What is the importance of the number 3? Some common “threes” are the sun, moon, and stars, the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Kohanim, Levites and am ha’aretz, and the triune nature of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And speaking of Hashem, His three primary attributes are omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. There are three primary colors, red, blue, and green and there are three spatial dimensions, height, width, and length. Biblically, the number three represents divine wholeness, completeness and perfection. Finally, to bring this listing to an end, time is measured as past, present, and future. While not on purpose, I have listed nine common “threes” which amusingly is 3 x 3.
So why have I noted the importance of “three” in light of this week’s parasha, Yithro, Exodus 18:1-20:23? As we will see later, there are at least two significate “threes” in this week’s reading.
Parashat Yithro does not begin with the Mt. Sinai experience and the giving of the Torah. Rather it begins with Yithro, a non-Jewish priest of Midian, who also happened to be Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to visit Moshe and bringing with him Moshe’s wife and two sons. After greeting one another, Moshe relates the account of Hashem’s deliverance of Bnei Israel from the oppression of Egyptian tyranny and the ultimate demise of Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds. After expressing praise to Hashem, Yithro observed Moshe’s day-to-day actions with the people which led Yithro to give Moshe some sage advice on how to govern and administer the people.
But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you’re doing is no good. You will surely wear yourself out, as well as these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone, by yourself. Now listen to my voice—I will give you advice, and may God be with you! You, represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God. Enlighten them as to the statutes and the laws, and show them the way by which they must walk and the work they must do. But you should seek out capable men out of all the people—men who fear God, men of truth, who hate bribery. Appoint them to be rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them judge the people all the time. Then let every major case be brought to you, but every minor case they can judge for themselves. Make it easier for yourself, as they bear the burden with you.Exodus 18:17-22, TLV
It is obvious that Yithro was concerned both for Moshe as well as for Bnei Israel. By putting Yithro’s advice into practice, it became the pattern for the Israelite administrative and judicial system. An 18th Moroccan mystic and Torah commentator, suggests that the purpose Yithro’s visit “was to teach us that although Torah is the all-encompassing repository of wisdom, there are things in which other people, gentiles, excel more than Jews. For instance, the skill of proper bureaucratic administration” (Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, 1987, p 73). The fact that Moshe immediately implemented Yitro’s advice instead of simply filing it away and continuing on his own, is a sign of Moshe’s greatness.
I find the phraseology of Yithro’s closing words to Moshe most remarkable. “If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied,” (Exodus 18:23, JPS). Yithro did not automatically assume that his advice would be unilaterally accepted by Moshe – but he encouraged Moshe to follow it, if it was acceptable to Hashem as well. Then as noted in vs 18, Yithro reiterated a show of compassion and pronounced the expected outcome – Moshe would be able to handle the load and the people would “go home unwearied.”
Now for the promised “threes”. First, Yithro is one of three parashiot that carry the name of a non-Jew. There is Noach, who became the father of all mankind after the Flood; then Yithro, the priest of Midian; and finally, Balak, the less than righteous king of Moab. Noach was considered righteous, Yithro’s praise of Hashem and much needed advice to Moshe set him apart as a man of wisdom and compassion, and Balak was the bad apple of the three. It has been suggested that this set of three goes to show that all non-Jews are not necessarily bad or evil and that even those who do not specifically serve or follow the God of Israel can be righteous, moral individuals – affirming the fact that we all, Jews and non-Jews alike are created in the image of Hashem.
Then there is another “three” in this parasha. After Moshe told Yithro about the exploits of Hashem, Yitro immediate responds בָּרוּךְ ה׳, Baruch Hashem. Two times before in the Torah, this phrase was specifically proclaimed – and like this time, both were by non-Jews: Noach (Genesis 9:26) when he blessed Shem, and Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) when he realized that Hashem had indeed led him to Abraham’s kin and potentially Isaac’s future wife. Interestingly, the phrase Baruch Hashem, which has become one of the most common responses of religious Jews worldwide, did in fact originate from the lips of non-Jews.
Now for a final observation from Yithro, we need to return to last week’s parasha, Beshalach. After the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15, we read about the reaction of the surrounding nations at the deliverance of Bnei Israel by Hashem, “Then the chiefs of Edom are terrified. Trembling grips Moab’s mighty men. All of Canaan’s inhabitants will melt away. Terror and dread will fall on them,” (Exodus 15:15-16). Later we read that “the Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim,” (Exodus 17:8). Apparently, Amalek also heard of Hashem’s exploits and concluded that the best defense was good offence and decided to immediately go on the attack. Then we come to Yithro, who also heard of Hashem’s exploits (Exodus 18:1) but instead of fear and trembling or becoming angry and attacking, he chose to go see his son-in-law. He wanted to hear the story firsthand, after which he immediately offered praise to Hashem.
Often, we hear news or a report about and individual, or a group of individuals that invokes an immediately reaction. Sometimes the response is fear, sometimes anger, sometimes it is doubt and confusion. At times, these feelings are justified, sometimes they are not. Ideally, we should, like Yithro, go to the source and check-out the news or report to see if it is accurate. After doing so, then we can determine our next course of action, if any is needed. Afterwards, remember Yithro’s response when he heard Moshe’s account—Baruch Hashem—and remember that Hashem is deserving of blessing and praise regardless of the situation or circumstance.
The Haftarah for Yithro is Isaiah 6:1-13 & the reading from the Apostolic Writings
is Matthew 5:13-20.