Earlier this week, we offered a series of short thoughts on Yitro’s visit to Bnei Yisrael, focusing on the episode’s chronology and the question of Yitro’s motivation for joining Bnei Yisrael. Today we will revisit the same episode but proceed from a new point of departure: Yitro’s sacrifices. Our study will straddle both last week’s Parshah, Yitro, and this week’s Parshah, Mishpatim.
Here, to re-orient ourselves, is the relevant text:
Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, his people—that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt. So Moses’ father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moses] said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” and one who was named Eliezer, because [Moses said,] “The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.” Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses’] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God. And he said to Moses, “I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her.” So Moses went out toward his father in law, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent. Moses told his father in law [about] all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and [that] the Lord had saved them. Jethro was happy about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. [Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued all of you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” Then Moses’ father in law, Jethro, sacrificed burnt offering[s] and [peace] offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moses’ father in law before God (Exod. 18:1-12).
Our focus today is the final few verses of this passage. After Yitro meets with Moshe, he “sacrifice[s] burnt offerings and peace offerings to God.” At first glance, this fact may strike us as just one more unremarkable detail in the series of details that the Torah provides us regarding Yitro’s visit. But when we consider where we are in this scene (at the foot of Har Sinai) and think about who is being sacrificed (presumably, members of Yitro’s flock), and then put these pieces together—Har Sinai, Yitro’s flock, and the motif of “sacrifice”—we cannot help but recall an earlier scene in which they took center stage:
Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father in law, the chief of Midian, and he led the flocks after the free pastureland, and he came to the mountain of God, to Horeb [=Har Sinai]. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed… And the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave drivers, for I know their pains… So now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” … But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” And He said, “For I will be with you, and this is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:1-12).
At the burning bush, Moshe, tending the flock of Yitro, is told by Hashem that upon leading Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, “you will worship God on this mountain.” Those of us who come to this prophecy knowing the rest of the story—or those of us who consult Rashi’s commentary—probably assume that the “worship” to which it refers is the receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai. The issue with this interpretation, however, is that receiving the Torah at Har Sinai did not involve any active act of worship on the part of Bnei Yisrael. תעבדון, “worship,” most naturally connotes “offering sacrifices”—and, indeed, that is how Ibn Ezra understands the burning bush prophecy: as a reference not to Parshat Yitro, in which Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah (Exod. 20), but to our Parshah, Mishpatim, in which Moshe leads Bnei Yisrael in offering a series of sacrifices at the foot of Har Sinai (Exod. 24).
In terms of peshat—Biblical interpretation operating with the plain meaning of the text—Ibn Ezra’s approach seems the most straightforward. Yet Rashi nevertheless adopts an alternative view, and, whatever his motivation for doing so may be, the very fact that he does so is reflective of a critical if often-forgotten characteristic of Biblical prophecy: its ambiguity. With the benefit of hindsight, identifying the event or series of events to which a given prophecy most naturally refers is usually a simple exegetical exercise. But for those who lived through these events in real time, it was not always immediately clear how best to fit the prophecies they had received into the reality unfolding about them.[i]
One classic example of the phenomenon is the prophecy that the pregnant Rivkah receives regarding her two unborn children: ורב יעבד צעיר, “ve-rav yaavod tsair” (Gen. 25:23).[ii] As R. Jonathan Sacks has already explained:
The words ve-rav yaavod tsair seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities… The third [such ambiguity]—not part of the text but of later tradition—is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk—suggesting, “the older, shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.” …The subtlety is such, that we do not notice them at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”[iii]
So taking this example as our paradigm, let us now return to our Sefer, Shemot. Even if we follow Ibn Ezra in claiming that the events of Parshat Mishpatim (Exod. 24) constitute the fulfillment of the prophecy delivered to Moshe in Parshat Shemot (Exod. 3), a lot of text remains between these two Parshahs. The point here is not to advocate, as Rashi and others in fact do, that some other interim event, or series of events, should be viewed as the “true” fulfillment of the burning bush prophecy. It is simply to take a principle that others have noted—the ambiguity of Biblical prophecy—and to demonstrate how it may apply in yet another instance. What we are trying to do, in other words, is to put ourselves in the headspace of Bnei Yisrael and to observe, as Yogi Berra might, that “it ain’t over till it’s over:” until they themselves had reached Parshat Mishpatim, Moshe and Bnei Yisrael may not have known how the prediction of Parshat Shemot would play itself out.[iv]
Exegetically, the effects of this observation are threefold:
1. It allows us to appreciate that, “in the moment,” any number of events may reasonably have been taken by Moshe and/or Bnei Yisrael to represent the realization of—or, minimally, the first steps towards the realization of—the burning bush prophecy. The receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai is one such example, offered by Rashi and others. The sacrifices offered by Yitro and partaken of by the leaders of Bnei Yisrael may constitute a second.[v]
2. Beyond the counterfactuals, there are a series of concrete details strewn throughout Parshat Yitro whose significance is perhaps best illuminated against the backdrop of the burning bush prophecy and the expectation, on the part of the nation, of its imminent fulfilment. For instance:
- In the lead-up to the revelation, Hashem pledges that Bnei Yisrael shall constitute a “kingdom of priests” (19:6). This a challenging phrase whose meaning is the subject of much speculation and debate. Bnei Yisrael are not all priests, i.e., kohanim. In what way, then, shall they suddenly assume “priestly” capacities, post-Sinai?
- Also prior to the revelation, Hashem commands Moshe to set boundaries around the mountain so that nobody ascends it, and warns that whoever violates these boundaries—man or beast—shall die (19:13). Among other things, the emphasis on animals is odd—why would anybody have contemplated bringing his or her animal onto Har Sinai?
- Though contact with the mountain during the revelation itself is prohibited, Hashem stipulates that “after the extended shofar blast, they may ascend the mountain” (19:13). What is the purpose of granting this permission—who would want to ascend the mountain after the revelation, and why?
- The prohibition of ascending the mountain is then repeated a few verses later, immediately before Hashem initiates the revelation: “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Descend, warn the people lest they break through to Hashem to see, and a multitude of them will fall. Even the priests who approach Hashem should be prepared, lest Hashem burst forth against them’” (19:21-22). Moshe insists that the people have already received this warning, but Hashem responds by repeating it a third time, yet again reminding him that it applies to the “priests” as much as anybody else (19:24). Why the focus on this prohibition, and on the priests specifically?
- Finally, the revelation begins, and the “Ten Commandments” which fill its content span the majority of the next chapter. Yet instead of closing on this note of climax, the Parshah concludes with a series of apparently unrelated laws concerning the construction of altars (20:20-23). What role do these halachot serve here?
If we enter Parshat Yitro without context, it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to find compelling answers to the questions we have raised. If, on the other hand, we remember that hovering in the background of the revelation is a prophecy according to which Bnei Yisrael are to offer sacrifices upon Har Sinai, then we much more readily recognize how the aforementioned details contribute to the dynamic of our scene. The animal is the object of sacrifice; the priest is its officiant; the altar is its locus. Thus, we may reasonably posit that the invocation of these components in a variety of instances throughout Parshat Yitro stems from the fact that the nation is eager to integrate them as per the prophecy reported to them by Moshe.
3. But even as they sense that the time to actualize the prophecy is fast upon them, neither Bnei Yisrael nor Moshe ultimately know precisely when or how they shall go about doing so. This fact alone supplies us with a framework for analyzing many of the problems posed by Sefer Shemot, more broadly. Why does Moshe shuttle between the nation and Hashem so many times in the days before the revelation? Why does Hashem twice reiterate the ban against ascending the mountain? Why does Bnei Yisrael abort what seemed to have been the original plan—Hashem addressing them directly—and instead urge Moshe to act as intermediary? Why is the covenantal ceremony at which the people finally offer their sacrifices (Exod. 24) separated from Parshat Yitro by three whole chapters? Through and through, the logistics of the Sinai scene(s) disorient us. These, of course, are issues over which our sages have written extensively, and we are not about to resolve all of them in one fell swoop. We can, however, ameliorate them substantially, if we are amenable to the notion that it is the confusion that Bnei Yisrael themselves bring to Sinai—confusion produced by the opaque prophecy their leader had earlier received upon that very mountain—which, in turn, prompts the chaotic mechanics and jumbled literary presentation of the events that surround it.
So where does all of this leave us?
If what we have seen and suggested to this point is more or less on target, then there emerges at least one important implication as far as religious ethics and epistemology are concerned. The revelation at Har Sinai is our tradition’s quintessential instance of spiritual certitude. Never before or again would humankind find itself capable of discerning the divine will as definitively as when that will was communicated, in plain language, directly from its source. Yet the upshot of our analysis is that even in that very moment, critical aspects of the divine will remained obscured—for though Hashem had much earlier indicated an apparent desire for sacrifices at Sinai, our ancestors, so far as we can surmise from the text, were never instructed as to when or how or through whom or with what to perform these sacrifices. The matter was left for them to determine through their own discretion and devices. Nor, incidentally, was the manner in which they ultimately did so confirmed as correct by any post ipso facto pronouncement from on high to that effect.
Such are the conditions that we must contend with as adherents to Hashem’s Torah. Hashem may descend upon Sinai—may issue clear moral directives; may even supply our leaders with the jurisprudential apparatus they require for promulgating their own such directives—but He does so from “within the thickness of a cloud” (Exod. 19:9), because the nature of all normative endeavor is fundamentally nebulous. In the beis medrash, it may be easy (though it often is not) to determine the law applicable when Reuven’s ox gores Shimon’s. But intuiting how Hashem would have us proceed, both halachically and especially hashkafically,[vi] in the myriad of complex circumstances that we find ourselves confronted by in “real life,” is not at all easy. It is difficult, delicate, and ultimately, dubious; very rarely, in these moments, can we claim to know with surety what it is that Hashem wants of us. All we can do is strive for the standard set by the prophet Michah, and pray that we meet it successfully:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what He demands of you: only to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Hashem your God (Mic. 6:8).
[ii] Another example that has received attention recently is ברית בין הבתרים, the “Covenant of the Parts” (recounted in Sefer Bereshit), during which Avraham receives a prophecy that apparently foretells the Egyptian bondage (recounted in Sefer Shemot) but which contemporary mefarshim have argued might also be understood as a reference to Yaakov’s sojourn in the house of Lavan (recounted later in Sefer Bereshit).
[iii] See R. Jonathan Sacks, “Toldot: Between Prophecy and Oracle,” Covenant and Conversations 5773. R. Sacks argues that the news delivered to Rivkah came in the form of an “oracle,” which he describes as “a familiar form of supernatural communication in the ancient world [that] were normally obscure and cryptic, unlike the normal form of Israelite prophecy” (emphasis added). However, R. Carmy’s view (see first footnote)—viz., that even “the normal form of Israelite prophecy” often contained an element of the “obscure and cryptic”—seems more compelling.
[iv] For sake of simplicity, let us assume that these chapters are recorded in chronological order, though there are mefarshim who maintain that they are not.
[v] We might even propose a third, if we are willing to move from the territory of peshat into that of derash (homiletics). Since the root ע.ב.ד means both “worship” and “work,” and since את can mean “with,” and since אלהים means both “God” and “judges,” the phrase תעבדון את האלהים בהר הזה, which until now we have translated as “you shall worship God on this mountain,” might alternatively be rendered, “you shall work with the judges on this mountain.” Read thus, the prophecy at the burning bush would serve as an oblique (and admittedly ungrammatical) allusion to the judicial reforms Yitro recommends in the latter half of our passage, whose effect is to place Moshe in the position of “working with other judges.”
[vi] Halacha = law. Hashkafah = “worldview.”