This week’s parasha is one of six in the Torah, and the only one in the book of Exodus, which is named for an individual. Jethro (Yitro, in Hebrew), the father-in-law of Moses, has heard of the miracle of Israel’s liberation, and he brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to the Israelites, who are encamped at “the mountain of God.” Moses welcomes him warmly. In joy, Yitro offers burnt offerings and sacrifices, which are consumed by Moses, Aaron, and the elders. The next day, Yitro notes that Moses has not organized the justice system very well: From morning to night Moses is killing himself by listening to every case that is brought to him for judgment.
Jethro recommends that Moses share this burden and delegate all but the most difficult cases to the tribal elders. Moses accepts his father-in-law’s advice.
Three months after they have left Egypt, God offers the people a special covenant confirming the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. Chapter 19 describes the preparations, a process that involves Moses’ going up and down the mountain a number of times. God’s invitation to the Hebrew includes the famous verses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. If you obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
When Moses reports these words to the people, they respond in unison: “All that Adonai has spoken we will do!” For three days the people purify themselves. On the morning of the third day they hear thunder and lightening, see a dense cloud over the top of the mountain, and a loud blast of the shofar. Moses climbs to the top of the mountain and God comes down. God speaks the words of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God; You shall not worship any idols; You shall not swear a false oath; Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy; Honour your father and your mother; Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Don’t tell lies about other people; Do not covet.
Seeing “the thunder and the lightening,” so awed the people that they begged Moses to intervene and to speak to God on their behalf from that moment on. The parasha ends with God’s instructing Moses to remind the people that they had heard God speak and thus must remember never to worship idols.