and couldn’t drink the water because it was bitter… and God showed Moshe a tree, and he threw it in the water, and sweetened the water for them… (Exodus 15:23-25).
Again, let’s go back to the corresponding event in ‘Yitro I’. What is the third thing the daughters told their father? It was that Moshe provided their thirsty flock water to drink.
In each case, the Savior provides water, allowing, as it were, a thirsty flock to drink. It is just that in one case, the Savior is human; in the other, the Savior is divine. In one case, the flock is comprised of sheep; in the other, it is comprised of the Jewish People as a whole…
Further Parallels, with a Twist
I said above that after the Feast of Yitro, the next thing that happens in both instances is that the Savior marries the Saved. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is something that happens in between. It has to do with Moshe “sitting”.
In “Yitro I”, Moshe sits and dwells with Yitro.
And Moshe was content to sit [lashevet] with the man. (Exodus 2:21).
And what about in “Yitro II”? Well, Moshe again sits – but he does not sit with Yitro; instead he sits to judge the people…
“Vayeshev Moshe lishpot ha’am…” (Exodus 18:13).
Parallel events continue to unfold here – but yet, something is happening differently this time. There is a divergence.
The divergence starts with the guest list for Yitro’s feast. In Yitro II, Moshe, strangely, is conspicuously absent from Yitro’s feast; one wonders: Where is he?
Lo and behold, we find him in the next verse “sitting” (just as he was in Yitro I) – but sitting not with Yitro but with the people, telling them of God’s laws. At this point, Yitro accosts him, telling him that what he’s doing is not a great idea:
“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).
I’d like to add here an idea that didn’t appear in the video, due to lack of time. The idea is somewhat dark, and a viewer (she identifies herself as “Princess”) alluded to it in one of the comments that appear on our site. Let me quote her insightful words:
I am going to take the minority position that Yitro was a malevolent introduction into the bridal party rather than a positive one. Yitro hears about the deliverance of Israel while Moshe has [directly] heard from and seen the miracles of the Holy One. Now, I can understand that forty years of shepherding with his son-in-law probably leads Yitro to not view him as anything special, so once he shows up in the camp of Israel, it appears he decides to take over. …He sets up a court system that we never hear is validated from heaven, as God has his own plan…. Thoughts?
Well, “Princess” concluded by asking for my thoughts, so I will provide them here:
Crashing the Bridal Party?
My thoughts are that “Princess” may largely be right.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize Yitro’s involvement as “malevolent”, there is indeed reason to wonder whether or not we are witnessing something of a tragedy in the making. For indeed, if the thesis I advanced above is correct, Moshe is telling Yitro that something special is happening between the people and God. It is not just about judging; it is about connection. There is a kind of marriage happening here.
But what is Yitro’s response to this?
Yitro, concerned about Moshe’s well-being, suggests instituting a large hierarchy of judges. What will this do? What will happen as a result?
Yitro suggests this in order to help Moshe in managing what seems like a crushing burden. It makes sense from an administrative standpoint, that is sure. But while his plan might provide relief for Moshe, it comes at an existential cost. It creates a new, intermediate position in what was otherwise a direct and intimate relationship. Yitro’s proposal creates something that intervenes between God and the people. There is now a new party to the marriage between God and the Jewish People. The network of intermediate judges is intervening between them.
Does the Text Support Such an Audacious Conclusion?
One second, you say: Are you telling me Yitro’s plan wasn’t a good idea? Are you suggesting this whole plan was something other than what should have taken place?
While that might seem a startling conclusion, there is strong evidence in the text for it. Listen carefully to Yitro’s words, again:
“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning ‘til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).
I’ve bold-faced a few words here. Look at those bolded words carefully, and ask yourself: What this reminds you of? Where else in the Torah do we hear language like this? Where else does someone say: “It is not good that someone be alone…” Where else does someone then try to create someone who will “help” that person, so that he will not be all alone?
The answer, of course, is that we are looking at language borrowed from the creation of Eve. The “someone” who creates the helper is none other than God:
And God said: It is not good that man is alone. I will make a helper alongside him… (Genesis 2:18).
The Torah seems to confirm our suspicions. We really are talking about marriage between God and the Jewish People here. It’s not just a figment of our imagination. It is real. And yet, at the same time, the Torah seems to be sending out a cautionary signal. What Yitro is proposing is, in effect, the creation of a new spouse in the relationship. No longer will it just be God and the Jewish People, in a relationship facilitated directly by Moshe. No, there will be someone else. New helpers. There will be intermediate judges, intervening in the relationship…
Echoes of Hagar
The notion of the judges being “new helpers” intervening in a marriage relationship, as it were, is reinforced by one last textual allusion — a quite chilling one.
At the very end of the story, where Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice, the text expresses Moshe’s assent using these words:
And Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in law (18:24).
The Hebrew for this is:
Vayishma Moshe lekol chotno… [Hebrew transliteration].
Now, let’s play our little game one last time: Where else have we heard this formula before? What else in the Torah does vayishma Moshe lekol chotno remind you of?
It turns out that this exact formula, “vayishma ‘x’ lekol ‘y’” [And ‘x’ listened to the voice of ‘y’], appears only one other time in the entire Five Books of Moses.
When is that time?
The only other time that language appears in when Abraham assents to Sarah’s suggestion that he consort with Hagar, instead of her, to father a child:
And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah… (Genesis 16:1).
Think about that earlier episode. A man is married to a woman. But then that woman suggests that he consort with another woman, instead, to achieve the all-important end of a child. And the man assents to that suggestion…
The comparison is indeed chilling. The Torah seems to hint that “Princess” might well be right. The intermediate judges may have offered administrative support for Moshe – but at what price did that support come? Could it have compromised what could have been, should have been, a direct, intimate relationship?
I’ve already gone on quite long enough in this blog post – but for readers interested in hearing more about my theory concerning the startling repercussions of Yitro’s judges, I invite you to listen to an audio course we just posted on our site: “Why Couldn’t Moshe Enter the Land?” In that series, I’ve explored these issues in depth, and charted what I believe to be their repercussions.
The series is a long one – it is seven lectures. The first three deal with other ideas; the last ones, the fourth through seventh, I believe deal with these issues extensively.
Take a listen and let me know what you think. I believe you’ll find it quite intriguing.