Sandwiched between Milchemet Amaleik and Matan Torah, Perek 18 of Sefer Shemot focuses on Yitro, his visit with Moshe, and his creation of a judicial system for Moshe and Am Yisrael. The previous 15 Perakim deal with the epic saga of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and the Jewish people’s subsequent journeys through the wilderness, and the next six Perakim detail Matan Torah and the revelation at Har Sinai, the culmination of this Ge’ulah. This double story seems to constitute an odd interruption. Before we can understand this Perek and its significance, we need to first determine when exactly this story takes place.
Sefer BeMidbar presents to us Chovav, who is identified as Chotein Moshe, Moshe’s in-law. The Mechilta asserts that Chovav and Yitro are the same person, which leads to a tremendous Machloket regarding the chronology of Yitro’s visit. Ibn Ezra claims that Yitro visited Bnei Yisrael only once - just before they left Har Sinai; Ramban is of the opinion that Yitro actually visited the Jewish camp twice, before Matan Torah and again before the approach to Eretz Yisrael. But for both opinions, we still need to ask why the stories focusing on Yitro are so important that they deserve an entire Perek. Chronologically correct or not, the stories do not seem to be connected to their surrounding stories - Bnei Yisrael’s ascent out of Mitzrayim and Matan Torah. Why does the Torah focus on them so much?
Sefer Shemot can be divided roughly into two halves. The first focuses on the redemption of the Jewish people from the slavery of Mitzrayim and forming into a nation, and the second is about the creation of God’s people, culminating in the presence of Shechinat Hashem in the Mishkan and in Machaneih Yisrael. The transition between the two is Matan Torah. During Matan Torah, the people finally achieve a sense of national unity – “KeIsh Echad BeLeiv Echad,” to quote the Midrash. In addition Berit Sinai, which states that we should be a “Goy Kadosh” for Hashem, is created. Everything leading to this point is a logical progression in the growth of the nation. First the people are told of the future salvation by Moshe (multiple times) but they cannot listen under their massive workload. Then the ten plagues come, building up to the Exodus, which does not happen until the Jews demonstrate their separation from the Mitzrim and their internal unity by forming groups for the Korban Pesach. Keriyat Yam Suf is the ultimate division from Mitzrayim and the last step in salvation, and at the end of Parashat BeShalach, Am Yisrael has its first battle with Amaleik.
Yitro’s visit, then, is the last element of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. Yitro, a priest of Midyan, is a prominent figure from a foreign entity. His visit to Bnei Yisrael shows that other tribes recognized the existence of the Jewish people as an entity and an independent nation. Especially coming on the heels of Milchemet Amaleik, when another local tribe tried to invalidate Am Yisrael’s existence and challenge both the God and the people of the Exodus themselves, Yitro’s visit grants credibility that cannot be obtained from intra-national actions alone.
Yitro also has a second role - that of family. Perek 18 begins, “VaYishma Yitro Kohein Midyan Chotein Moshe Eit Kol Asher Asah Elokim LeMoshe ULeYisrael Amo,” “And Yitro, priest of Midyan, in-law of Moshe, heard all that God had done to Moshe and to his nation Yisrael.” Yitro is a priest in Midyan, but he is also Moshe’s close relative. He hears not just what happened to Bnei Yisrael, but also to Moshe. The Torah gives equal time to descriptions of Moshe’s family – his wife Tziporah, and his kids Geirshom and Eliezer (whom we have not heard of until this point) – whom Yitro brings with him as he and Moshe discuss Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. Moshe’s family is emphasized so much that the first thing Yitro says when he reaches Machaneh Yisrael is that he brought Moshe’s family to him. This closes yet another story, one that runs parallel to the national journey: Moshe’s personal saga. We first meet Yitro in Midyan, after Moshe runs away from Mitzrayim. There, Moshe is brought in, cared for and raises a family for many decades in the house of Yitro. When Moshe finally becomes the leader of the Jewish people, his journey begins by leaving Yitro’s house. However, as Tziporah and her children are sent back to live with Yitro, there is not a clean break. Now, with the return of Moshe’s family, including his adopted family in Yitro, Moshe’s journey comes full circle. When he left Yitro’s house, it was to start the Ge’ulah; when Yitro comes to Moshe, it is to complete the Ge’ulah.
Finally, Yitro’s visit is not merely representative of the closure of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, but it is also the fulfillment of one of its goals. Throughout Sefer Shemot, the Shoresh “Yada” is used repeatedly. Much of the Makot and the Exodus is done “Lema’an Teidah Ki Ani Hashem,” “so you shall know that I am Hashem” (Shemot 8:18), and variations on this theme. The nature-bending miracles in Mitzrayim and at Yam Suf were done in such an explicit fashion in order to inspire surrounding peoples into recognizing Hashem and His people. When Yitro comes to see Moshe and finds out the details of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, his response is exactly what Hashem had intended: he says, “Atah Yadati Ki Gadol Hashem MiKol HaElohim,” “Now I know that Hashem greater than all other gods” (Shemot 18:11). Hashem’s greatness had not been recognized yet, not by the Mitzrim (many of whom were dead), nor, surprisingly, by Bnei Yisrael. But with the arrival of Yitro comes the knowledge of Hashem that is critical for Bnei Yisrael to move from the first stage of Ge’ulah, the freedom from slavery, to the second stage, becoming Am Hashem.
When the Tana’im argue whether Yitro came before or after Matan Torah (Zevachim 116a), they are really arguing what exactly Yitro heard that caused him to come. Rabi Yehoshua says he heard about Amaleik, Rabi Eliezer says he heard about Keriyat Yam Suf. and Rabi Elazar HaModa’i says he heard about Matan Torah. Despite the Machloket, each answer is true. When Yitro came to Machaneih Yisrael, he brought credibility post-Amaleik, and he brought the acknowledgement of Hashem from Keriyat Yam Suf.
What about Matan Torah? In fact, there is a way to understand this Shitah and still say that Yitro came before the Torah was actually given. The purpose of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim was not just to redeem Ya’akov’s descendants, but also to fulfill the Berit Bein HaBetarim and the Berit Milah – to take Bnei Yisrael out from servitude and make them God’s people, and then give them a land to spread the word and the message of Hashem. The sign that Hashem initially gives Moshe to prove that it is Hashem sending him to lead Bnei Yisrael out is that when Bnei Yisrael finally leave Mitzrayim, they will serve Hashem on Har HaElokim. When Yitro comes to visit Bnei Yisrael, it is specifically at Har HaElokim (18:5). Yitro is the first person to “know” about Hashem from the events of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, and Yitro is also the first person to bring Korbanot to Hashem (Avodah) after the Exodus (18:12). Yitro is doing the preparation for Matan Torah!
This approach clarifies the purpose of the first half of the Perek, through Pasuk 12; the second half, though, appears much more problematic. Yitro’s brainchild revolves around the presence of laws and civil disputes that need to be adjudicated. But if Yitro’s visit was before Matan Torah, what laws are there to rule on? Even Ramban, the primary proponent of Yeish Mukdam UMe’uchar BaTorah (that the Chumash is written in chronological order, save for explicit exceptions), is forced to accept that the narrative of the Shofetim occurred some time later. Given this, why is the story brought down in this context? If not a chronological connection, is there some sort of thematic connection between this and the surrounding events?
A simple answer is that there indeed is a connection to Matan Torah. The first thing that Moshe was given after Hashem’s revelation and the Aseret HaDibrot were “HaMishpatim Asher Tasim Lifneihim,” “the laws that you shall place before them” (21:1). When Moshe came down from Har Sinai soon after the Aseret HaDibrot, he presented the civil law of the Torah to Bnei Yisrael, and this is exactly to what Yitro’s advice was pertinent. Once there is a connection to Matan Torah and the account of Yitro’s Shofetim is not entirely out of place, the Torah groups the two Yitro stories together for sake of organization.
A deeper, closer look at the text reveals that there is a much greater connection than just the presence of civil disputes. Yitro’s advice to Moshe was not just that he should have assistants in the court, but that they should be, “Anshei Chayil, Yir’ei Elokim, Anshei Emet, Sone’ei Vatza,” “men of strength, fearers of God, men of truth, loathers of money” (18:21). The implication of these criteria is that the judges must be just individuals and fair judges, stemming from their Yir’at Hashem.
An overarching theme of Nevi’im Acharonim is that Bnei Yisrael’s covenant with Hashem is not just listening to His Mitzot, but in having a moral and just society, and this is the primary reason Bnei Yisrael were exiled from Eretz Yisrael. We can determine from the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach that Hashem expects the world to be monotheistic and moral; Bnei Yisrael’s part of Brit Sinai is to be an Or LaGoyim of just that – a fulfillment of Avraham’s mission to call out BeSheim Hashem in the crossroads of the ancient world. Yeshayahu emphasizes that “Tziyon BeMishpat Tipadeh, VeShaveha BiTzdakah,” “Tzion will be rebuilt redeemed with justice and the redemption will be with justice” (Yeshayahu 1:27). Yirmiyahu looks for just individuals in Yerushalayim, trying to avoid the Churban in their merit. Zecharyah tells the Shavei Tziyon, “Eileh HaDevarim Asher Ta’asu: Dabru Emet Ish Et Rei’eihu Emet UMishpat Shalom Shiftu BeSha’areichem,” “These are the things you shall do: Speak truth one to another, render true and perfect justice in your gates” (Zecharya 8:16), to prevent another Churban, fix their mistakes from Bayit Rishon, and uphold the covenant that earns them the right to their land. (No wonder is it, then, that Moshe first receives the Mishpatim from Hashem and presents them to Bnei Yisrael to enter into the Berit with Him.)
Yitro’s advice is not only practical, nor is it merely good practices; Yitro’s criteria of a just judiciary are the highest example of a moral society, which is exactly what Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael at Matan Torah. Yitro’s advice is the first Kiyum of Berit Sinai.
The picture of Yitro as a transitional figure in the story of Am Yisrael becomes much more clear and well-rounded now. Not only does he conclude the saga of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and prepare Am Yisrael for Matan Torah and Berit Sinai, but he is also the first person to actively fulfill that very Berit. Yitro brings an end to the first stage of Bnei Yisrael’s existence, of an enslaved and recently freed people and ushers in their second, being a people of God.
Placing both stories of Yitro in Sefer Shemot like this is the perfect shift from part one to part two. Inserted between Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, Yitro’s story is not an interruption from the progression of Am Yisrael’s history; it is the very thing that drives that history forward.