Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Parshas Yisro

(וישמע יתרו (18:1
The Torah seems to emphasize that there was something unique and significant about how Yisros heard the miracles which Hashem performed for the Jewish people. The Alshich HaKadosh, as quoted in the Darkei Mussar, explains that while the entire world heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah and were filled with awe and fear of the Jews (15:14-16), only Yisro chose to do something about it – to come and convert. Proper hearing doesn’t merely connote the ability to detect and process sound waves, but it requires a deeper understanding of the message being conveyed. Rav Shalom Schwadron likens the difference to two people walking down the train tracks. When the conductor of an oncoming train notices them, he begins to sound a shrill warning whistle. Both men hear the whistle, but one is a simple farmer who has never before seen a train and therefore continues walking while enjoying the view and the sounds of the whistle, while the other understands the warning being conveyed and immediately flees from the oncoming danger. While both men physically “heard” the sound of the whistle, only the latter can be said to have properly heard and understood the message. Similarly, although the nations of the world heard of the miraculous events, the news went in one ear and out the other, failing to penetrate and change them. Only Yisro internalized the message, understanding what was required of him and acting accordingly. During World War I, many of the Jews of war-torn Poland fled to take refuge in Austria. One year on Shabbos Chanukka, Rav Moshe Flesch, the Rav of a shul in Vienna, gave a speech about the strength and determination of Yehudis in standing up for what she knew was right. He continued by noting that while Yeshivos had spread throughout Europe and a proper Jewish education was available to many boys, there was unfortunately no similar option for Jewish girls, who were forced to attend public school and received only a rudimentary religious education at Sunday schools. Lacking a solid background, the girls were all too often swept up in the foreign, anti-religious movements of the time, often corrupting other family members with them. Rav Flesch stressed the need for a modern-day Yehudis to step forward and establish a suitable system of formal education for Jewish girls, so that they would remain religious and so that the Yeshiva students would be able to find G-d-fearing girls to marry. While everybody in the packed shul heard his inspiring words on that fateful day, only one girl up in the crowded Ezras Nashim truly “heard” the message – her name was Sorah Schnirer!


וישמע יתרו (18:1)
שבע שמות נקראו לו ... יתר על שם שיתר פרשה אחת בתורה ואתה תחזה (רש"י
The Imrei Emes was once present at a Rabbinical conference in Warsaw called to discuss the burning issues of the day and to brainstorm possible solutions. However, there was one man present who seemed to take great pleasure in finding problems and poking holes in every single proposal which was mentioned. Eventually, the astute Imrei Emes approached the critic and said that because he seemed to be so good with questions, he would like to pose to him one of his own. In the beginning of our Parsha, Rashi writes that Yisro was known by seven different names. One of the names was Yeser, which refers to the fact that a portion of the Torah was added based on his suggestion to Moshe to establish a system of courts and judges. However, in naming the section which was added based on his proposal, Rashi quotes the verse (18:21) in which Yisro delineates his plan and enumerates the requirements for proper judges, but a cursory perusal of our Parsha will reveal that Yisro’s exchange with Moshe begins several verse earlier (21:17) when he advises Moshe that his current arrangement is flawed and unsatisfactory. The Imrei Emes turned to the cynic and asked him why Rashi seems to misquote the beginning of the portion of judges added by Yisro, to which he had no answer. The sagacious Rebbe proceeded to cleverly answer his own question by telling the detractor that without much effort, virtually anybody can find problems with the status quo or tear apart a new proposal, but rare is the individual who constructively offers an alternative plan of action. The cynic had taken pride in his ability to find flaws in every suggestion placed on the table, but Rashi teaches us that had Yisro only approached Moshe to criticize the current system as flawed without offering a viable alternative, he wouldn’t have merited the additional section of the Torah. It was only because his critique was a constructive introduction to a superior alternative did the Torah find it worthy of recording!


וישמע יתרו (18:1)
שבע שמות נקראו לו ... יתר על שם שיתר פרשה אחת בתורה ואתה תחזה. יתרו לכשנתגייר וקיים המצות הוסיפו לו אות אחת על שמו (רש"י
Rashi writes that Yisro was known by seven different names, each with a different meaning. One of the names was Yeser, which connotes the fact that he merited that a section was added to the Torah as a result of his suggestion to Moshe to appoint judges. However, we universally refer to him by the name Yisro, which refers to the fact that by converting to Judaism and accepting the yoke of the mitzvos upon himself, an additional letter was added onto his name. The Darkei Ha’shleimus suggests that this hints to us that as important as Torah study is, and to add an entire portion to the Torah itself all the more so, nevertheless our ultimate purpose in this world is to perfect ourselves and our character traits, which is reflected by Yisro’s desire to convert and ascend the spiritual ladder. Rabbeinu Bechaye similarly notes (18:21) that in enumerating the desirable traits to seek in judicial candidates, Yisro emphasized the importance of honesty and proper character without a single mention of the value of wisdom, just as the Torah itself praised Noach, Avrohom, and Yaakov primarily for their righteous character traits. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the author of the monumental work Achiezer, once asked his dear friend and Rabbinical colleague, Rav Eliyahu Chaim Meisels, why he never made the time to compose a book of his Talmudic and halachic insights, which would certainly be a merit for him in the World to Come. Rav Meizels, who was well-known for his tireless efforts to assist the poor and downtrodden, pulled out some old, dusty ledgers containing the details of all of the charity and loans he had dispersed, and answered that these are the books he prefers to take with him before the Heavenly Court. It is related that when Rav Chaim Ozer lay on his death bed, he remarked that he now recognized the truth of Rav Meisels’ words. The lesson of Yisro is that even more important than writing books of Torah is writing the book of our lives and good deeds!


(ויקרא אליו ד' מן ההר לאמר כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל (19:3
Sorah Schnirer immortalized our verse in coining the name “Bais Yaakov” for schools for girls. However, in referring to the men, the Torah uses the phrase the “sons” of Israel, so why when discussing the women does it use the phrase the “house” of Yaakov when “daughters” would seem to be the appropriate parallel? Rav Meir Shapiro observes that when somebody becomes ill, there are hypothetically two ways for a doctor to treat him. The standard procedure will be to prescribe a certain medication, although another theoretical option would be to design a room in which the air is full of the necessary antibiotic. The former option has the drawbacks that it only helps one patient and requires active administration, whereas the latter could benefit many people and without any effort on their parts. Similarly, in fighting the universal illness known as the yetzer hara (evil inclination), men follow the prescription of the Gemora (Kiddushin 30b) to repel it through the study of Torah. Although the latter option isn’t currently medically feasible, Jewish women nevertheless use it to ward off spiritual illness. As the backbone of the house, she imbues the entire home with an atmosphere of holiness and spirituality, which automatically benefits not just herself but her husband, her children, and all who are fortunate to enter her home. This is also alluded to in a well-known verse (Mishlei 1:8) שמע בני מוסר אביך ואל תטש תורת אמך – Listen my son to the rebuke of your father, and don’t forsake the teachings of your mother. Shlomo Hamelech found it necessary to instruct one to listen to the lessons of one’s father, but a mother’s wisdom permeates the very air of the house and will be absorbed even without effort. It is to emphasize this connection that the Torah refers to the women not as the daughters of Yaakov, but as the house of Yaakov.


זכור את יום השבת לקדשו ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך ויום השביעי שבת לד' אלקיך לא תעשה כל מלאכה אתה ובנך ובתך עבדך ואמתך ובהמתך וגרך אשר בשעריך (20:8-10
In the list of people who are prohibited from working on Shabbos, the Vilna Gaon notes that every one begins with a connecting “ו” – “and” – except for the servant. He therefore suggests a brilliant and original way of re-reading the verses based on a Gemora in Berachos (35b). The Gemora states that when a Jew is doing what Hashem’s will, then he will merit that his work will be done for him by others, but when he is transgressing Hashem’s will, then he will have to do his own work. We can therefore interpret as follows: somebody who only remembers Shabbos in his mind (זכור את יום השבת לקדשו) but doesn’t keep it in action will therefore have to work hard, as it says ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך – six days he will have to work and do all of his labor. On the other hand, if he doesn’t merely think about Shabbos but actually keeps it and makes it Holy in accordance with its laws (ויום השביעי שבת לד' אלקיך), then he and his family members won’t have to work even during the week - לא תעשה כל מלאכה אתה ובנך ובתך. If so, you may ask, how will he possibly live and who will take care of him if he and his family never do any work? To that the Torah answers that there will be others, such as servants and foreigners, to do his work for him, with the connecting “ו” left out to indicate that this is indeed a new list and a separate category - עבדך ואמתך ובהמתך וגרך אשר בשעריך!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) After the Torah refers to Yisro as Moshe’s father-in-law in the first verse of the Parsha (18:1), why is this fact repeated in the following verse (18:2)? (My 6-year-old b’chor!)

2) The Medrash (Sifri V’zos Ha’bracha 2) relates that before giving the Torah to the Jews, Hashem first offered it to other nations of the world. Each of them asked what is written in it, to which Hashem responded with the single mitzvah which would be most difficult for the people of that nation to observe. Not surprisingly, they all declined. Had the Jews asked the same question, which mitzvah would have been deemed the most difficult for us and thereby been presented to us in order to determine the sincerity of our willingness to accept Hashem’s Torah?

3) A well-known Gemora in Shabbos (88a) recounts that when the Jewish people were encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, Hashem lifted the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they don’t accept the Torah, שם תהא קבורתכם – there will be your burial place. A reference to burying them implies that the universe will continue to physically exist, and this location will serve as the nation’s collective cemetery. However, the Gemora in Avodah Zara (3a) says that Hashem’s creation of the universe was conditional on the acceptance of the Torah by the Jews, and that in the event they refuse, Hashem will return the entire universe to its pre-creation nothingness. If so, how could the Jews be buried by Har Sinai? (Maharsha Avodah Zara 2b)

4) The Gemora in Shabbos (88a) relates that when the Jews were encamped at Har Sinai, Hashem raised the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they don’t accept the Torah, שם תהא קבורתכם – there you will be buried. If Hashem’s intention was to intimidate them, why did He transform the mountain into a barrel, which isn’t particularly frightening, and why didn’t He leave it looming over their heads like the scary mountain that it was? (V’Ha’Ish Moshe)

5) Rashi writes (20:1) that Hashem preserves our good deeds and pays the reward to our descendants for up to 2000 generations. What sense does it make to speak about 2000 generations of descendants, when a quick calculation reveals that from Odom HaRishon until the present there have only been roughly 100 generations? (Leshem Shevo V’achlama by Rav Shlomo Elyashiv)

6) The last of the Aseres HaDibros is the prohibition against coveting another person’s possessions. Is it permitted to covet the possessions of a non-Jew? (Pri Megadim Orach Chaim Mishb’tzos Zahav 604:1, HaMakneh 28:1 D.H. B’hagah, Mishmeres Ariel)


© 2006 Permission is granted to reproduce and distribute as long as credit is given. To receive weekly via email or to send comments or suggestions, write to parshapotpourri@optonline.net

2 Comments:

Blogger FrumGirl said...

PP - I am running out of ways to praise your choice of divrei Torah... again, thanks so much for posting every week!

Thu Feb 16, 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

Thanks for another round of dv'ar Torahs.I'm so glad you posted these now, I'm eating at my father's in law this Shabbes and need to come up with something interesting!

Fri Feb 17, 06:21:00 AM  

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