Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Parshas Yisro

וישמע יתרו (18:1)

שבע שמות נקראו לו ... יתר על שם שיתר פרשה אחת בתורה ואתה תחזה (רש"י)

Our parsha begins by relating that Yisro heard about all of the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jewish people. This motivated him to come join the Jewish people in the desert and to convert to Judaism. Although our verse calls him Yisro, Rashi notes that we find seven different names used in reference to him. Each name connotes a different aspect of his personality or accomplishments.

One of the seven names is Yeser (יתר), which is also the Hebrew word that means “to add.” Rashi explains that this name refers to the fact that a portion of the Torah was added based on Yisro’s suggestion to Moshe in our parsha that he establish a system of courts and judges.

In referencing the section that was added due to Yisro, Rashi curiously quotes the verse (18:21) in which Yisro delineated his plan to Moshe and enumerated the requirements for proper judges. This is difficult to understand, as a cursory perusal of the parsha reveals that Yisro’s exchange with Moshe began several verses earlier (21:17), when he advised Moshe that the current arrangement was flawed and unsatisfactory. Why does Rashi seem to misquote the beginning of the portion of judges added by Yisro?

The Imrei Emes was once present at a Rabbinical conference in Warsaw that was called to discuss the burning issues of the day and to brainstorm possible solutions. There was one man present who seemed to take great pleasure in finding fatal flaws and poking holes in every proposal that was mentioned. Eventually, the astute Imrei Emes approached the critic and said that because he seemed to be so good at raising questions, he would like to pose to him one of his own.

The Imrei Emes turned to the cynic and asked him our earlier question about Rashi’s citation, to which the man had no answer. The sagacious Rebbe proceeded to cleverly answer his own question. He told the critic that without much effort, virtually anybody can find problems with the status quo or tear apart a new proposal. Rare is the individual who constructively offers an alternative plan of action.

In quoting the later verse as the beginning of the portion added by Yisro, Rashi is teaching us that had Yisro only approached Moshe to criticize the current system as flawed without offering a viable alternative, he wouldn’t have merited an additional section in the Torah. It was only because Yisro’s critique was a constructive introduction of a superior alternative did the Torah find it worthy of recording!

We live in a society in which it has become natural and even praiseworthy to show one’s brilliance by criticizing the broken status quo and calling for change while attacking any solutions proposed by somebody else. Co-workers do it well, spouses do it better, and many of those who’ve perfected the art are now running for President. While we cannot change the approach of others, we can internalize for ourselves Rashi’s lesson that while anybody can focus on finding faults, a true leader and innovator will concentrate on proposing constructive solutions.


ויבא יתרו חתן משה ובניו ואשתו אל משה (18:5)

After hearing about the miracles that 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, bringing Moshe’s wife Tzipporah and two children together with him. Why did Moshe wait for Yisro and his family to come on their own to rejoin him instead of sending a messenger inviting and encouraging them to come?

The Alter of Novhardok explains that when it comes to “kiruv” (Jewish outreach), a person will only be successful if the other party is open and prepared to hearing what he has to say. Before miraculously humiliating the false prophets of the Baal at Har HaCarmel, Eliyahu HaNavi first rebuked the Jews (Melochim 1 18:21), “How much longer will you continue straddling both sides of the fence?”

The Alter explains that even though Eliyahu was about to perform open miracles which would result in a tremendous Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s name), he understood that if the people weren’t in the right mindset, his efforts would be in vain. He therefore prepared the people to be swayed and influenced by delivering words of chastisement and rebuke.

Similarly, Moshe was aware that the entire world heard of the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus. He recognized that if Yisro wasn’t inspired to come on his own, that would be an indication that he wasn’t open and prepared to be influenced, and there would be no purpose in sending for him.


ושפטו את העם בכל עת והיה כל הדבר הגדל יביאו אליך וכל הדבר הקטן ישפטו הם (18:22)

ושפטו את העם בכל עת את הדבר הקשה יביאון אל משה וכל הדבר הקטן ישפוטו הם (18:26)

When Yisro observed Moshe sitting in judgment from the morning until the evening, he commented that the current arrangement was problematic and would wear Moshe out. He advised Moshe to appoint judges to assist him so that he wouldn’t have to spend his entire day sitting in judgment.

Recognizing that these judges wouldn’t be as capable as Moshe and would need his assistance, Yisro added that they should bring for Moshe’s judgment any דבר גדול – major matter. However, the Torah relates that Moshe instituted a system in which the judges brought him any דבר קשה – difficult matter. Why did Moshe deviate, and what is the difference between their approaches?

Rav Chaim Berlin explains that Yisro judged the value and importance of a court case by the amount of money at stake. As such, he advised Moshe that only cases involving large sums of money were worthy of his time and consideration. Moshe, however, understood that the Torah’s goal is to promote justice and therefore assigns the same significance to a case involving millions of dollars as it does to one involving only a few cents. In his eyes, the primary determinant of a case deserving of his valuable time and expertise was one which was difficult for the lower judges to resolve.


ויקרא אליו ד' מן ההר לאמר כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל (19:3)

Sarah Schenirer immortalized our verse in coining the name “Bais Yaakov” for schools for girls. In referring to the men, the Torah uses the phrase the “sons” of Israel. Why when discussing the women does it use the phrase the “house” of Yaakov when “daughters” seems to be the appropriate parallel?

Rav Meir Shapiro explains that when a person becomes ill, there are hypothetically two ways for a doctor to treat him. The standard procedure is to prescribe medication, although another theoretical option would be to design a room in which the air is saturated with the appropriate antibiotic. The first option has the drawbacks that it only helps one patient and requires active administration, whereas the latter could benefit many people without any effort on their parts.

In fighting the universal illness known as the yetzer hara, men follow the Gemora’s prescription (Kiddushin 30b) to repel it through Torah study. Although the latter option isn’t feasible for medical purposes, Jewish women nevertheless use it to ward off spiritual illness. As the backbones of the family, they imbue the entire home with an atmosphere of holiness and spirituality. This automatically benefits not only themselves, but also their husbands, children, and all who are fortunate to enter their homes.

This is alluded to in a verse in 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 a person to listen to the lessons of his father, while a mother’s wisdom permeates the very air of her house and is absorbed without any effort. It is to teach and emphasize this idea 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 each of them begins with a connecting letter “ו” except for the servant. He therefore suggests a brilliant and original way of re-reading our verses based on a Gemora in Berachos (35b). The Gemora teaches that when a Jew does Hashem’s will, his work will be done for him by others, but when he transgresses Hashem’s will, he will have to do his own work.

We can now interpret as follows: a person who only remembers Shabbos in his mind (זכור את יום השבת לקדשו) but doesn’t observe its laws in action will have to work hard, as the verse continues: ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך – six days he shall work and do all of his labor.

On the other hand, if a person doesn’t merely think about Shabbos but actually keeps its laws and makes it Holy (ויום השביעי שבת לד' אלקיך), he and his family members won’t even have to work during the week – לא תעשה כל מלאכה אתה ובנך ובתך. If so, one may ask, how will he possibly live and who will take care of him if he and his family never do any work? To allay that concern, the Torah replies that there will be others – such as servants and foreigners – to do his work for him, as the connecting “ו” is left out to indicate that this is a new list and a separate category – עבדך ואמתך ובהמתך וגרך אשר בשעריך!


Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!

To receive the full version with answers email the author.

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

1) Moshe named his 1st son Gershom to commemorate the fact that he was a sojourner in Midian, a strange land (18:3). He called his 2nd son Eliezer to express his gratitude to Hashem for rescuing him from Pharaoh’s sword (18:4). As he fled to Midian only after being saved from Pharaoh, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to reverse the names to reflect the order in which the events occurred? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Darash Moshe, Ayeles HaShachar)

2) Upon encountering Yisro, Moshe proceeded to relate to him the miracles which Hashem performed in smiting Pharaoh and the Egyptians (18:8). What was Moshe’s purpose in doing so when Yisro had already heard of their punishments (18:1), and this was actually the motivation for his coming to Moshe to convert? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Darkei Mussar, Nesivos Rabboseinu, Ayeles HaShachar)

3) Rashi writes (19:3) that Hashem instructed Moshe to speak to the women regarding the acceptance of the Torah before speaking to the men. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to discuss the subject first with the men? (Shemos Rabbah 28:2, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Beis HaLevi, Darash Moshe, Mishmeres Ariel)

4) The Medrash in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (31) teaches that the shofar which was blown at Mount Sinai (19:16) comes from the horn of the ram which Avrohom offered as a Korban Olah (Bereishis 22:13) in place of Yitzchok. As the Gemora in Chullin (90a) derives from an apparently redundant word (Vayikra 1:9) that the Kohen is required to burn the animal’s horns and hooves together with the rest of the animal, how was Avrohom permitted to save the ram’s horn? (Ramban, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, Gur Aryeh, and Ayeles HaShachar Shemos 19:13; Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh Vayikra 1:9; Tal’lei Oros, Peninei Kedem, and M’rafsin Igri Parshas Vaeira)

5) The Rambam (Hilchos Geneivah 1:3) explains that while there are two words to describe a thief, a גנב is one who steals without the knowledge of the owner and a גזלן is a person who brazenly steals in the presence of the owner. Rashi writes (20:13) that the prohibition in the 10 Commandments against stealing refers to the theft of another person. As kidnapping is generally done with the knowledge of the person being taken, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to write לא תגזול instead of לא תגנוב? (Shu”t Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi 39, M’rafsin Igri, Eebay’ei L’hu)


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