By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In Parshas Yisro, we learn of Kabbolas HaTorah. Following the makkos, Krias Yam Suf and the accompanying revelations of Hashem’s might, Klal Yisroel was prepared to become the Am Hashem and receive the Torah.
It is interesting to note that the parsha that depicts Matan Torah is named for a foreigner, Yisro. Another intriguing anomaly is that the Torah interrupts the account of the exodus from Mitzrayim and the apex of the journey at Midbar Sinai to tell the seemingly tangential story of Yisro’s arrival.
The portion of the parsha that discusses Matan Torah should have continued from the conclusion of Parshas Beshalach, having described the miraculous crossing of the Yam Suf, the deliverance of the life-sustaining monn and Hashem’s intervention saving the newly freed people when challenged in battle by Amaleik. Why is the story of the redemption depicting the journey to Midbar Sinai to receive the Torah interrupted by the story of Yisro’s arrival?
What lessons are implicit in the narrative of Yisro that justifies its insertion between the description of Krias Yam Suf and Matan Torah? Apparently, there are lessons involved in his tale that are necessary for a proper acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai.
The parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro – And Yisro heard.” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Zevochim, which asks what Yisro heard that prompted him to leave Midyon and join the freed slaves in the desert. The Gemara answers that he heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik.
We can understand that upon hearing about Krias Yam Suf, a thinking person can be motivated to go find out about a people for whom the laws of nature were abrogated. The open and evident display of Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s care for His people and the awe and power He displayed to bring about their independence could convince an observer that this group of freed slaves was a chosen nation.
However, the second stimulus for Yisro’s trip is more difficult to comprehend. Why would Amaleik’s vicious attack draw someone close to Klal Yisroel?
Yisro was a spiritually sophisticated person. From the vehement opposition expressed by the wicked people of Amaleik toward the nascent nation, he reasoned that there must be something truthful about the Jewish nation in order to arouse such strong antagonism. Truth is never universally lauded. In fact, it is often condemned and bitterly opposed. The fierce opposition alerted him to the fact that Judaism is worth an examination. A meaningful connection to the Creator comes with resistance from those who deny the truth.
The truth carries responsibilities and forces people who follow it to act a certain way. Amaleik, the classic scoffer, disdains truth and attacks it with a vengeance. Admiring and recognizing the existence of a Creator and the superiority of the way of life He prescribed means that the observer may have to reject an immoral, hedonistic lifestyle. Thus, the truth is commonly ignored and battled.
Yisro, who always sought to find the truth, understood that a nation with a purpose will, by its very nature, draw hatred. When he saw the vehemence with which this group of people was hated, he set out to discover for himself what truth they beheld that aroused such enmity.
Throughout the ages, Klal Yisroel has always felt the uniqueness of its role as Hashem’s people. Being the chosen ones has engendered much kinah and sinah. As Chazal say, the mountain upon which the Torah was given to man is called Har Sinai, because along with the Torah, sinah yordah le’olam, a supernatural hatred for the Jews descended upon the world.
Obviously, Yisro was not the only one who heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. One would imagine that there were few people who hadn’t heard about these two earth-shattering events. Why did the miracles galvanize only Yisro?
The whole world heard about what happened. Krias Yam Suf was a viral event. People the world over were impressed and awed. The world might have been inspired, but it was for a mere moment, not long enough for the miracle to impact them. A fleeting impression was all they experienced, before quickly returning to their old habits. They reverted to the way they were before they were amazed by the power of Hashem. They refused to permit their momentary inspiration to have a lasting impact on their lives.
The only person who heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik and was affected long-term by the events was Yisro. He was the only one who permitted the experience to transform his life.
The pesukim recount: “Vayichad Yisro… And Yisro rejoiced over all the goodness that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for the Jews and rescued them from Mitzrayim… And he said, ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…’ And he brought korbanos to Hashem…”
No one else came to the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar saying, “Atah yodati kee gadol Hashem.” Everyone else remained with their pagan beliefs. They couldn’t be bothered to explore anything that might require them to abandon an easy life.
This is why the Torah interrupts the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s excursion in the midbar to tell the tale of Yisro’s arrival. A prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is to let the experience of Hashem’s majesty envelop the mind and the senses so that one draws closer to Torah and G-dliness.
My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, would often refer to a concept he absorbed in Kelm of “kelbeneh hispaalus,” referring to cows that feed on the grass that grows on train tracks. When they hear the train approaching, they frighteningly run from the tracks, only to find their way back after the train passes.
Divine acts are intended to teach us the power of Hashem. Torah demands that hisorerus have a lasting impact, leading to improvement and growth.
That was the lesson of Yisro, and that is why his parsha was placed before Kabbolas HaTorah. That is why the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah is named for Yisro, the convert.
Vayishma Yisro. We have to be open to hearing and examining what is going on and learn from what transpires to dedicate our lives to the truth and living honest and upstanding lives. We must study the lesson of Yisro and be affected by what transpires in our communities and around the world. We must not be apathetic, unaffected and untouched by what is going on.
The Torah further recounts that Yisro noticed that Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching halachos and judging the Jewish people from morning until night. Yisro advised Moshe that the system was improperand counterproductive. He urged Moshe to set up a well-functioning court system in which other people would adjudicate the simpler cases and the more difficult ones would be brought to him.
Yisro told Moshe that the present system was too difficult to sustain and would end up destroying him. Yisro advised him to choose competent dayonim whom he could teach the halachos so that they would be knowledgeable enough to educate the people.
Yisro urged Moshe to get Divine approval for the new system and thus be able to function optimally.
Yisro was a newcomer to the Bnei Yisroel’s camp. He wasn’t the first person to see what was happening to Moshe Rabbeinu. Everyone saw that Moshe was consumed all day long with dinei Torah. Anyone could have observed that it wasn’t sustainable. Anyone could have devised a more effective system to allow Moshe Rabbeinu to spend his time more productively. Anyone could have realized, as Yisro did, that Moshe would become exhausted from the grueling regimen and unceasing pressure.
Everyone saw it. Anyone could have realized where it would lead, but no one did anything about it. It took Yisro to internalize what he saw and to do something constructive to address it.
Yisro saw, Yisro cared, and Yisro spoke up. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu accepted his proposal.
Yisro saved Moshe from becoming physically exhausted. The Torah honored him for this worthy deed by naming the parsha for him. This is why the lessons imparted by Yisro’s deeds are inserted into the narrative describing the supernatural events leading up to Matan Torah.
Yisro taught that everyone has the potential for greatness to the point of being worthy of inserting his deeds into the Torah and having a parsha in the Torah named for him. One must care enough to notice what is going on around him, draw the right conclusions, and try to remedy the situation.
Every one of us has the ability to improve the world. Each of us can reach out and help others. We can all bring meaning and warmth to the lives of our neighbors, friends and fellow Jews. If only we cared, if only we tried. If only we took Yisro’s example to heart. There are so many people in this world hungering to grow and become better people and Jews, but they need our help. We should be there for them. We should always seek to be giving without taking, striving to help prepare the world for Moshiach, helping improve people’s lives.
Yisro taught us that we can all make a difference.
When Amaleik perceives that he can’t destroy us, he slanders us and tells the world that we don’t know how to treat animals or people. He says that we are mean, vicious and heartless. The media promotes the canards.
It wasn’t that long ago that pogroms were perpetrated against the Jewish population by illiterate peasants egged on by the Church and government authorities.
Today, thankfully, they don’t come after us with sticks, knives and guns. Blood libels are a thing of the past. Today, instead of knives and spears, the warmongers’ implements of battle are words put forth by compliant media outlets.
Examples abound. Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence, in a historic step, visited the Kosel during a most friendly trip to Israel. Amaleik wasn’t happy. Headlines bewailed the fact that female reporters and photographers were placed behind the mechitzah at the Kosel. “It was an act against women,” they said. “The Orthodox hate women and treat them as second-class beings. They don’t permit them to do their jobs.” They threw the ultimate put-down at us, writing that the Orthodox are misogynists. So are Trump and Pence, of course.
The leftist Jewish media, never missing a chance to attack President Trump and his administration, as well as the religious community, took full advantage of the opportunity.
“How dare they!” they wailed.
“This was a new low for women,” The Forward cried, adding, “Rather than taking a stand against Pence’s misogyny, Israel was quick to accommodate it with their own. In the space of an hour at the Kotel, Pence’s visit became the occasion for sending women back even further than usual by preventing professional women from working side by side with their male counterparts.
“When both radical religious Judaism and radical religious Christianity intersect on the oppression of women, we are all in trouble.
“Pence’s visit became yet another example of the spread of radical misogyny in political leadership. This should be alarming not only to those who want to hear women’s ideas or who believe women deserve to live freely in the world. It should also be of grave concern to anyone who cares about values such as moderation, freedom, equality, or peace in the Middle East.
“And it was a huge betrayal of these values when Israeli President Rivlin gave Pence the highest praise by calling him a ‘mentsch.’ In so doing, he betrayed women most of all.”
The Torah relates how Yisro went to Moshe “to the desert.” Obviously, if he went to Moshe, he went to the desert, for that was where Moshe and the Jews were to be found. Rashi explains that the Torah is actually saying this in praise of Yisro.
Yisro was sitting “bichvodo shel olam.” He enjoyed prestige and fame as a leading light among the cognoscenti of that age. Yet, he was prepared to venture out into the barren desert in order to seek out the truth of the Torah.
Journalists and self-styled intellectuals whose self-respect is dependent on viewing themselves as progressive, socially-engaged, examples of enlightened Jews unshackled by ancient traditions cannot perceive the derocheha darchei noam inherent in Torah and mitzvos. They make a career out of painting ehrliche Yidden as backward, insensitive and unsophisticated people who are incapable of their own refined sensibilities. If we learn, we are parasites. If we work, we cheat. If we own a business, we take advantage of our employees. Somehow no matter what we do, we are depicted as being dishonest, careless and heartless.
We must have the courage to stand up to people who seek to undermine us. We have to follow Yisro’s example and not be afraid to withstand the ridicule of the cynical scoffers, as we endeavor to live of life of truth.
The posuk (19:5-6) states, “Im shomoa tishmeu bekoli – If you will follow My word and heed the Torah, you will be treasured to Me from all the nations of the world. Ve’atem tihiyu li mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh – And you will be unto Me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
No matter what we encounter, we must follow the precepts of the Torah. We must honor the interests of the poor and the downtrodden, be honest in all our dealings, seek to be mekadeish Sheim Shomayim in all we do, remain loyal to each other and to the laws of the Torah and the land.
We must know and remember that America is a gift from Hashem. Never in our history has there been as charitable and welcome a host as this country. We came here as poor refugees, streaming in to escape pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust. Barely surviving, we limped in. With the help and backing of this magnificent country, we have become a thriving community. We must always remember to be thankful for the opportunities and freedoms offered us.
Based on Kabbalistic sources, the Vilna Gaon describes how the neshomah of Klal Yisroel, the Torah itself, left the collective body of our nation at the time of the churban Bais Hamikdosh. The structure of the body remained, and through years of golus, it has been slowly rotting, its bones decaying. The longer we are in golus, the more we lose. During the period leading up to the geulah, the Torah slowly returns to us and we get our breath back. When Moshiach comes, the neshomah of Am Yisroel will once again be invested in us and we will flourish as before.
We, keepers of the sacred covenant, look forward to returning the Torah to its home, when the neshomah of our people will return to its guf and the weary body of Am Yisroel will be resurrected.
As we deal with the twin destinies of Am Yisroel, greatness engendering enmity, exile begetting deliverance, and the ongoing battles of Amaleik, we await the collective and personal Krias Yam Suf, may it take place speedily in our day.