When the English novelist, Charles Dickens, visited a prison outside of Philadelphia in 1842, he witnessed prisoners being held in solitary confinement. He wrote that most people are incapable of recognizing the full extent of the torture and agony of being incarcerated alone. He insisted that the mental torture of solitary confinement was far worse than any torture that could be inflicted upon the body.
In this, Dickens was agreeing with the Bible’s insistence on everyone’s need for human connection.
We’re all familiar with the 187 chapters into which Archbishop Langton divided the text of the Five Books of Moses in the 13th century. Less well known are the 54 original divisions called sidras, each containing a few chapters and each named according to a word appearing early in the sidra that conveys the main theme of the sidra. Uncovering the connection between the sidra’s theme and its name is always interesting.
By way of example, here are the names of the first few sidras in Genesis:
1. In the beginning; 2. Noah; 3. Go for yourself; 4. And He appeared; 5. The life of Sarah.
Here are the names of the first five sidras of Exodus:
1. Names; 2. And I appeared; 3. Come; 4. When He Sent; 5. Jethro.
The fifth sidra, Jethro, starts with the words, “And Jethro priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses heard…”(Exodus 18:1) and ends with, “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Exodus 20:23) Since this sidra contains the Ten Commandments, one might well expect it to have been named more in accordance with that theme rather than with the name of Moses’ father-in-law whose appearance in the Bible is very limited. Perhaps the sidra should have been named “Ten Commandments” or “When God spoke to Israel.”
But Stephen Langton didn’t name the sidras, God did. This means that they each have the right name and it is up to us to understand the name’s relevance.
Let’s identify Jethro’s main characteristic. This is easily done by highlighting moments in his life. For instance, after his daughters related how they had been saved by Moses, Jethro immediately said:
…“Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.”
We can only imagine how well Jethro connected with Moses because not only did Moses settle into Jethro’s home but he married one of his daughters.
Later, we read:
And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and his wife to Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God; And he said to Moses, I your father-in-law Jethro have come to you, and your wife, and her two sons with her.
Jethro not only personally connected well with others but he also enjoyed bringing about connection. He didn’t just come to visit Moses, he came to reunite a family.
Finally, Jethro’s most revealing action; watching Moses singlehandedly respond to a nonstop cascade of questions from the children of Israel, Jethro realized that Moses wasn’t coping. What was worse, the people had to wait in line for an unreasonable time to talk to Moses.
Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Jethro was chiefly bothered because people came to Moses for rulings on personal disputes. A large part of the Torah consists of God’s rulings on how such disputes, an inevitable accompaniment to people living and working together, are to be resolved. Jethro realized that because Moses was insisting upon personally attending to every matter that arose, Israelites remained at odds with one another for longer than necessary. For this reason he urged Moses to appoint assistant judges and to delegate the job. Jethro wanted people to resolve their differences and resume happy friendships as quickly as possible.
Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that the specific language Jethro used reveals his concern. Here’s what Jethro said to Moses:
…the thing you are doing is not good.
In Hebrew, the key phrase used by Jethro —“not good”— reads, “Lo Tov”.
There is only one other instance in the entire Tanach of the phrase “Lo Tov” appearing.
It is not good for man to be alone…
Just as this first instance ‘Lo Tov’ refers to the disconnected state of loneliness as being ‘not good’ so does the second instance of ‘Lo Tov’. By postponing the resolution of disputes, Moses was keeping people disconnected. Jethro recognizes that this contradicts an underlying major theme of the Torah, an action that is really ‘not good’.
Since the entire purpose of the Ten Commandments (actually better translated as the Ten Statements) is to create and preserve connectedness between human beings, what more appropriate name for the Torah portion in which they are found could there be than “Jethro” whose life revolved around connecting people.