Yitro advises Moses to delegate chiefs to judge legal cases. The Israelites encamp by Mount Sinai and the 10 commandments are proclaimed. God commands them to build an altar of earth and to bring sacrifices.
Yitro - Ruth Messinger
Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service, an international development organization providing support to 350 grassroots social change projects throughout the world. Prior to assuming this role in 1998, Ruth was in public service in New York City for 20 years. She is an active member of her synagogue and serves on the board of several not-for profit organizations. In honor of her tireless work to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, Ruth received an award from the Jewish Council for Foreign Affairs in 2006.
In the midst of God's declaration of the Aseret Dibrot - the Ten Commandments - in Parshat Yitro, we come upon one of the Tanach's numerous references to intergenerational reward and punishment. After prohibiting idolatry, God declares, "I, the Lord your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments." (Exodus 20:5-6)
It's a troubling notion, this idea that our children's fates will be determined by our choices and actions; it flies in the face of Western sensibilities that each person is born with a clean slate and should be judged on his or her own merits. We prefer to think of our world as a place in which all children are born with equal opportunity to succeed. America's obsession with Horatio Alger's 19th century "rags to riches" pulp novels reflects this national desire to believe that determination and hard work will yield financial security, if not wealth.
But as much as we wish it weren't so, God's words in Yitro describe fairly accurately the world we inhabit. The undeserved deprivations of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South are revisited, generation after generation, upon their undeserving descendants. A 2002 comic strip in the Philadelphia Daily News captures the situation well: A stork holding a swaddled baby spins a wheel of fortune, saying, "Let's see what this one gets born into." The wheel lists "wealth" and "middle class with Starbucks" as two of the possible outcomes, but it is dominated by far more dire possibilities: poverty; abject poverty; poverty and AIDS; poverty and famine; poverty and war; and the clincher, poverty with AIDS, famine, and war.
In 2001, according to the World Bank, 2.7 billion people lived on less than $2 a day. That means that a child born in 2001 had a 45% chance of being born, through an accident of fate, into extreme poverty. Even in America, the best indicator of a child's eventual educational attainment is his or her parents' level of schooling. Our children's lives really are, to a large degree, determined by our successes and failures, just as our triumphs and tragedies are largely determined by the accident of where we were born and to whom.
There is a tendency among those of us who have succeeded to claim credit for our achievements. Certainly those who achieve financial success deserve some credit for their accomplishments - in a relatively fair society, people who work hard and make good decisions ought to be rewarded. But the Torah anticipates our tendency toward self-aggrandizement:
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God ... and you say to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me." (Deuteronomy 8:12-14 and 8:17).
This passage from Deuteronomy reminds us to have some humility, whether because we ought to walk humbly before God or because we happened to be lucky enough to be born into Western prosperity instead of into poverty in the Global South. In the same way that we ought to be careful not to claim too much credit for our material success, we should resist the urge to accept the lot of the poor as simply the nature of things. Many are caught in a nearly inescapable cycle of poverty, exacerbated by disease and macroeconomic forces beyond their control, their struggles pre-determined by the accident of their birth.
While the Yitro passage describes the world as it too often is, and suggests a certain moral legitimacy to the passing of success or failure from generation to generation, this should trouble us. In fact, the Bible itself is unsettled by Yitro's prescription. In Ezekiel, we read:
A child shall not share the burden of a parent's guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child's guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone. (Ezekiel 18:20)
We know our world isn't as Ezekiel describes, but perhaps Ezekiel's words represent an aspiration, a hope for a world we don't yet live in but can help to create. How can we build a world in which children are born to Ezekiel's blank slate of opportunity instead of being born under Yitro's yoke of pre-determination?
We can point to many successes in this regard: Universal vaccination campaigns eradicated smallpox in the 20th century and have saved 20 million lives in just the last two decades. Micro credit programs have reached nearly 100 million people in over 100 countries, helping the poor start businesses and invest in their children's futures. (Tina Rosenberg, "How to Fight Poverty: 8 Programs That Work," New York Times, November 16, 2006).
But there is much to be done. People living with HIV and AIDS must be given access to affordable and effective treatment. The debt burdens that divert resources from many countries' investments in health, education, and other social services must be alleviated. And universal primary education - particularly for girls - must be made a priority for all children.
Yitro's relegation of future generations to their inherited fates does not represent an ethic we should embrace or accept, and those of us who, through serendipity, grace, or hard work, hold disproportionate wealth and power should use those resources to pursue Ezekiel's vision of egalitarianism and equal opportunity for all.
Another Voice - Peter Sevitt
At the core for many of us is the notion that Jews are not simply individuals in the here and now, but part of a people - a covenantal people - who came together at Sinai. We are not passive recipients of law and truth but active creators of ethical systems. We wrestle constantly and that is part of our continuity.
Empathy, identification and solidarity with the story of our liberation from Egypt is a compelling reason for us to aspire to the collective ideals of justice, love and becoming a holy people. We must use our resources to offer political action, financial support and direct action to ensure that in countries such as Sudan, the liberty of human and democratic rights is attainable. We are obligated by this weeks parsha to establish those protections which allow true liberty to flourish.
The Jewish people are among the only people in the world today who still inhabit the same land, embrace the same religion, study the same Torah, speak the same language and hear the same name - Israel - as we did 3500 years ago. Peoplehood, justice and continuity are rooted in the remembrance of what happened at Sinai.