Moshe went out to meet his father in law, and he bowed before him and kissed him, and each inquired about the other’s well-being… and Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before Hashem. (Shemot 18:7–12)
The Children of Israel experienced one year of miracles culminating in the crossing through Yam Suf and the death of the Egyptians before their eyes. Hashem then miraculously provided for them all their physical needs, including water, bread and shelter. At last, the time had arrived for the fulfillment of the 400-year-old promise of an exodus with great wealth — not material bounty, but, instead, the spiritual bonanza called Torah. But rather than continue with the events of the gift at Sinai, the Torah narrative turns to a detailed description of Yitro’s arrival in the camp with the wife and children of Moshe, and the meetings and feasts that ensued.
Imagine a large family traveling on a chartered bus to meet a distinguished relative — their rich uncle. He notified them that he will be arriving at the airport and let them know when his flight would arrive. Dressed in their finest, they all anticipated expensive gifts for every family member. Suddenly, the bus parked outside the home of a dear friend and everyone got off the transport to have lunch and share conversation. A casual observer would guess that there was plenty of time before the rich uncle’s flight would land.
The Torah is about to tell the events of the giving of the Torah to our people — and suddenly the narrative turns to the story of Yitro’s arrival in the desert. First, we learn of his arrival and then the reaction of Moshe. Then we hear about their conversation and the detailed account of the greetings offered by the rest of the elite of Israel. And above all, we then are told how Yitro advised Moshe and how his advice was accepted and implemented.
Why is this inserted before the story of the most anticipated day in history?
The Torah is teaching us that before one can accept Torah, one must be prepared to “listen.” We are shown that a great man like Moshe could “hear” criticism and accept advice even though Yitro was formerly a priest to idol worship. Moshe not only heard the criticism; he implemented the system suggested by Yitro — thereby admitting that “his” way of doing things was wrong!
Derech eretz — proper manners — precedes Torah learning (Vayikra Rabbah, 9:3). The greatest man, ever, demonstrated for all of us that before one can accept Torah, one must overcome conceit, pride and desire. One must be able to “learn from every man” (Avot 4:1). The story of Yitro’s advice is not an interruption in the narrative; it is a vital lesson that serves as a prelude to the day of Mattan Torah.
Everyone has character weaknesses that can block the proper learning of Torah. No one is free of flaws that serve to make one unable to accept the truth of Torah. Self-improvement and character refinement ready a person to learn and grow into a student of Torah. They are the prerequisites to success!