Thursday, February 9, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Yitro Sh’mot (Exodus): 18 – 20


This week we arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai to participate in a glorious and “epiphanic” scene of colossal scope, but not before attending to some personal and administrative matters. The touching and even intimate episode of Moshe's meeting with his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), eventually evolves into a strategic plan proffered by the latter (18:13-26).  However, to begin with, Yitro’s purpose for coming to his son-in-law was for another reason altogether, as is evidenced in 18:2-6. Yitro did not come alone. He brought with him his daughter, Tzipora, and her two sons, “after he [Moses] had sent her back”. Apparently, before Moshe could embark on the great task ahead of him, he had to take care of the wellbeing of his own family, because a nation, a people, especially a unique one such as Yisrael, is dependent on the soundness of its components, the families (see 1st Timothy 3:2-5).  Rather than be rid of his family, in order to be able to devote himself wholly to his duties, Moshe had to do quite the opposite.  After attending to these family matters, Yisrael’s leader was free to receive some instructions from his father-in-law in order to improve his organizational skills prior to the revelation of YHVH and His Torah. (Compare this interaction with Yitro with Bamidbar – Numbers – 10:29-32, where Moshe makes a significant request from Chovav, the son of Re’u’el-Yitro.)*

Moshe tells Yitro that he has been busy “making known the statutes of Elohim and His laws” to the people (18:16). These "statues and laws" are "chukot and torot" (plural of "chok" and "torah"). This is not the first time that these legal terms are used before the official 'giving of the Torah'. Their usage, as seen here, as well as in B’resheet (Gen.) 26:5 and in Sh’mot (Ex.) 16:4, may help lend these terms a more comprehensive meaning. Thus, instead of being perceived strictly as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts,’ YHVH's instructions to His People may be viewed as just that… instructions for life, for an abundant life. "Chok" - "law" - is from the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof), meaning "to engrave or imprint" (and by implication "to decree, inscribe and enact"). With this understanding, the "law" may be viewed as an "imprint", rather than only an imposition from without. YHVH desires to impress upon the hearts of His people His way of life and His character (with the "renewed covenant" being the final seal of that objective. See Jer. 31:33). At the same time, the act of inscribing is mutual. It is not only YHVH who is embossing His imprint upon those who belong to Him, for He says: “I have inscribed you (“cha'ko'tich”, using the same root of ch.k.k) on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16 italics added). The root of Torah is y.r.h (yod, resh, hey) and means to “shoot”, as in “hitting the mark”.  Since “sin” – chet – means “missing the mark”, the “Torah” is to help us all become 'sharpshooters'.

While instructing Moshe, Yitro uses, in 18:20,21, two interesting verbs which are translated, respectively, “teach” (v. 20) and “select” (v. 21). However, “vehiz’harta” (the first of those, i.e., “teach”) originates from the root z.h.r. (zayin, hey, resh) which means “radiate” (for more examples on the usage of this word see Ps. 19:11; Dan. 12:13). Thus, Moshe is told to cast light upon, or illumine the “chukim” and “torot”. His teaching, therefore, must originate with the Source of Light – the “Elohim [who] is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But with that said, the root z.h.r also conceals a warning (see Ezekiel 3:1, where it is used as “warning”), especially toward those who have been privileged to have the light shining around them (see also Hebrews 10:26-32, notice in 32, the usage of "illumination" or "enlightenment").

While the light is thus being “cast”, Moshe cannot merely “choose” or “select” the men, as your translation would have it, but is told to, literally, “see far ahead" and "envision the unseen - te’che’zeh” (root ch.z.hey – chet, zayin, hey, e.g. Ps. 58:10, and in next week’s Parasah in Ex. 24:11, etc.), as the original text states. A seer is called “chozeh” (ref. 1st Sam. 9:9).

With some practice in Godly nationhood now accomplished, “the House of Jacob" and the "Sons of Israel” (ref. 19:3) appear to be in a slightly better position to hear directly from YHVH. Shlomo Ostrovski1 delineates these two, seemingly synonymous terms that are used here for the Nation, with the "House of Ya'acov" being the title for the “natural” entity with its “natural” free will, in contradistinction to the "spiritual entity" – that is the "Sons of Yisrael" – who are to volitionally will and make choices on the spiritual level. The next verse continues: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4 italics added). This kind of imagery demonstrates the tenderness of a parent, as well as that of a husband, who, in Biblical terminology "brings" his bride to himself (e.g. Gen. 24:67). If we think of the episode of the Sinai Covenant as a betrothal, the above verb is very appropriate. According to Nehama Leibowitz, this verse (4) describes "the road from Egypt to Sinai [and] represents a momentous spiritual and physical transition".2 

The message Moshe is to convey to the People continues: “Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (19:5 notice the emphasis “if”). This "special treasure" is "s'gula", and means "personal property", as Psalm 135:4 affirms: “For YHVH has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure [s'gulato]” (italics added). (Notice the Psalm’s parallel usage of “Jacob” and “Israel”, just as in 19:3 above.) But ultimately being YHVH’s special treasure was going to benefit the entire body of humanity, as Yeshua’s parable in Matthew 13:44-46 illustrates. As in that narrative, an entire field was purchased to obtain the treasure buried therein.   

At this juncture, Yisrael is seemingly being fast transformed into a well-administered group of people, but above that “Israel is chosen to reflect God's holiness and live out his commandments, reflecting His standards in a life of wholehearted compliance with the terms of the covenant”.3 With this in mind, YHVH further defines His people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Thus, Yisrael will be equipped and prepared for this (ultimate) ideal goal of reflecting Elohim’s image by becoming a holy covenant community of priests who are to minister to a royal Sovereign.  "Holiness", is a totally new concept for the fledgling Nation, hence the cleansing and separating measures that are imposed on them. If noted in list form, the people are to: "consecrate", by "washing clothes", "setting bounds”, “being careful not to go up to the mountain”, nor “touch its base" and "not to come near [their] wives" (19:10, 12, 15). Being an “am s'gula” they are not only YHVH's possession but, as mentioned, also a reflection of their Owner, marked by a distinction of status and nature. "Kadosh" - “holy” - primarily denotes separation and devotion to the service of YHVH. In the quick transition that they are making, the acts of “consecration” serve as an external illustration of what has hitherto been a completely strange notion. Likewise, the loftiness, holiness, and sublime stature of YHVH will be expressed in an outward fashion, as we shall soon see.

As part of YHVH's instructions, which precede His descent from the Mountain, He says to Moshe “When the shofar sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (19:13b), and (literally), “when the yovel is drawn out…" (referring to a prolonged sound of the shofar, which is mentioned for the very first time in Scripture, 19:16,19). The current reference is to the type of sound, and not to the instrument producing that sound (in fact, nothing is being said right then about any instrument that would have produced the sound). The root of yovel (y.v.l - yod, bet/vet, lamed) means to “lead” (e.g., Jer. 31:9 – “And with supplications, I will lead them”), as it was undoubtedly the ram that typically supplied the horn for blowing, and was used to lead the ceremonial procession. Blowing the horn (shofar) also became the signal for the year of “Jubilee” - hence “yovel” for the 50th year. Therefore, the English word ‘Jubilee’ is a derivative of the Hebrew “yovel”. The usage of the “yovel” in this context may also allude to Yisrael’s “year of release” from their bondage, and into the “liberty of the sons of Elohim” (see Rom. 8:21).

 The greatest sound and light spectacle is about to unfold with the following ‘pyrotechnical effects’: Thundering and lightning, a thick cloud, loud sound of a shofar, smoke (which envelops the mountain), and fire. The smoke is like the smoke of a furnace; the mountain is found quaking greatly, with the long blast of the shofar - becoming louder and louder (ref. 19:16-19, cf. Revelation 8:1-9:3; 10:7).

The first part of chapter 20 (1-17) is devoted to the Decalogue, the ‘Ten Commandments', or literally the d'varim – “words”, of the root d.v.r (which we have previously discussed as being the root for “desert, plague, to drive, thing, flock, holy of holies” and more). It is YHVH’s voice, that utters these “d’varim” - “words”. (Incidentally, in the text itself the number ‘ten’ is not mentioned in connection with these declarations of YHVH.) The seventeen verses of these “d'varim” constitute for the Israelites the foundation, or basis, of their Covenant relationship with Elohim and with one another, in the process of becoming an “am sgula”.  Notice that even though at that time the Levitical priesthood had not yet come into being, mention is made of priests in 19:22. Some of the sages, as well as Rashi (the renowned Middle-Ages commentator), attribute this position to the firstborn, presumably because the latter belonged to YHVH (ref. Parashat Bo, Ex. 13:2). The existence of this early priesthood is a precursor pointing to a future reality (of a "nation of priests") yet to be fulfilled (even beyond the era of the ministry of the Levitical priesthood).

The first seven verses of Chapter 20 deal specifically with Yisrael's relationship with YHVH. The text opens up (v. 2) with "I am" – “anochi” (and not “ani”, which is a simpler form of "I am"), denoting YHVH's inextricable link to His People, their circumstances ("who brought you out of Egypt"), and destiny.  “You shall have no other gods over my face” (v. 3, literal translation, italics added), is next. The word "face" utilized in this way refers to direct defiance and spite, implying, according to the Mekhilta (2nd-century commentary on Exodus) and Rashi, that this prohibition is for all times, not just for that generation. "Face" ("panim") connotes Presence (e.g., Ex. 33:14-15 “My face shall go before you”). And as YHVH's Presence 'automatically' includes place or location, this singular prohibition applies to all places.4  YHVH's jealousy over His People (v. 5) may be likened to the response of a jealous husband, thus making the Covenant of Elohim with Yisrael much like that of a marriage contract,5 as mentioned above. In verse 7 a change of person takes place. From now to the end of the decalogue YHVH will be mentioned in 3rd person, whereas up to this point, He was the one speaking.  

Now come the declarations concerning the Shabbat. Although the Shabbat is an expression of the People's relationship with YHVH, its observance instructions ‘overflow’ into the community, and affects inter-personal associations. Shabbat stems from the root “to sit” - “shevet” (sh.v.t. shin, bet/vet, tav). Sitting implies rest and bringing activity to a halt, ceasing, such as YHVH did when “He ceased from all His work” of creation in B’resheet (Gen. 2:2 italics added). Whereas all other 'calendarian' divisions (such as days, months, and years) are dictated by natural phenomena, the seven-day week is purely a spiritual ‘divide’.

Since the first one to celebrate the Shabbat was Elohim Himself, after He had completed His work of Creation it follows that, by this universal declaration, He and He alone is the Creator! In Sh’mot (Exodus) 31:12-17 we are told that the Shabbat is an "eternal covenant" and a sign between YHVH and the sons of Yisrael. In D’varim (Deut.) 5:14-15 the reason for celebrating the Shabbat's rest, together with one's entire household, is in order to remember the slavery in Egypt, and the freedom realized upon being brought out of there "by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm". Here it is an acknowledgment of the miracle of ceasing to be a ‘slave’ (one who never rests), and of becoming free. Similarly, we are no longer “slaves to sin, but have been set free” from it (Rom. 6:6, 18). Hebrews 4:1-11 tells us that the Shabbat rest is the reward bestowed on the one who believes and obeys; Hence Shabbat also speaks powerfully of one's faith and obedience. The cessation of manual labor and financial worries is a proclamation of trust and faith in the Heavenly Father for all provisions - not only during Shabbat but also at all other times. We noted above that Shabbat is rooted in the verb "to sit". Yeshua, after having completed His task of offering the sacrifice for all times, “…sat down at the right hand of Elohim” (ref. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 10:12 italics added). 

Following the Shabbat's injunctions is the command concerning honoring of parents; "honoring" is esteeming them “weighty” ("kabed", k.b/v.d, as we observed in last week’s Parasha), with its promise of long life "upon the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you" (v. 12). Thus, there is a gradual and progressive transition from the "heavenly" precepts to the Shabbat being a link between the heavenly bond and its earthly expression, through to injunctions concerning one's nuclear family which is to reflect the relationship with the Heavenly Father, all the way down to one's conduct within the community (vs. 13-16), and finally to the hidden motives of one’s heart (v. 17). Immediately after YHVH declares the above, we are told that “… all the people witnessed the thundering, the lightning flashes, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking…” (20:18). As to the “witnessing”, the Hebrew says “ro’eem”, that is, present tense “seeing” – “and all people – “am” – is seeing the voices, and the lightning flashes and the sound of the shofar…” (italics added).

The present tense, as well as the “seeing of the voices”, transports us from a naturally perceived scene to one that is beyond the natural faculties and senses. Almost as if the dramatic spectacle was outside the realm of Time, and beyond simple and direct visibility.  More than once mention is made of the fact that YHVH was in the “cloud”, or “smoke” (19:9-10, 16, 18; 20:18). But in 20:21 we encounter a reference to a new term - “arafel” – translated, “thick darkness”, or “gloom”. The root of “arafel” is the verb “arof” (ayin, resh, pey/fey), meaning “to drip”, hence employing a figure of speech related to precipitation, such as the cloud. This is a description of the “veiled glory” of YHVH, so many times made deliberately vague in order to protect His people from His awesome presence that cannot dwell alongside sin. Thus, everyday life situations which may appear dark, uncertain, bleak, or foggy are not always to be perceived as negative. Rather, they may point to the “arafel”, that is “the thick darkness where Elohim is”. In order to allay the people's fear of YHVH's presence, Moshe says: "Do not fear, for Elohim has come to test you…" (v. 20). "Test you" is "le'nasotcha", which contains "ness", meaning "miracle" or "banner". One of the commentaries offers the idea that YHVH is 'lifting up His people as a banner'. 

YHVH continues to elaborate on His instructions, speaking through Moshe (20:22-26). In contradiction to the prohibition against the making of images and glorifying precious metals (v. 23), comes the statement: “An altar of earth you shall make for Me” (v. 24). “Altar” is “miz'be'ach”, of the root (zayin, bet/vet, chet) - "to sacrifice". The altar is to be made of earth - adama - the substance that makes up man’s material being and after which he is named (Adam). If the “miz'be'ach” should be made of stones, they are not to be embellished by any of man's efforts, or by tools and implements that are made by his hand (v. 25), lest the altar is desecrated. “Profane or desecrate is "chalel" (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed), meaning also "pierced through" or "hollow", and hence, "flute" and "slain". In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:5 we read, “He was pierced through – mecholal (of the same root) - for our transgressions”. However, as we have just seen, “mecholal” does not only mean “hollow” (and hence “pierced through”), it is also “desecrated”, as indeed Yeshua was, having borne our Sin. Last to be mentioned is the prohibition concerning steps leading up to the altar, so that one's nakedness would not be exposed. “Nakedness” here (v. 26) is "erva" (a.r.h, ayin, resh, hey), "to lay bear, uncover", and "shame". It can also mean "to pour out" or "to empty one's self", such as Yeshua did when He poured out (heh'e'ra) His soul unto death” (Is. 53: 12), so that our ‘nakedness’ would be covered, and our shame removed.


 * Was Moshe adhering to Yitro’s advice because he felt he was unable to “bear” the “burden” of the people, Dvarim (Deut.) 1:12, although YHVH says in Shmot (Exodus) 19:4 (this Parasha) that He is “bearing” Yisrael on “eagles wings”? Is this why according to Moshe’s own admittance in Dvarim 1:37, “YHVH was also angry with me… saying, ‘you shall not go in there’ [the land]”? Or, just as Moshe's family had to be put in order before the enormous revelation of the Great Father, was it incumbent on His family to also be in some sort of order?

1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit,  Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.


2 New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 


3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,  1980.


4 New Studies in Shmot, Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 


5 The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.




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