After hearing about the miraculous events of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, and the war with Amalek, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law leaves his homeland and travels to meet Moses and the Jewish people in the desert. He brings Moses’ wife Zipporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer, and the entire Jewish people come out to greet them upon their arrival. After hearing Moses relate how G-d struck the Egyptians in the very manner in which they sought to harm the Jewish people, Jethro rejoices in the knowledge of G-d’s omnipotent power and converts to Judaism.
The next day, Jethro observes the interactions between Moses and the nation. From morning until evening, the Jewish people stand by Moses while he sits and adjudicates their cases. Realizing that this is too great a burden for both Moses and the people, Jethro suggests a solution. He advises Moses to choose upstanding men to serve as judges. Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and sets up a court system that includes judges over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Minor matters that can be adjudicated without difficulty will be judged by these men; difficult matters will be sent to Moses. Jethro then returns to his homeland to convert his family.
The portion continues with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Just seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people have transformed themselves from a lowly slave nation into a people ready to be G-d’s emissaries in the world. G-d informs the Jewish people that if they accept the Torah and listen to Him and keep his covenant, they will be “the most beloved treasure of all peoples…a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.”
After three days of preparation, the Jewish people gather at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As G-d descends, thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud surround the mountain. Smoke rises from the mountain and the sound of the shofar grows increasingly powerful until the entire camp shudders from the intensity of the experience. After warning the people that they must not approach the mountain, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
· I am the L-rd your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery
· Thou Shalt Not Have Any Other G-d’s Before Me
· Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of G-d in Vain
· Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy
· Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother
· Thou Shalt Not Murder
· Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
· Thou Shalt Not Steal (this means kidnapping)
· Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
· Thou Shalt Not Covet
The Jewish people directly heard the first two commandments from G-d. After that, however, the experience was too overwhelming, and they beseeched Moses to act as G-d’s messenger on their behalf. The experience of hearing G-d speak to them directly was sufficient to solidify their belief in G-d and in the truth of Moses’ prophecy forever.
The portion continues with G-d reiterating the fact that He spoke to the Jewish people directly and that they are prohibited from making any images that can misused as symbols or an intermediary between them and the Divine. This includes making images of heavenly bodies and angels, as well as “gods” of silver and gold.
The portion ends with a commandment that the altars for the future Tabernacle must be constructed of earth. When a stone altar is eventually constructed for the Temple in Jerusalem, the stones may not be cut with iron instruments. Iron shortens life, while the Temple lengthens life by offering people repentance and atonement. In addition, the Kohanim must use a ramp when they approach the altar so as to maintain meticulous standards of modesty during their service.