top of page
  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Yitro: Something only you can say

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

In this week's parsha, the Israelites -- in the wilderness -- are joined by Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. The notion that an outsider, of a different tribe and ethnicity, should have joined the Children of Israel, gives rise to a prominent tradition that Jethro became a convert to Judaism; perhaps the first. Having said that, Moses tries to encourage his father-in-law to stay, in the book of Numbers, and the text leaves it ambiguous as to whether he succeeded (indeed, it's even ambiguous whether the two fathers-in-law are the same person). Accordingly, the tradition that Jethro converted to Judaism is prominent among the Rabbis, but not unanimous.

In particular, the Midrashim which celebrate Jethro's conversion, also celebrate his declaration (Exodus 18:10-11):

"Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods...”

How does Jethro know about all the other gods in the world, so that he can claim with such certainty that the God of Israel is greater? The Midrash steps in and explains:

Jethro said: I have not neglected to worship any idol in this world, but I have found no god like the God of Israel. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods.

The authors of the Midrash were, of course, monotheists. They didn't believe that there are many weak gods, in addition to one extra God who is greater than the rest. Rather, they thought that there are many false gods -- mere idols -- just like there are many fictional characters. But the God of Israel is greater than all of them -- not least because the God of Israel, unlike them, is real. And Jethro should know -- the Rabbis suggest -- because he explored every religion on earth, and found them wanting, before converting to Judaism.

The Midrash goes on to claim that,

Four men said four things which, had they been uttered by other men, would have been scoffed at with the comment: “How does he know about the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He?”

Moses vividly describes the ways of God as perfect and just (Deuteronomy 32:4). Nobody really has the authority to describe the ways of God. Nobody, that is, except for Moses, since Scripture teaches that "He made known His ways unto Moses" (Psalms: 103:7), and Scripture describes an unprecedented personal revelation to Moses, after he asked God to "Show me your ways" (Exod. 33:13).

The second example is King Solomon who said: "He hath made everything beautiful in its time" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). But how could a person be sure that God makes things more beautiful in their season, than he does in other seasons? Can a person know what ice is like in the summer? Or what melons are like in the spring?

Before freezers and globalisation, such knowledge was impossible. But Solomon was unlike other men. He was so wealthy that, according to the Midrash, there was nothing lacking from his table. He had ice in the summer, and melons in the spring, and yet he could testify that God made things most beautiful in their own season! And if this example doesn't quite resonate with a modern reader, it remains the case that tremendous wealth gives people access to experiences that others never have. It remains true that those experiences can allow a person to praise God in new ways and for new things.

Nebuchadnezzar II

The third example of the Midrash is the evil Nebuchadnezzar who said: "And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and He does according to His will in the hosts of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth..." (Daniel 4:32). But nobody knows all of the people of the earth. Nobody except for Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the entire known world.

And the fourth example is Jethro who said: "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods..."

The suggestion of the Midrash surely isn't that, like Jethro, we should all experiment with every religion before settling on Judaism. Nor does the Midrash want us to become emperors in order to praise God from a new and lofty perspective. Nor is wealth a prerequisite for insight. Surely, rather, the idea is this: each human being has a unique perspective on the world and a unique set of experiences to draw from. And yet, most of what we say -- even when true -- could be said by any number of people. The challenge, posed by this Midrash, is to use the gift of speech, even if only once in your life, to say something that is both true and important, but also such that nobody else in the world could really have said it as well, or with as much authority. It is a challenge that, in the eyes of the Midrash, has only been met four times.

In matters of science and logic, which can be described entirely in the third-person, there's an important sense in which it really doesn't matter who says what. A theory of particle physics is true or false independent of who says it. Some people are clearly more trustworthy on matters of physical theory than other people. But authority aside, the words of a true theory spoken by one person, are just as true when spoken by another. But religion is about more than what can be described in the third-person. Religion is also about relationship and lived experience. In those domains it isn't just important what is said, it's also very important who says it. Some things can only be said by some people. And to use the gift of speech religiously is to say things that draw deeply from your lived experience.

The Bible has two words for 'language' -- שפה and לשון. The first, literally means 'lip', and the second means 'tongue'. Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin points out that the builders who worked on the Tower of Babel were possessed of a common language -- but the language was described as a שפה -- a language from the lips.

A language from the lips pays lip-service. A language from the lips is external to the speaker. It's easy to speak a שפה, and much harder to speak a לשון, a language that comes from within the speaker, as does the tongue, and expresses something that only the speaker can really say.

Before wrapping up, let me present another Midrash, which takes its lead from a peculiar discussion between God and Moses that takes place, in the book of Exodus, just before the appearance of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:21-25):

The LORD said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the LORD to gaze, lest many of them perish. The priests also, who come near the LORD, must stay pure, lest the LORD break out against them.” But Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’” So the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them.”And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.

Why did God ask Moses to warn the people not to break through, if Moses had already warned them? Why does he command that the priests be ritually pure, if Moses had already sanctified them, and the mountain? And then, why does God send for Aaron, almost as an afterthought? As soon as Moses goes down to get Aaron, and to speak to the people, presumably while he's still down there, chapter 20 begins, and God recites the Ten Commandments. The Rabbis see in all of this a Divine desire to get Moses out of the way, before the revelation begins. The Midrash says:

At that moment, the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give them the Torah and to speak with them, and [yet] Moses was standing [so to speak, besides God]. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "What will I do regarding Moses?"

The presence of Moses is presented as a problem. The Midrash continues:

Rabbi Levi gave a parable concerning a King who wanted to pass legislation without consulting the lieutenant-governor. [In order to get him out of the way,] he said to him, "Go and do such-and-such." He replied, "It's already been done." So he said to him, "Go and fetch so-and-so, the senator, and come back with him." While [the lieutenant-governor] was gone, the King did as he had wanted to do [and passed the legislation]. So too, the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give the Ten Commandments, [but] Moses was standing by His side. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "I am going to reveal to them the firmament, and I will say, "I am the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:2). They will wonder, who said it, the Holy One, blessed be He, or Moses?" So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, "Go to the people and sanctify them..." (Exodus 19:10). [Moses] responded that they had already been sanctified... [So God] said to him, "Go down and come back up alongside Aaron" (Exodus 19:24). While Moses was gone, the Holy One was revealed [to the people].

This Midrash is extremely rich. It deals with the concern that we might come to deify our prophets and teachers. It might also lead us to ask, why does the King normally pass law in the presence of his lieutenant-governor, and why does he not want to do that now? One of the reasons, of course, why a ruler might prefer to speak through a spokesperson is that, in so doing, the leader can retain a sense of plausible deniability.

We have to abide by the laws of the Torah, but we shouldn't imagine that we have, in our hands, complete access to the unmediated mind of God, and to His inestimable will. Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived, but he was still a person, and even if it was dictated to him by God, the content of the Torah is clothed in a language that humans can understand. And thus, despite the great honour of receiving God's Torah, we shouldn't think that our access to God is unmediated. Moses standing there, by God's side, normally helps us to remember that fact. But the revelation at Sinai was different. It had to be direct. Why?

The answer, I think, is that God's speaking at Sinai -- even if we couldn't make out the words without the help of Moses -- is the supreme foundation of the Jewish faith. Judaism isn't a body of third-personal truths communicated to us by prophets or by scientists. Rather, it starts with a personal encounter between God and a people.


In a sense, Jewish philosophy is unimpressed with prophets -- even if they can work signs and wonders. Indeed, Maimonides claims that we shouldn’t believe what a person says just because that person can do miracles. Jewish law does recognize the significance of miracles. It bestows the defeasible legal status of ‘prophet’ upon a person who performs a sign or a wonder. But this is a legal function given to a miracle; it doesn’t mean that that miracle, in and of itself, is evidence that the miracle-worker is speaking the truth.

Indeed: if the person goes on to say something demonstrably false, then we know that they’re not a prophet after all, whatever magic tricks they were able to pull off. That’s why the status of ‘prophet’ bestowed in virtue of a miracle, is defeasible. It can be rescinded. Indeed, Moses explicitly prophesised that there would be false prophets sent to test our faith, and that those false prophets would be able to perform signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 13:3-4).

Moses tells us that any prophet who teaches us to contravene the laws of Moses, for instance by worshipping other gods, is to be considered a false prophet. But why should we believe Moses? Surely not because of the miracles that he wrought! No, we believe in Moses not because of anything that he said or did, but because of Sinai. Because, if only once, we all heard God speak directly. As Maimonides puts it:

What is the source of our faith in [Moses]? The standing at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. The fire, the thunder, the lightning. [Moses] entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard [it say], “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following:....”

Indeed, Rabbi Josef Albo argues that the whole intention of the Sinai experience was to demonstrate to the Jewish people that Moses was a prophet in the most direct way, by allowing the entire nation to hear God talking to him (The idea that we should hear God speak to Moses appears in Exodus 19:9. The explicit fulfillment of this promise is relayed in Deuteronomy 5:27.).

Consequently, the Jewish people had "a direct proof that Moses was a divine messenger through whom a perpetual law was to be given".

That "perpetual law" recognizes the role of prophets. It bestows a defeasible prophetic status upon miracle workers. Nevertheless, their entire authority, as prophets, stems not from the fact that they can do miracles, but from the Torah, whose authority comes from the experience had by the entire nation at Sinai. And that's the sense in which Moses was, for that one moment, a distraction.

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Jethro said something that only he could have said. At the apex of this week's reading, God speaks the only words he ever speaks that do not come to us second hand. He says something that only God can say. He says, "I am the Lord your God". If we're left looking for something of meaning, truth, and worth that only we can say, then perhaps the best we can do is to mirror God's example and to say, "My God, I am your servant" -- since nobody other than you, in the history of the world can say this and mean precisely the same thing.

164 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page