Shabbat candles: 4:51 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 18:1-20:23
Haftorah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Havdalah: 5:53 p.m.
In last week's Torah portion we were told, "Va-yavo Amalek": Amalek came upon the Israelites [Exodus 17:8]. Think of it. Mere weeks after their miraculous liberation from Egypt and release from centuries of slavery and abuse, the ragtag, exhausted and dehydrated Israelites are attacked by an army of Amalekites at Refidim. The Israelite multitude spreads out for miles as they walk southeast, through the path God made for them between the waters of the sea, through the Wilderness of Zin, to make camp at Refidim on their way to Mt. Sinai.
The Amalekite army doesn’t attack an army of Israelites, an army that does not exist. No, Amalek attacks the tail end of the Israelite stragglers, massacring women, children, nursing mothers, babes-in-arms, and old and maimed ex-slaves who pose no threat to anyone. “Va-yelachem im Yisrael,” Amalek wages a war of terror against the Israelites with no possible gain.
Why did Amalek attack a defenseless people championed by a super-powerful God? What is the Torah’s message to the Israelites and to us?
In this week’s parasha we read, in nearly identical language to the laconic phrase announcing Amalek’s arrival: “Va-yavo Yitro,” that Yitro came [Ex. 18:5]. Because of the texts’ immediate proximity and strikingly similar language, Ibn Ezra teaches that the Torah is contrasting the stories of Amalek and Yitro.
We already know that Amalek’s arrival brought carnage. Yitro’s arrival brings the opposite, support and relief to a leader and a people who are weary and insecure. It is not an exaggeration to say that Yitro literally saves Moses and the Israelites.
An astute Yitro watches as his son-in-law teaches the encamped people God’s law, judging their disputes from dawn into the night. Realizing that Moses would soon wear himself out, and that the days-long wait for rulings could well dilute or even vitiate justice, Yitro suggests an innovation. He advises Moses to create a hierarchical judicial system for the fledgling nation. Yitro says, “The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” [Ex. 18:17]. He suggests that Moses fashion a self-governing, law-driven society, advising Moses to select worthy men from among the people to sit in judgment. “Have them bring the major disputes to you, but have them decide the minor disputes themselves” [Ex. 18:22].
What inspires Yitro to save Moses and the Israelites? We see that Moses takes Yitro into his tent [Ex. 18:8-10]. Time falls away, and Moses and Yitro speak truths to one another as they had for 40 years in Midian. Even before they break bread, Moses reveals to Yitro what he knows Yitro has come all this way to hear: the prime qualities of his God. Moses tells Yitro — four times — that his God “hitzil” — saves, rescues, delivers and champions — the weak and broken. Rashi says that when Yitro hears Moses’ graphic descriptions of the atrocities endured, of the plagues, of the miraculous rescues at the Red Sea and at Refidim, of the Manna, that Yitro and Moses embrace one another out of joy. Yitro’s skin breaks out in goosebumps as he listens [Sanhedrin 94a].
Yitro understands the extraordinary nature of Moses’ God who delivers the weak from the strong. In the very next verse [Ex. 18:11], Yitro says, “Now I know!” And from that moment, according to Midrash Tanchuma, he accepts Moses’ God as his own. Yitro remembers that years before, Moses himself “hitzil” (saved) Yitro’s daughters at the well in Midian [Ex. 2:17-19]. Yitro learns the lesson of Moses’ “saving-God,” and turns his heart and mind to emulating Him as Moses has done.
Now let us look at the qualities Yitro requires of the new judges: they should be stalwart men who fear God; men of truth who abhor unlawful gain [Ex. 18:21]. The standout phrase is “yir’ei Elokim,” men who “fear God.” We saw this key phrase when the Israelite midwives stood up to Pharaoh and, “fearing God,” disobeyed his command to kill the Hebrew male babies [Ex. 1:17]. Fearing God is what distinguishes moral beings from immoral ones. It is the very core of lawful and civilized behavior. “To fear the Eternal your God” is Moses’ prime dictum to the people before his death [Deuteronomy 10:12].
Amalek “did not fear God,” Moses explains [Deut. 25:17-19], “savaging those least capable of defending themselves,” and just for the pleasure of it, writes Yoram Hazony. In those three verses, we are doubly commanded to Zachor! — to remember and never forget what Amalek did to us.
So it is deliberate that Yitro holds up “fear of God” as a sine qua non — an essential qualification — of a judge for God’s nation. “Va-yavo Yitro” stands in eloquent juxtaposition to “Va-yavo Amalek.”
Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and author. Her award-winning third book, “Biblical Seductions,” is now a serialized Kindle e-Book. Rapoport lectures widely, teaching Bible at Drisha and at the Manhattan JCC.