Yitro - on teamwork, on text, and on the ten commandments

Jethrow, Tziporah’s father, comes to Moses and sees his great work. Moses is slaving (pardon the use of the term) morning until night in the service of his people. Jethrow tells Moses that “the thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (18.17-18). Jethrow, Moses' non-Jewish father-in-law imparts some of the best wisdom in this parshah and in the Torah: we need each other. A good leader delegates; a good community supports on another. Jethrow does not simply tell Moses that shouldering the entire burden is wrong because he will tire himself out, but that ultimately he will also fail his people. It is not only for the good of Moses that Jethrow tells him to share the work, but to empower the community as well. Moses selects leaders and judges from amongst the people. A society is more functional when there are many leaders from within. This is the lesson Jethrow imparts on Moses. Not only do we as individuals need help sometimes (we cannot do it alone) but the worth of work done as a collective is greater than the sum of its parts.

The idea of community is furthered in this week's parasha by the great moment of solidification of the Jewish people. In Yitro we have the revelation of God to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Here we have storytelling at its greatest. There are cues relating to the passage of time to build suspense, there is the pathetic fallacy (when the weather resembles the mood) of the thunder and lightening, there are sensory details such as the sound of the blast of the horn, the visual effect of the smoke and fire on the temple mount, etc.

Here is where the people are told that their freedom from Egypt and the miracles they witnessed come at a price. “I the LORD am your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods besides Me” (20.2-3). This is the first commandment of the decalogue, the ten commandments (considered the most important of the commandments – there are indeed many more in Jewish law). The people are prohibited from constructing idols, from taking God's name in vain. They are told to keep the Sabbath, to honour one's parents, to refrain from committing murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness or coveting.

While many of us may not take the story of the revelation at Sinai literally, we can applaud that our early ancestors were interested in constructing a moral code. The commandments relating to God are part of how the commandments relating to humans and their interactions are justified. Any parent who has told their child to do/not do something just because “I say so” knows that authority can be used to promote morality (not that it's always the best strategy). That is what is happening with these commandments.

We all benefit from a system that instructs us not to steal from or murder each other. The ten commandments are really very human commandments. Even those that are more about the relationship between people and God have meaning for Humanists. The God-character tells people to honour the Sabbath to commemorate the creation of the world in six days. People need rest to be productive. The idea of the holiness of the Sabbath is a way for people to carve out a sacred time to be with their families, a time for reflection, and a time to rejuvenate themselves. At the time of the Bible's writing (and this section was clearly written and re-written – we see elements of many writers and a chronology that gets confused because of the multiple layers of narrative) there were not exactly good labour laws. The commandment to keep the Sabbath meant a balance between work and rest that served human needs.

In the beginning of this discussion I suggested that we need community – we rely on one another. Towards the end of it, we have commandments that suggest that individuality is also important. We must respect other people, and we show that respect by respecting one another's property, spouses, and lives. We are told in the decalogue that we as individuals have both rights and responsibilities, which serve as a balance to our need for community. We have worth as individuals, we must be moral as individuals, and our strength, morality, worth, and goodness are enhanced by our relationship with our community/society.