Jethro’s Connection Contribution

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.”
(Exodus 2:20) 

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.
(Exodus 18:5-6)

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. 
(Exodus 18:17)

In Hebrew, the key phrase used by Jethro —“not good”—  reads, “Lo Tov”.

   לא        טוב
Good    Not
Tov        Lo

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…
(Genesis 2:18)

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.



7 thoughts on “Jethro’s Connection Contribution”

  1. I think it was a good idea to make the punishment public and the crimes of the person read aloud before the penalty is executed. I believe once the people here the grusumness of the crime there wouldn’t be so many criminals being housed in our prisons.

  2. Rabbi Lapin,
    This post reminds me of your recording “Connect For Success”. We first listened to Connect For Success as a family in our 15 passenger van on a drive from Salem, Oregon to Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast. That recording has made a profound and lasting impact in our personal and business lives. I will read about Jethro from now on with new interest.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for recounting that family trip, Ben,
      I feel privileged to have been along for the ride

  3. Ecclesiastes 8:11 Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.

    It’s never good to postpone, and drag out the sentence. Parents make mistakes in their children’s lives when they postpone correction for bad behaviors. NOT GOOD. Judgment should be quick, settled and moved on from.

    Very good thought tool.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Tony–
      Thanks so much. Yes, capital punishment is not much of a deterrent or anything else when the death sentence takes 25 years to be acted on.

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