Friday, January 21, 2011

ParshaNotes Yisro 5771

Welcome to another edition of ParshaNotes, this one sponsored in honor of all DovBear guest posters, past and present, by a generous, anonymous donor.

Jethro's arrival is set in thematic opposition to the arrival of Amelek in the preceding chapter. There are a network of parallels, and cross references.  (Cassuto) [More] [And what is "Amelek" anyway?]

Moshe's display of leadership style is in many ways the antithesis of what we've seen from Pharaoh on the same score

Accurate idiom
18:18 נָבֹל תִּבֹּל גַּם־אַתָּה גַּם־הָעָם הַזֶּה You and your people will wear yourselves out
As Rashi says (following Onkelos) the verb here means "to wither." To an ancient, agricultural society, this means approximately what "burnout" might mean to a modern, technological society like ours. (Alter)

Common Error
Christians often forget that Jesus was not one of them, but one of us. They speak of Jesus teaching or arguing with "the Jews" forever oblivious to the fact that both Jesus and "the Jews" would have thought of each other as members of same religious and ethnic group. Jews are guilty of the opposite mistake, specifically toward Moshe's wife Tzipporah. Perhaps she converted (in whatever way that was done before the Torah was given) but she hadn't shared in the history or the burdens of her husband's nation. Their suffering was not her suffering. Her arrival with Jethro, after the Exodus has been executed, drives home the point that she was not one of us.

Biblical economy
18:4 Moshe calls his second son Elazar, because [Moses said,] "The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh's sword." When? As the Midrash  notes this must refer to an episode not depicted in the narrative. The story of Moshe's Magic Marble Neck is the (likely invented) solution.

Unnecessary comment
The verse [19:3] says "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel" and Rashi, following mechilta, provides an explanation for the double language. This misses the point. It appears far more likely to me that God is speaking in verse to signify the grandeur and majesty of the moment. (The line's meaning and rhythm are both perfectly parallel.)

Upping the ante
God's original deal with Abraham was that we would practice justice and righteousness. Now [19:6] He says "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes."

Close Reading
Moshe demonstrates modesty when he speaks to his father-in-law. Though Yisro arrived after hearing of all "God had done for Moses and for Israel his people..."; Moshe, seven verses later  "told his father in law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake..."

External Parallels
- לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה־לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל־תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ׃
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
Here, God is speaking of the three realms of creation, and seems to be replying to Canaanite theology, which had a separate god for each zone (Baal: Land; Yaam:Sea; Mot: Underworld)

- Ancient Hittite treaties contained six parts: a preamble (identifying the treaty’s initiator and attributes), a historical review (explaining the relationship between the parties and reminding the subordinate party of their dependance on the suzerain), the stipulations (what is expected of each party), a call for deposition (placing the treaty in a place of honor in the vassal’s city), a list of witnesses (usually gods), and finally a statement of curses and blessings (what will happen if the terms of the treaty are or are not followed. The stroy of the Ten Commandments follow this pattern (Nachun Sarna)

Irony Alert
The ban on taking God's name "in vain" may have originally had the sence of "making use of the name in a (false) spell or incantation", as opposed to using it in casual speech. (Alter) Nowadays, of course we're meticulous about not ever mentioning the name, but flock to clairvoyants who offer to work miracles, often through various uses of the name.

Midrashic meaning
Rashi on 19:17: at the bottom of the mountain According to its simple meaning, [DB: Which no Rabbi or preacher ever mentions.] at the foot of the mountain. Its midrashic interpretation is, however, that the mountain was uprooted from its place and turned over them like a vat. — [from Shab. 88a] I don't believe even the midrashic interp. here is meant to be taken literally. Rather, I believe the author of the midrash is saying that following the miracles the Israelites had seen, they were in no position to refuse God's invitation; thus it was as if the mountain was being held over the heads.
A better answer: The verses put God in two places at once:  On the one hand, it says "And the Lord went down upon the mountain" and elsewhere reports that God "called to [Moses] from the mountain." Later, God says "You have seen for yourselves that I talked to you from heaven," and at the end of the story Moshe recalls, "Out of heaven He caused you to hear his voice." So which is it? Heaven or mountain? If the Mountain was lifted, the problem is solved as this allows God to be both on the mountain and in heaven simultaneously. See this and this.

After ordering us to eat a meal using archaic cooking (fire roasting) and archaic baking (unleavened bread) methods, the Lord seals the deal with a pact prepared using an archaic mode of communication (writing on stone.)

- Twice we're told the people heard (or will hear) the sound of a ram's horn, but no information is provided about who is blowing it. At the first mention, the horn is called a "yovel" prompting Rashi to say, "the ram’s horn Heb. הַיוֹבֵל. That is a shofar of a ram, for in Arabia, they call a ram “yuvla.” Do I misunderstand here, or is Rashi glossing a word based on how its used by non-Jews? If so, why?

Unresolved Questions about the Man Yisro
- How many names did our title character have? According to Shimon bar Yochai, he had two names, "Hobab" and "Jethro" (Sifre, Num. 78). Elsewhere, we're told he has 7 names "Reuel," "Jether," "Jethro," "Hobab," "Heber," "Keni"  and "Putiel". Per the critics, the different names represent different people and/or different textual traditions.

- What was his occupation? One tanna says he was a priest of idolatry; another says he was a prince in Midian.

- What was his status? Exodus Raba says he gave up idolatry before he met Moshe (he was therefore ostracized, which is why his daughters were compelled to serve as his shepherd. This bit of back story is provided by the midrash to explain why a priest or prince didn't have professionals looking after his flocks.) Mechilta says he was still in the grips of idolatry when his first grandchild was born. (In general, Exodus Raba takes a positive view of Jethro, while the Mechilta views him more negatively)

- Did he have a role in Pharaoh's court? Exodus Raba says he was an advisor, together with Job and Ballam; other sources (Tanchuma, TPJ, BT Menachot, Gospel of Timothy) say Pharaoh's advisors were called Jannes and Jambres (joined, in some places, by a man called Micha)

Wrong Rashi
Rashi 19:4 on eagles’ wings Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings, for all other birds place their young between their feet since they fear another bird flying above them. The eagle, however, fears only man, lest he shoot an arrow at it, because no other bird flies above it. Therefore, it places them [its young] on its wings. This is an excellent image, but the facts are false: Eagles don't actually carry their young on their wings.

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