In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in the Torah, this upcoming Shabbat we will be reading Parshat Yitro, which sees the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; however, I actually want to focus on the namesake of the parsha, a man named Yitro.
Along with only 5 others – Noaḥ, Sarah, Koraḥ, Balak, and Pinḥas – Parshat Yitro is named after an individual. Of those, all but Yitro and Balak were Jewish. This begs the question of why one of the most pivotal moments in all of Tanakh is named after a non-Jew? Who was Yitro, and why was he so important as to merit this important chapter of Jewish history being named after him?
After being introduced as the father-in-law of Moses, Yitro is decorated with the title kohen of Midian. This is particularly interesting, as the work kohen (literally “priest”) is almost exclusively used in relation to Aaron and his sons, the Jewish priesthood. I would suggest that in this instance, the word kohen is actually being used to indicate that Yitro was renowned as an inﬂuential individual to the culture and governance of the Midianite people. However, by introducing him as the father-in-law of Moses (implying Moses is the more renowned of the two), we see Yitro taking great humility in his identity and pride in his son-in-law, the leader of the Jewish people.
Following this introduction, the beginning of the parsha sees Yitro making a suggestion to Moses. After he observes Moses tirelessly spending all day serving the judicial needs of his people, he remarks “לא־טוב הדבר אשר אתה עשה” (“the thing you are doing is not right”)[Exodus 18:17]. Rather, he suggests a tiered judicial system of leaders to oﬄoad and share the workload with fellow non-materialistic (“people who despise money”) spiritual leaders [ibid 18:21].
In his proliﬁc commentary on the Torah, Rashi remarks that the name Yitro, meaning
“extra,” is a reference to how he caused an addition to the Torah to be created. While it may seem like a small contribution, Yitro made a signiﬁcant change in the judicial structure of the Jewish people in order to allow Moses to better devote his time to leadership. We see parallels of this structure even today in several countries, such as with Canada’s courts being structured in diﬀerent levels (circuits) thereby oﬄoading the burden from the Supreme Court of Canada.
While the parsha is named after Yitro, the visionary of this system, I see a valuable lesson in how Moses received this suggestion. As a leader, it is important to be open to the suggestions of others and gracefully accept feedback. It is important that regardless of what position we’re in, that as a leader we value the ideas and contributions of others, and as a supporter, that we put in every eﬀort to improve the systems in which we participate.
Student, Hillel UofT