At last, the giving of Torah at Mt Sinai. That singular moment where divine touches human, and the Jewish purpose becomes manifest. Yet, the sidrah opens with the rather pedestrian tale of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, coming with Moses’s wife and sons to the encampment of Israel.
Why is the story of Jethro the preamble to revelation? This question becomes even thornier in light of the talmudic opinion that Jethro actually came to visit after revelation and not before as the Torah narrates (Zevachim 116a).Why does the Torah cut-and-paste this story in the wrong place, chronologically and thematically?
Let us look to the revelation episode. God begins: “Moses ascended to the Lord, and God called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell to the sons of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3). This double language is crucial. “Say to the house of Jacob” refers to the women. “Tell the sons of Israel” implies the men (Rashi). In giving the Torah, women are primary.
In order for revelation to be more than a one-off sound and light show, to have it nurture the fabric of Jewish life throughout the ages, the women must hear the Torah first; to make it their own and their children’s.
The lessons of Sinai still echo today. Evidence shows that the most effective investment in pulling a country out of poverty and endemic disease is to create sustainable schools for girls.
Though Jethro will later advise Moses in legal etiquette, his first objective is simply to reunite Moses with his family. “Jethro… came to Moses with his sons and wife” (Exodus 18:5). Precisely by upending the chronology, the Torah imparts an important lesson. Moses cannot access the Torah without his wife and children. We cannot begin to speak of revelation, until the women return to the story.