My Barmitzvah portion over 40 years ago was Parashat Yitro.... I still even remember the opening line. By 12 and a bit I was already a impudent,insolent,presumptuous and simply a cheeky smart alex Che Chevera Rebel.... from the "why of a three year old"' my questions now extended to who , what , when and what source material do you base your answer on.
I was taught my Barmitzvah portion by Cantor Abe Immerman. When I first saw the Haftorah, I remarked out load, "Wasn't there anything shorter " realizing that having to learn how to sing this was going to cut into my cricket, soccer,tennis, marbles and budding love life ... we eventually started actually dating 3-4 years later. A little bit later I met the wonderful Cantor Immerman sitting at his desk covered in books , that when I look a few weeks later saw they were all Braille, for the first time and made the same remark adding 'who the hell was Yitro". Cantor Immerman then gave me some papers stapled together ... and assured me that this is all what was known about the good gentlemen Yitro , remarking.... ,"'Ï typed it myself on my new 1965 Underwood "and then launched into the first, in retrospect the second, of a zillion jokes that punctuated our bi weekly meetings about blind people .
Ray Charles and Gary Player (four times South African Masters Champion)
are in a bar.
Player turns to Wonder and says, "How is the singing career going?"
Ray Charles says, "Not too bad, the latest album has gone into the top 10, so all in all I think it is pretty good.
By the way how is the golf."
Player replies: "Not too bad, I am not winning as much as I used to but I'm still making a bit of money. I have some problems with my swing but I think I've got that right now."
"I always find that when my swing goes wrong I need to stop playing for a while and think about it, then the next time I play it seems to be all right," says Ray.
"You play golf!?" asks Gary
Ray says, "Yes, I have been playing for years."
"But I thought you were blind; how can you play golf if you are blind?" Gary asks.
" I get my caddie to stand in the middle of the fairway and he calls to me. I listen for the sound of his voice and play the ball towards him, then when I get to where the ball lands the caddie moves to the green or further down the fairway and again I play the ball towards his voice," explains Ray.
"But how do you putt?" Player wondered.
"Well," says Ray, "I get my caddie to lean down in front of the hole and call to me with his head on the ground and I just play the ball to the sound of his voice."
Player says, "What is your handicap?"
"Well, I play off scratch," Ray assures Gary
Player is incredulous and says to Ray, "We must play a game sometime."
Charles replies, "Well, people don't take me seriously so I only play for money, and I never play for less than $100,000 a hole."
Player thinks it over and says, "OK, I'm up for that. When would you like to play?"
"I don't care - any night next week is OK with me."
I went to the Jewish Day School in Cape Town from 3 to 18 http://www.herzlia.com. They have a nice tradition that when a student is Bar Mitzvaed or for that matter Bat Mitzvahed they give each a two volume Tanah published by the Jewish Publication Society. I do recall reading the manuscript on Yitro that was probably five times as long as my Haftorah and placed it in the gift I received from the Principal of http://www.Herzlia.com . I still have that gift among my 5000+ book library and thought I would publish it as it throws some new light on Moshe Rabbenu and his search and determination to capture his Besheret Ziporah .How times have changed.!!!??!!!
Despite his lifelong disability, Immerman knew the Bible and prayers by heart and had trained generations of South African boys for their b'nai mitzvah.
Immerman's exceptional memory was first recognized by a pastor who taught him when he was a child growing up in Zastron, in the Free State area of South Africa.
He subsequently was sent to the Worcester School for the Blind, where teachers felt he would do well as a basket maker or a piano tuner.
But Immerman had ideas of his own, despite his family's objections.
"I was determined to become a chazzan," or cantor, he recalled in later years.
In the early days, Immerman earned a living by leading prayers in the various villages where Jews had settled in South Africa and working out yahrzeit dates for their deceased family members.
He eventually reached the rural town of Oudtshoorn, where he stayed for a number of years, giving bar mitzvah lessons and traveling to various rural communities around South Africa to lead holiday services.
After Immerman moved to Cape Town some 60 years ago, his first job was at the Ponevez shul.
"His fame spread, and after that he got a job at the Woodstock overflow shul," said lifelong friend Morrie Marcus.
Immerman later worked at Cape Town's Herzlia Jewish Day School, teaching bar mitzvah lessons and music, while still traveling the country to lead prayers on the High Holy Days.
One of the high points of Immerman's life was a trip to Israel on his 80th birthday, Marcus said.
"He was feted and treated like royalty by all his South African friends and former pupils," he said. "The highlight of that trip was when he went into Heichal Shlomo -- the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel -- on Shabbat morning. He walked in, they cleared the decks and gave him the Maftir and Haftarah.
"They literally carried him off the bimah," Marcus said. "They had never experienced anything like this before, that a blind man can walk cold into shul and perform so wonderfully."
On the occasion of his third bar mitzvah, Immerman was called up for an aliyah at a special Shabbat morning service at the shul of Highlands House, the home for Jewish elderly where he spent the last few years of his life.
So here is the Answer to my question I asked Cantor Immerman all those years ago....(unedited... degrees I have aplenty....., smichut not at all (yet) )
YITRO - the 'father-in-law' or 'brother-in-law'
Many of us are so familiar with Rashi's commentary on the first pasuk of the Parsha that Yitro had seven names (see 18:1) - that we don't even consider any other possibility. However, the classical commentators offer several other very interesting interpretations.
What difference does it make, you may ask?
If only to fulfill the mitzvah of "la'asok b'divrei Torah" - would surely be reason enough. In the following shiur, we attempt to explain the underlying reasons for this controversy, and hopefully will also gain a deeper understanding of why the Torah dedicates so many details to this topic.
To our surprise, the first time that we meet Moshe Rabeinu's 'father-in-law' in Chumash - his name is most definitely Reuel:
"...Moshe fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well...
Now the priest of Midian - Kohen Midyan - had seven daughters; and they came and drew water... and the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moshe stood up and helped them...
When they came to Reuel their father, he said: 'How is it that you have come so soon to-day...
And he said unto his daughters: 'And where is he... and he [Reuel] gave Moshe - Zipporah his daughter.
[See Shmot 2:15-22, note however that the Hebrew word "choten" does not appear in this entire section!]
Clearly, if we follow the simple meaning of the word "avihem" [their father] in Hebrew, then Reuel is definitely Moshe's father in law! However, only a few psukim later, we find that Moshe is tending Yitro's sheep:
"Moshe was keeping the flock of Yitro - CHOTNO [his father-in-law?], KOHEN MIDYAN - the priest of Midian ; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb." (see 3:1)
Everyone's immediate impression is that Yitro must be the same person as Reuel, since he is called KOHEN MIDYAN - as was Reuel in 2:16, and he is referred to now as "choten Moshe" - which almost everyone translates as 'father-in-law' (see any English translation). So why the 'name-change' from Reuel to Yitro?
HOW MANY YEARS HAVE PASSED?
Even though only several psukim separate between these two stories in Shmot 2:16-22 and 3:1, it could be that many decades have passed in the interim. Let's explain why.
When Moshe first fled from Egypt (see 2:11-15), the impression is that he was rather young. Hence, when he first meets Zipporah, it could be that was only in his twenties (or thirties). However, in chapter three - when God appears to Moshe at the burning bush, he is definitely 80 years old (see Shmot 7:7)
[Our assumption is that Moshe went back to Egypt immediately after God appeared to him at the burning bush, and shortly after went to Pharaoh and performed the miracles etc.]
If indeed several decades have passed since Moshe first married Zipporah, then it could be that her father Reuel - the previous Kohen Midyan - had passed away - and in the meantime, Reuel's son - Yitro - had become the new Kohen Midyan. If so, then we would have to interpret "choten Moshe" in 3:1- as Moshe's brother in law.
CHOVAV - A PRIEST or TOUR GUIDE?
To verify if this interpretation is possible, it would logical to check other times In Chumash where the word "choten" is used. Indeed we find this word used numerous times in regard to Yitro (in Shmot chapter 18), but to our surprise, it is used only one other time in Chumash - in describing Chovav ben Reuel in Sefer Bamdibar. Let's take a look:
"And Moshe said unto Chovav, the son of Reuel the Midianite, CHoten Moshe - 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come with us, and we will do you good..." (see Bamidbar 10:29-30)
[note that the phrase "Choten Moshe" must refer to Chovav and not Reuel, based on Sefer Shoftim 4:11!]
If we follow the simple meaning of the text, that Chovav is NOT Yitro - then we find additional proof that "choten" implies 'brother in law'. In other words, Zipporah had at least two brothers, Yitro and Chovav - and they were all children of Reuel. When Reuel died, Yitro took over as Kohen Midyan, while Chovav seems to have become a 'professional scout' - who joined Bnei Yisrael in the desert to help them with their travels (see again Bamidbar 10:29-33).
Furthermore, note how Chovav is not referred to as Kohen Midyan, rather only as "Choten Moshe". It also appears that Chovav accepted Moshe Rabeinu's offer to join their journey and receive a portion in the land, as supported by Sefer Shoftim 4:11 (read carefully). On the one hand, Yitro himself returned to Midyan after his short visit, as described in Parshat Yitro (to bring back his 'sister' Zipporah), as verified by Shmot 18:26. After all, he was the Kohen Midyan - and hence he needed to return to fulfill his duties in his own country.
[Note that even though Shmot 2:16 states that Reuel had seven daughters, this does not preclude the possibility that he also had sons. The pasuk mentions only the daughters, as they were tending to the sheep, and they were the 'pool' from whom Moshe would receive his wife from Reuel, their father.]
In Tanach, we do find one additional use of the word "choten", and finally in regard to someone other than Moshe Rabeinu. In the story of the Levite who travels to Bet-lechem to bring back his "pilegesh" [concubine], the father of this "pilegesh" is referred to three times as "chotno avi ha'naara" (see Shoftim 19:4-9).
How should we translate this phrase?
At first glance, this seems to be a perfect proof that "choten" implies a father in law. In fact, this pasuk could almost serve as the definition of this word - to mean specifically a father in law. If so, then in Chumash, it must also imply father in law - and hence Yitro and Chovav must be the same person, as well as Reuel (unless we explain that Reuel was the grandfather / see Rashi Shmot 18:1) - and hence the conclusion that we are all familiar with, quoted by Rashi on 18:1.
However, this phrase could prove exactly the opposite. If the word "choten" implies 'father-in-law' - and only 'father-in-law' - then why the redundancy? Would not the word "chotno" be enough, without the additional phrase "avi ha'naara"!
On the other hand, if "chotno" implies any relationship through marriage, be it 'brother in law', or 'father in law'; then the extra phrase is informative, as it tells us that he was specifically her father, and not her brother.
[Why that chapter in Sefer Shoftim emphasizes this point of "chotno" is beyond the scope of this shiur, but can be explained when considering the numerous ironies in that entire event.]
THE VERB L"HITCHATEN
To appreciate why the word "choten" could imply any relationship through marriage, let's note a pasuk from Sefer Melachim:
"VA'YITCHATEN Shlomo et PHARAOH - King of Egypt, and he took the daughter of Pharaoh..." (see I Kings 3:1)
Note, that Shlomo 'marries' Pharaoh ["va'yitchaten"], and then takes his daughter as a wife. In other words, the verb "l'hitchaten" can imply entering into a family relationship. [As we all know, you don't only marry the wife - you marry her entire family!]
If so, then "choten" could imply 'brother in law', just as it could also imply 'father in law'.
See Ibn Ezra on Bamdibar 10:29, where he states this explicitly. Note also his commentary on Shmot 3:1, where he claims that Yitro is Zipporah's brother (as we did). [However, he concludes that Chovav and Yitro are the same person. In our shiur, we entertained the possibility that they are different brothers.]
If you've followed the shiur, it would seem that if "choten Moshe" could imply 'brother in law', then it could be that Yitro, Chovav, and Reuel, are all different people!
[I haven't researched this topic as much as I would have liked, so if you are familiar with any other sources, that would either support or contradict these conclusions, please let me know.]
On the other hand, if "choten" in Hebrew implies only a 'father in law', then we are forced to conclude that Chovav and Yitro are the same person, while Reuel is yet another name for Yitro; or alternatively, the grandfather of Zipporah, which would force us to conclude that Hebrew word "aviha" could imply grandfather as well as father.
[Turns out that we must widen our definition of either the Hebrew word "av" or "choten"!]
If so, we must ask ourselves - what is the meaning of these various names for the same person? See Ramban on 2:16 for a beautiful explanation, as well as Rashi on 3:1. On the other hand, if they are different people, we must also search for meaning.
HAR SINAI & YITRO
In either case, we must also ponder why the Torah dedicates so many details to Yitro (and his family).
Before discussing this question, let's discuss another controversy between the commentators concerning when Yitro first came to meet Moshe at Har Sinai.
Recall how Parshat Yitro opens with Yitro's arrival at the campsite of Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai (see 18:5). The location of this 'parshia' in Sefer Shmot clearly suggests that Yitro arrives before Matan Torah, yet certain details found later in the 'parshia', (e.g. Moshe's daily routine of judging the people and teaching them God's laws/ see 18:15-17), suggests that this event may have taken place after Matan Torah. After all, what 'laws of God' was Moshe teaching if the Torah had not yet been given? Furthermore, it seems (from chapter 19) that as soon as Bnei Yisrael arrived at Har Sinai - that Moshe went up to God immediately, and the events of Maamad Har Sinai began (see 19:1-8); thus not leaving any time for the story in chapter 18 to transpire.
Based on this and several other strong proofs, Ibn Ezra claims that this entire parshia took place after Matan Torah ('ein mukdam u-me'uchar'). Ramban argues that since none of those proofs are conclusive, this entire 'parshia' (i.e. Shmot chapter 18) should be understood as taking place BEFORE Matan Torah (i.e. when it is written - 'yesh mukdam u-me'uchar..'.).
Rashi (see 18:13) offers an interesting 'compromise' by 'splitting' the parshia in half! His opinion would agree with Ramban that Yitro first arrives before Matan Torah (18:1-12); however, the details found later (in 18:13-27), e.g. how Moshe taught the people God's laws etc. took place at a much later time. This interpretation forces Rashi to explain that the word 'mi-macharat' in 18:13 does not mean the 'next day', but rather the day after Yom Kippur (when Moshe came down from Har Sinai with the second Luchot), even though it was several months later.
But even Ibn Ezra, who maintains that the entire 'parshia' takes place after Matan Torah, must explain why the Torah records this 'parshia' here instead. Therefore, Ibn Ezra suggests a thematic explanation - based on the juxtaposition of this 'parshia' and the story of Amalek:
"...And now I will explain to you why this parshia is written here [out of place]: Because the preceding parshia discussed the terrible deeds of Amalek against Israel, now in contrast the Torah tells us of the good deeds that Yitro did for Am Yisrael..." [see Ibn Ezra 18:1]
Ibn Ezra claims that the Torah wants to teach us that not all 'goyim' are bad. Certainly, we encounter enemies such as Amalek, but we may also encounter righteous non-jews, such as Yitro - from whom we can gain important advice.
YITRO'S FAMILY - Before & After
To conclude our shiur, we follow the 'lead' of Ibn Ezra, by noting how we find Yitro's family mentioned at key points in Jewish history.
First, Moshe grows up in Pharaoh's house; yet afterward, spends a significant amount of time in Midyan, living with Reuel and Yitro, the family of Kohen Midyan. It's not clear precisely what God Yitro believed in, nonetheless - he definitely comes to recognize the God of Israel after these events, and it would only be logical to assume that Moshe acquired some of his leadership traits during his stay in Midyan.
Just as we later find a contrast between Amalek Yitro, we find an earlier contrast between growing up in Pharaoh's home vs. Yitro's home.
However, more significant is the fact that the Torah 'surrounds' Bnei Yisrael's encampment at Har Sinai with two stories considering Yitro (and Chovav).
Immediately upon our arrival at Sinai, and right before the story of Matan Torah, the Torah records the story of Yitro's important advice to Moshe concerning how establish an organized court system. Then, in Sefer Bamdibar, immediately before Bnei Yisrael leave Har Sinai, as they embark on their journey to the land of Israel - we find Moshe Rabeinu's offer that Chovav join the people on their journey, to provide assistance.
On the one hand, Matan Torah was a singular event, intended only for the people of Israel - to enter a special covenant - and receive God's special laws that will make them His nation. However, the deeper purpose of that covenant (and those laws) was for Bnei Yisrael to become God's 'model nation' that would help bring the Name of God to all mankind - should we keep His laws in the proper manner.
For that reason, it may be quite significant that this key event in our national history is surrounded by events that relate to our relationship with the outside world. While there are times when we find ourselves isolated from the outside world, we must always remember that we were chosen to have a positive impact upon it. There may also be times that we can improve ourselves by taking wise advice from other nations (Yitro before Matan Torah), and there may also be times when they can even provide us with guidance should we become a bit 'lost in a desert' (Chovav after Matan Torah). However, foremost, we must be dedicated to keeping the special laws that God gave us at Matan Torah - so that our symbiotic relationship with other nations can remain fruitful - for the betterment of all mankind.
PARSHAT YITRO - FOR FURTHER IYUN
STRUCTURE AND THEME IN CHUMASH
When we study Chumash, we encounter two basic styles:
(1) Narrative, i.e. the ongoing story;
(2) Mitzvot, i.e. the commandments.
Until Parshat Yitro, i.e. before Bnei Yisrael arrive at Har Sinai, Chumash consisted primarily of narrative (e.g. the story of Creation, the Avot, Yetziat Mitzrayim etc.). In contrast, beginning with Parshat Yitro, we find many sections consisting primarily of 'mitzvot' (e.g. the Ten Commandments, the 'mishpatim' (chapters 21->23), laws of the mishkan (chapters 25->31), etc.).
The reason for this is quite simple. Sefer Breishit explained why and how God chose Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of His special nation. Sefer Shmot began by describing how God fulfilled His covenant with the Avot, and redeemed His nation from slavery in Egypt. Now, before this nation enters the Promised Land where they are to live as God's nation, they must first receive the set of laws [i.e. Matan Torah] that will facilitate their becoming God's special nation.
Assuming that Bnei Yisrael are to receive ALL of the mitzvot at Har Sinai before they continue on their journey, we would expect to find the following 'logical' order:
The story of the Exodus from Egypt until Bnei Yisrael's arrival at Har Sinai.
ALL of the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael receive at Sinai.
The story of Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai to the Promised Land.
However, instead of this clear and structured order, we find a much more complicated presentation. First, 'ten commandments' are given at a special gathering (i.e. Ma'amad Har Sinai). After a short narrative, we find an additional set of mitzvot - that comprise most of Parshat Mishpatim. At the end of Parshat Mishpatim, we find yet another short narrative (chapter 24), followed by seven chapters of mitzvot that detail how to build the Mishkan (Teruma / Tetzaveh). This lengthy set of mitzvot is followed by yet another narrative, which describes 'chet ha-egel' (32:1-34:10), which is then followed by yet another set of mitzvot (see 34:11-26), etc. In a similar manner, we find this pattern of a 'blend' of mitzvot and narrative in the rest of Chumash as well.
So why does the Torah present its mitzvot in this complex manner? Would it not have made more sense to present all of the mitzvot together in one organized unit (like 'shulchan aruch')?
In the answer to this question lies the basis for our approach to studying Chumash - for the intricate manner in which the Torah presents the mitzvot 'begs' us to pay attention not only to the mitzvot themselves, but also to the manner of their presentation. Therefore, as we study, we search for thematic significance in the order and sequence in which the Torah presents the mitzvot.
For example, we usually will begin our study with an attempt to identify the specific topic of each 'parshia' and/or 'paragraph'. Then we analyze the progression of topic from one parshia to the next in search of a thematic reason for this progression.
[Following this methodology will also help us better appreciate the underlying reason for the various controversies among the classic commentators.]
CHRONOLOGY IN CHUMASH
This introduction leads us directly into one of the most intriguing exegetic aspects of Torah study - the chronological progression of 'parshiot' [better known as the sugya of 'ein mukdam u-me'uchar..'].
In other words, as we study Chumash, should we assume that it progresses according to the chronological order by which the events took place, or, should we assume that thematic considerations may allow the Torah to place certain parshiot next to each other, even though each 'parshia' may have been given at different times.
In this respect, we must first differentiate once again between 'narrative' and 'mitzvot'.
It would only be logical to assume that the ongoing narrative of Chumash follows in chronological order, (i.e. the order in which the events took place/ e.g. the story of Yitzchak will obviously follow the story of his father Avraham).
Nonetheless, we periodically may find that a certain narrative may conclude with details that took place many years later. For example, the story of the manna in Parshat Beshalach concludes with God's commandment that Moshe place a sample of the manna next to the Aron in the Mishkan. This commandment could only have been given after the Mishkan was completed, an event that does not occur until many months later. Nevertheless, because that narrative deals with the manna, it includes a related event, even though it took place at a later time.
The story of Yehuda and Tamar in Sefer Breishit is another example. See chapter 38, note from 38:11-12 that since Tamar waited for Shela to grow up, the second part of that story must have taken place at least thirteen years later, and hence after Yosef becomes viceroy in Egypt! Recall that he was sold at age 17 and solved Pharaoh's dream at age 30.
How about the 'mitzvot' in Chumash? In what order are they presented? Do they follow the chronological order by which they were first given?
Because the mitzvot are embedded within the narrative of Chumash, and not presented in one unbroken unit (as explained above), the answer is not so simple. On this specific issue, a major controversy exists among the various commentators; popularly known as: "ein mukdam u-me'uchar ba-Torah" (there is no chronological order in the Torah).
Rashi, together with many other commentators (and numerous Midrashim), consistently holds that 'ein mukdam u-me'uchar', i.e. Chumash does not necessarily follow a chronological order, while Ramban, amongst others, consistently argues that 'yesh mukdam u-me'uchar', i.e. Chumash does follow a chronological order.
However, Rashi's opinion, 'ein mukdam u-me'uchar', should not be understood as some 'wildcard' answer that allows one to totally disregard the order in which Chumash is written. Rashi simply claims that a primary consideration for the order of the Torah's presentation of the mitzvot is thematic, more so than chronological. Therefore, whenever 'thematically convenient', we find that Rashi will 'change' the chronological order of mitzvot, and sometimes even events.
For example, Rashi claims that the mitzva to build the Mishkan, as recorded in Parshat Teruma (chapters 25->31) was first given only after the sin of the Golden Calf, even though that narrative is only recorded afterward (in Parshat Ki Tisa /chapter 32). Rashi prefers this explanation due to the thematic similarities between the Mishkan and the story of 'chet ha-egel'.
In contrast, Ramban argues time and time again that unless there is 'clear cut' proof that a certain parshia is out of order, one must always assume that the mitzvot in Chumash are recorded in the same order as they were originally given. For example, Ramban maintains that the commandment to build the Mishkan was given before 'chet ha-egel' despite its thematic similarities to that event!
It should be pointed out that there is a very simple reason why the Torah is written in thematic order, which is not necessarily chronological. Recall that the Torah (in the form that we received it) was given to us by Moshe Rabeinu before his death in the fortieth year in the desert. [See Devarim 31:24-25.] When Moshe Rabeinu first received the laws, he wrote them down in 'megilot' [scrolls]. However, before his death, he organized all of the laws that he received, and the various stories that transpired into the Five Books.
[See Masechet Megilla 60a, and Rashi on "Megilla megilla nitna...". See also Chizkuni on Shmot 34:32! It's not clear from these commentators whether God told Moshe concerning the order by which to put these 'megillot' together, or if Moshe Rabeinu made those decisions himself. However, it would only be logical to assume that God instructed Moshe Rabeinu in this regard as well.]
Considering that Chumash, in its final form, was 'composed' in the fortieth year - we can readily understand why its mitzvot and narratives would be recorded in a manner that is thematically significant. Therefore, almost all of the commentators are in constant search of the deeper meaning of the juxtaposition of 'parshiot' and the order of their presentation.
WHEN DID YITRO COME
The dispute concerning 'When Yitro came', which we discussed in the shiur above, illustrates some of the various methodological approaches we can take when confronted with apparent discrepancies. In general, whenever we find a 'parshia' which appears to be 'out of order', we can either:
1) Attempt to keep the chronological order, then deal with each problematic detail individually.
2) Keep the chronological order up until the first detail that is problematic. At that point, explain why the narrative records details that happen later.
3) Change the chronological order, and then explain the thematic reason why the Torah places the 'parshia' in this specific location.
MA'AMAD HAR SINAI
Let's bring another example in Parshat Yitro, from the most important event of our history: 'Ma'amad Har Sinai' - God's revelation to Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai.
[Matan Torah - the giving of the Ten Commandments at Har Sinai, together with the events which immediately precede and follow it (chapters 19->24), are commonly referred to as 'Ma'amad Har Sinai'.]
This 'ma'amad' can be divided between its basic sections of narrative and mitzva:
19:1-25 [Narrative] - Preparation for the Ten Commandments
20:1-14 [Mitzvot] - The Ten Commandments
20:15-18 [Narrative] - Bnei Yisrael's fear of God's revelation
21:19-23:33 [Mitzvot] - Additional mitzvot ('ha-mishpatim')
24:1-11 [Narrative] - The ceremonial covenant
(better known as 'brit na'aseh ve-nishma')
Note that Bnei Yisrael's declaration of 'na'aseh ve-nishma' takes place during the ceremonial covenant recorded at the end of Parshat Mishpatim (see 24:7). In Parshat Yitro, when Bnei Yisrael accept God's proposition to keep His Torah, the people reply only with 'na'aseh' (see 19:8).
If we would follow the simple order of these parshiot (see above table), we would have to conclude that the 'na'aseh ve-nishma' ceremony took place after Matan Torah. Nevertheless, Rashi [and most likely your first Chumash teacher] changes the order of the 'parshiot' and claims that this ceremony actually took place before Matan Torah. Why?
Rashi ('ein mukdam u-me'uchar') anchors his interpretation in the numerous similarities between chapter 19 and chapter 24. Therefore, he combines these two narratives together. [However, one must still explain the reason why they are presented separately.]
Ramban ('yesh mukdam u-me'uchar') prefers to accept the chronological order of the 'parshiot' as they are presented in Chumash, and explains that this ceremony takes place after Matan Torah.
This dispute causes Rashi and Ramban to explain the details of chapter 24 quite differently. For example, during that ceremony, recall how Moshe reads the 'sefer ha-brit' in public (see 24:7).
According to Rashi, 'sefer ha-brit' cannot refer to any of the mitzvot recorded in Yitro or Mishpatim, as they had not been given yet - therefore Rashi explains that it refers to all of Chumash from Breishit until Matan Torah!
According to Ramban, 'sefer ha-brit' refers to the Ten Commandments. This topic will be discussed in greater detail in next week's shiur on Parshat Mishpatim.