Thursday, February 08, 2007

Parshas Yisro

וישמע יתרו (18:1)

After the miracles Hashem performed for the Jewish people at the Red Sea and in the battle against Amalek, Yisro came to convert and join the Jewish people. However, the Torah seems to emphasize that there was something unique and significant about Yisro hearing these miracles.

Rav Moshe Alshich 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, 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 miracles which Hashem performed for the Jews in Egypt and in the desert, 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 Chanuka, Rav Moses 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 at the time of the Chanuka story. He continued by noting that while yeshivos had spread throughout Europe and a proper Jewish education was available to boys, there was unfortunately no similar option for 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 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 marry G-d-fearing girls.

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, who was inspired by his address to establish the modern Beis Yaakov movement to give Jewish girls an opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education!

Many times in life Hashem sends us personal messages and wake-up calls. Although we hear the information being presented to us, we often choose to ignore the call to action which is required. At those times, let us “hear” the lesson of Yisro and of Sorah Schnirer and properly understand the actions and changes that we are required to undertake.


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 the 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 delineated his plan and enumerated the requirements for proper judges, but a cursory perusal of the parsha reveals that Yisro’s exchange with Moshe began several verses earlier (21:17) when he advised Moshe that his current arrangement was 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 the man 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 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!


ויאמר אל משה אני חתנך יתרו (18:6)

The Arizal writes in the name of the Zohar HaKadosh that Moshe was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Hevel, and Yisro was a gilgul of Kayin. His student Rav Chaim Vital notes that this is hinted to by the letters beginning the words “I am your father-in-law Yisro,” which spell the word אחי – my brother.

Part of Yisro’s mission in this world was to atone for the sin of Kayin in killing Hevel, which he did in several ways. He gave his daughter in marriage to a gilgul of Hevel, Moshe, which allowed Hevel the descendants which were denied him through his murder (see Bereishis 4:10). The sacrifice brought by Kayin did not find favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis 4:5), so Yisro corrected this by bringing proper sacrifices to Hashem (18:12), which were enjoyed not just by him but by the elders of the generation.

Finally, the Chida writes that while the Torah doesn’t recount the final conversation between Kayin and Hevel when they were in the field prior to the murder, the Targum Yonason ben Uziel (Bereishis 4:8) records that a part of it was Kayin’s blasphemous claim that there is no Divine judge or process of judgment regarding our actions in this world. He rectified this by suggesting to Moshe (18:19-23) the concept of establishing a proper system of courts and judges!


ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר (19:2)

כאיש אחד בלב אחד (רש"י)

While Rashi notes the beautiful demonstration of ach’dus (unity) which the Jews demonstrated upon their arrival at Har Sinai, it is difficult to understand what makes this so unique, as Rashi himself writes in last week’s parsha (14:10) that the Egyptians pursued the Jews to the Red Sea with a similar display of harmony - בלב אחד כאיש אחד.

However, Rav Yitzchok Hutner and the Avnei Nezer explain that there is a fundamental difference between the ach’dus of the Jews and that of other nations, which is subtly hinted to by Rashi. The Jewish people are intrinsically connected as part of one large entity, whereas the members of other nations are fundamentally disassociated and out for their own personal interests. Only when their desires coincide do they team up in pursuit of a common goal, but not because of any deep bond, and therefore as soon as their goals inevitably diverge they will go their separate ways.

A close reading will reveal that while Rashi used the same expression for the Jews at Har Sinai and for the Egyptians at the Red Sea, he carefully reversed the order to make this point. The Egyptians didn’t have any true unity, but for a brief moment they were united with one heart (בלב אחד) in a common desire to recapture their fleeing slaves, and they therefore pursued them as one (כאיש אחד). The Jewish people, on the other hand, are intrinsically bonded together as one person (כאיש אחד), and one person automatically has only one heart (בלב אחד).


לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם (20:20)

On a simple level, this verse is coming to prohibit the creation of idols or celestial images out of gold or silver. However, Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests an alternative and rather original reading which is all too relevant in our generation.

The word אתי – with me – seems to be superfluous, as Hashem is everywhere, and this prohibition is applicable in all places at all times. Therefore, the verse can also understood as referring to the time when a person is “with me,” which is when he is standing before Him in prayer. It is regarding the times that a person is davening that the Torah warns him against thinking about his gold and silver, or the modern-day equivalent his business and financial affairs, as whoever does so is considered to have actually made idolatrous gods of gold and silver!


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

1) In advising Moshe of the qualities to seek in prospective judges (18:21), why didn’t Yisro mention wisdom? (Rabbeinu Bechaye)

2) On 2 Sivan, the Jewish people told Moshe (19:8) that everything that Hashem has spoken, נעשה – we will do. It was only later on 5 Sivan that they enthusiastically gave their famous response that whatever Hashem has said, נעשה ונשמע – we will do and we will listen (24:7). Why didn’t they immediately respond with this demonstration of faith when originally asked? (Shem MiShmuel)

3) In the Haggadah we say that if Hashem had brought us before Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us. What would have been the benefit of coming to Mount Sinai if Hashem didn’t give us the Torah? (Nesivos Rabboseinu, Mishmeres Ariel)

4) The Magen Avrohom writes (494) that one of the reasons for the custom on Shavuos of staying up all night and learning is because the Medrash says that on the night before the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people slept too long and Hashem had to awaken them when the time came for the giving of the Torah. In order to prevent ourselves from making a similar mistake and to rectify theirs, we show our eagerness to once again receive the Torah and remain awake the entire night. How is it possible that all of the Jews “overslept” for the most monumental event in the history of the world? (Darkei HaShleimus, Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer 41, Kedushas Levi)

5) The Mishnah Berurah writes (61:2) that all of the 10 Commandments are alluded to in the three paragraphs of the Shema, and a person should think of them as he says the corresponding words. How many of them can you find hinted to throughout Krias Shema? (Mishnah Berurah 61:2)

6) If the mitzvah of Torah study (Devorim 6:7) is so important that it is equal to all of the other mitzvos (Peah 1:1), why wasn’t it included in the 10 Commandments?

7) The Gemora in Shabbos (88b) states that each time that the Jewish people heard Hashem say one of the 10 Commandments, their souls left them and He had to miraculously revive them in order to continue. After the completion of the 10 Commandments, were they still considered legally married to their spouses, or did they need to remarry one another because their temporary deaths had rendered them all legally single and unmarried? (Chasam Sofer 4:25, Birkei Yosef Even HaEzer 17, Shu”t Beis Yitzchok Vol. 1 6:14, Kovetz Shiurim 2:28-29, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

8) If a person was convicted of a crime, is he permitted to blame his actions on the physical or emotional abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of one of his parents in order to receive a reduced jail sentence, or is doing so forbidden because it publicly shames one of his parents, whom he is obligated to honor (20:12)? (Tuv’cha Yabi’u)


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