Parashat Yitro is what we have all been waiting for, the moment when the Israelites arrive at Sinai.
They have left Egypt, and they gather at the foot of the mountain to establish the covenant with God. The tension in the parashah between chapter 18, when Moses receives sage advice from his father-in-law Jethro, and the revelation of the Ten Commandments that follows, sets up what we can recognize as the three branches of government: the judiciary, represented here by the court system with the high court of seventy elders that Jethro counsels Moses to establish; the executive, represented by Moses, with Aaron, and Joshua and his men; and the legislature, which is represented here as the text of the law, not only of the tablets but of the continued legislation that follows.
While the Torah may not have been read in its time as pre-ordaining a three-branched governmental structure, it is hard for us not to recognize ourselves within its sacred lines.
The most recognizable element of this parashah throughout most of Jewish history was that the holiest moment in our sacred history, that of the establishment of the covenant of the Torah with God, takes place in the wilderness as the people are leaving Egypt but not yet in sight of their destination. The Israelites of parashat Yitro are a refugee people. The monument of their founding moment is a text, not a place. There is no Jewish tradition about where Mount Sinai is (although there are Christian and Muslim traditions about the location of the mountain). Our holy space is Jerusalem where the ancient Temple stood, but in parashat Yitro God’s presence temporarily rests atop a mountain, above a temporary encampment of the people. Parashat Yitro situates the essence of Jewishness in a diaspora context where home and hearth are moving targets. Mount Sinai, the place where God and humanity met, was a way-stop along a refugee route out of Egyptian slavery. The Israelites were a people of refugees.
That model from the Torah gave solace and guidance to the people through the ages as we moved from place to place, escaping lands of trouble as we made our way to lands of promise. The wandering Jews took the Torah wherever they went. It could be packed in a bag and carried around the shoulder. A religion based on a covenant of text and praxis, as expressed in parashat Yitro, rather than a place-based cult, as is emphasized alternatively in Deuteronomy, was ideally suited to a people who so often found itself uprooted and decentered.
The key element of a religion of refugees is the model of God as refugee. When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., the people brought their stories and traditions, their law and lore, to Babylon. There the refugee scribes redacted their texts into the Pentateuch as we know it, and there they accepted the radical notion that God’s presence was not restricted to Jerusalem, that God’s power was not anesthetized by the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar.
The Jewish refugees in Babylon believed that God was a refugee with them, that God accompanied them into exile, and would be with them wherever they were.
This critical notion is embedded in the book of Exodus. The first half of the book is about the people leaving Egypt, while the second half of the book is about God leaving Sinai. After the excitement of parashat Yitro, the bulk of the remainder of the book is devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that would allow God’s presence, awesomely encountered by the people in our parashah in Exodus 19, to be carried with the people. The people move on only knowing that God will move on with them just as God’s presence spreads only when the people are willing and able to take God with them, to pack that scroll in a bag over the shoulder, as in later years. The essence of the religiosity that comes from this part of the Torah is the worship of an ambulatory God by an ambulatory people.
We are ingrained by our historical-cultural DNA as refugees who believe in a God who is a refugee. God’s sovereignty is all-powerful because it can survive displacement and rejection. So also is the strength and dignity of the refugee. This is an ethic we should remember today as we recognize ourselves in the text.