The exodus from Egypt, important as it was, was in reality only the first step in the formation of the Jewish nation. Our raison d'être was to be realized at Sinai with the acceptance of the Torah and the implementation of its system in our daily lives. Yet before the Torah describes the events at Sinai, the narrative digresses to record the arrival from Midian of Yitro along with Tziporrah and her children. The Torah, after describing the warm welcome that Moshe gave to his father in law, goes on to record some advice Yitro gave to Moshe regarding the operation of the Jewish court system. While important, surely it could have been recorded after Sinai. This is especially so if we accept the opinion of those commentaries who state that the actual arrival of Yitro occurred after Matan Torah . For what purpose did the Torah deviate from the chronological sequence?
The Sages teach us that Derech Eretz Kadma LeTorah - being a mentsch (I can think of no better translation for derech eretz) must precede Torah. Consideration for others, high ethical standards and sensitivity are traits that if absent make acceptance of the Torah a meaningless act. The Talmud (Yoma 86a) relates that when a person learns Torah and spends time in the presence of scholars but his business dealings are not conducted honestly or his interaction with other people lacks pleasantness, people will say: "Look how terrible Torah is - this person who learns Torah, see how corrupt are his ways, how disgusting are his actions". Unfortunately in our own day we have been witness to the desecration of G-d's name by people claiming to be devout followers of the Torah. The observant community has not always been able to make others say: "Look how Torah makes one a better person - one who is honest, totally trustworthy, a person whom we would like to emulate".
Yitro chastised Moshe for the fact that he was sitting in judgement while people had to spend many hours standing in line to have their say in the clogged up court system. This showed a slight, but nonetheless, unacceptable lack of sensitivity to others. Yitro therefore recommended greatly increasing judicial appointments, a recommendation readily accepted by Moshe. This is the level of Derech Eretz that we as Jews who purport to follow the dictates of the Torah must aspire to. It is heart-warming to be on a bus in Israel when a child or young adult, almost as a reflex action, gives their seat to an elderly adult.
The Talmud teaches us that which we all surely realize, that there is Chochmah bagoyim - wisdom amongst the nations. The Jews were about to encounter Divine revelation and accept the mitzvot which set us apart from other nations - nations which the Midrash relates declined to accept the Torah. Yet we must never forget that there is much to be learned from those who do not share our value system. Yitro was a pagan high priest who had indulged in all forms of idolatry. Rashi citing the Midrash says that while Yitro may have rejoiced with the Jewish people, he still identified with the Egyptians and the suffering they endured. Yet Yitro's advice was worth listening to. While it is the Torah that serves as a guide through life we must not forget the abundant chochmah that exists in the world. It is the proper combination of Torah and chochmah that makes a complete person.
Moshe Rabbeinu once again showed the traits of a great leader. Though he spoke face to face with G-d and had succeeded in leading the Jews out of Egypt he did not consider himself to be above criticism. The entire concept of teshuva which exhorts us to constantly be looking for ways to improve ourselves, can only work when we are open to accepting constructive criticism.
There is of course one final pre-requisite to accepting the Torah. As the Jews arrived at Sinai we are told that " Vayichan sham Yisroel neged hahar ", that the Jews encamped by the mountain. The word Vayechan is written in singular though there were over two million people at Sinai. The Rabbis point out that at Sinai the Jews came together like one person with one heart. Without unity there can be no Torah and no Israel. This is why it is hatred amongst Jews which caused the destruction of the second Temple. This unity can only come about when we make sure that Derech Eretz Kadma LeTorah .
The story of Yitro is no digression, rather it forms an integral part of the transformation of the Jews from a nation of slaves to a nation of servants of G-d. Its message of family togetherness, concern for others, willingness to change and just plain derech eretz is the prerequisite to Kabbalat HaTorah . May we be up to the task. Shabbat Shalom !