The first thing we read in this Parsha is about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. He comes bringing with him Moses’ family and meets up with the Israelite nation “at the mountain of God,” as is explained in the first verses of this portion. Now, why is it important to mention the exact spot where Jethro first encountered the Jewish nation? Back in the time when Moses was just a shepherd, guarding over his father-in-laws flocks, he encountered a strange sight. We read in Exodus 3, “Moses…led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.” How did Moses know that “the bush was not consumed?” Because he gave this strange sight his full attention.

Not only did he give this occurrence his full attention, the next verse states that Moses left the flock behind and said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.” While we may understand this to mean that Moses just wanted to get a closer look, the Ramchal, in his commentary gives a deeper reasoning behind Moses’ statement. He says, “Moshe was saying ‘now I will turn away from the lowly mundane existence I have been living and draw myself close to spiritual loftiness and to my spiritual root.’ For this is man’s entire purpose in this lowly world.” What the Ramchal is saying is Moses’ “turn[ing] aside” wasn’t simply a physical action; it was a change of heart.

Moses turned away from the physical (his flock) in order to encounter the spiritual (the not-burning bush). In Hebrew, the word for “turn” found in the above verse, is the word “SaR.” In gematria (a method which assigns a numerical value to each letter in the alphabet) the word “SaR” is equal to the number 260. The Hebrew word for “eye” is the word “AyiN.” This word in gematria equals the number 130. What is the significance here? If you multiply the singular term “eye” 2 times you get the value of 260, meaning in order to fully turn toward something, you must give it your entire attention, using both your eyes. Moses was confronted with the not-burning bush and fixed his eyes/his concentration solely on this strange spiritual sight. When God saw Moses turn aside and head toward this spiritual sight, God made His move and encountered him there.
God tells Moses that he is the man who will lead the Israelite nation out of Egypt. Moreover, God specifically states, “this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” Therefore, to answer my first question, “why is it important to mention the exact spot where Jethro first encountered the Jewish nation?” Now we know it was part of God’s promise to Moses, “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” God brought the Israelites to this Mountain of God in order to fulfill His promise to Moses and show Himself as the One Faithful to His Word.

In the next chapter of this portion, Exodus 19, it again stresses the fact that “after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt…they came to the Wilderness of Sinai…so Israel camped there before the mountain. And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain…” The repetition here is given to show God’s faithfulness to what He promises. After God calls Moses from the Mountain, He tells him to speak to the Israelites and say, “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to Myself.” God says He brought deliverance to the Israelites “on eagles wings…” In the Mishnah (Avot 5:20), Judah ben Tema was quoted as saying, “Be strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, fast as a gazelle, and mighty as a lion, to do the will of your Father who is in heaven.” What is the idea behind God’s people having “eagles wings” and being “light as an eagle?” Rabbi Moshe Weinberger writes in his book Sparks from the Fire, “Why does it say to be as light as an eagle? There are many other birds, like the sparrow, that are lighter than the eagle…despite the heaviness of the eagle, it is considered lighter because it has the strongest wings. Hashem says ‘I will lift you up’ like upon the wings of eagles. This means He will take [the Israelites] from the lowest point [] of impurity to the point of receiving the Torah at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai).” God brought His people out from under the impurity of Egypt and raised them to soar among the purest of heights, like that of an eagle, in order to receive the Torah.

The Israelites had to be rescued from their impurity so they could soar. This is why God says He brought the Israelites out “on eagles wings.” When a person makes teshuvah (repentance) for their past mistakes, misdeeds and impurities, they become free to fly even as an eagle. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger continues by writing, “The Ashlich…makes the following point… ‘The eagle flies much higher than all other birds… Learn from the eagle who does not rest until she rises above everything and you do the same!’ …The Ramchal explains that since a person comes from dust and earth, there is a natural heaviness to a person…So Hashem calls out…‘Be light as an eagle! Even though it is heavy, it has strong wings and it shakes off the dust, rising straight up to the Heavens. You (also) have wings and you must use them!” The eagle has the drive to fly high above all the other birds even to the very Heavens. What is our drive to transcend the impurity of the world and rise to Heavenly heights? We have the ability to rise above the earthly pull and connect to God.

In physics, there is the saying “What goes up must come down.” However, in this case, every soul that descends (even to the most impure of states) has the ability to ascend into the very heights of glory! Rabbi Moshe Weinberger writes, “…we have, for the most part, lost the ability to fly, to soar above physicality and elevate ourselves above the world…[However], human beings can fly even higher than angels, as long as they guard their wings.” We achieve “winged-status” when we leave the impurities and temptations of the world behind for the better things of God.
Though I have not read as much of G.K. Chesterton as I would like, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes he once famously wrote, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” This is what keeps much of humanity bogged down in the muddle of life—over-consternation—about themselves and life in general. Chesterton later writes in the same chapter, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”(From the book, “Orthodoxy.”) I believe one side of us, as humans, doesn’t want to fight gravity, we want to stay where things are comfortable, yet at the same time, I believe the other side of our human nature, doesn’t actually believe it possible that we could actually transcend beyond this world.
Many people know the “Ugly Duckling” story, but there is a similar “Chicken Eagle” story that goes like this, “A chicken farmer once found an eagle’s egg. He put it with his chickens and soon the egg hatched. The young eagle grew up with all the other chickens. He thought he was a chicken, just like them. Since the chickens could only fly for a short distance, the eagle also learned to fly only a short distance. That was all that he thought he could do. As a result, that was all he was able to do. One day the eagle saw a bird flying high above him. He was very impressed. “Who is that?” he asked the hens around him. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” the hens told him. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth, we are just chickens.” So the eagle lived and died as a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.” If you felt sorry for the “Chicken Eagle” who never knew his true potential, how much more do you think God is saddened when people resign themselves to the idea, “we belong to the earth.”
God says to Moses, Exodus 19:4-6, “I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to Myself. Now…if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people…and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The mission statement of Israel—special treasure, kingdom of priests and holy nation—is predicated upon the fact that Israel was lifted on eagles wings out from their slavery experience; and not just slavery to the Egyptians, but also slavery to the impurities, spirits, attitudes and amoral practices of Egypt. Only once the nation of Israel rises above the world and its system, focusing squarely on God, can they become an “Am Segula, Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goy Kadosh— special treasure, kingdom of priests and holy nation.”Everyone has the ability to transcend this world, but if transcendence is only all about one’s own person, then that individual has missed the very essence of the reason to transcend. We transcend so the world around us can transcend with us. We are in the process of ascending to God, so that when God sees fit, He will descend to mankind. As He states in both the books of Zechariah and Malachi, “Return to Me…And I will return to you.” When God sees we are serious in our pursuit of Him, He will initiate “Operation World-Redemption” and “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) May it come soon!

Grace and Peace from God’s Bondservant,
Shabbat Shalom,

46 thoughts on “Parsha Yitro “Jethro” Exodus 18:1-20:23

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