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On Yitro and Messaging

February 11, 2016

It’s been a while since I’ve referenced a movie, and thought it does not relate directly to the rest of my speech, as I was sitting somewhere in day 3 or 4 or was it 5 of the unexpected second winter break that we gifted with this week, I was reminded of a great line from one of the finer films ever made – Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.

Here’s a brief summary for those who might not be familiar with the film: Adam Sandler’s character Billy Madison is the disappointing heir of his father’s Fortune 500 hotel empire. In order to prove that he is worthy of taking over the company, Billy must successfully complete all 12 grades in 2 week intervals – his father admitted to paying off some of his teachers Billy’s first time through. If not the company will be given to Eric Gordon, one of his father’s conniving associates. Through a series of fascinating plot twists, the fate of the company boils down to an academic decathlon between Billy and Eric. They must show expertise in 10 areas that would be covered in a typical k-12 education. After giving one pathetic answer, the principal and judge turns to Billy and says one of the greatest lines in film history:

Principal: “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

Let us elevate the conversation and celebrate the fact that Baltimore has finally figured out how to “get back on the grid” after last week’s snow.

The parsha opens with Yitro coming to visit with his son-in-law Moshe:

שמות פרק יח

  • וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא יְקֹוָק אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם:

 

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.

Like any good father-in-law, once he is there Yitro cannot keep quiet. He criticizes Moshe’s style of leadership and helps to establish a new and more efficient court system.

The Gemara, Zevachim 116a asks:

מה שמועה שמע ובא ונתגייר?

What news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte?

The Gemara offers several opinions:

  • ר’ יהושע אומר: מלחמת עמלק שמע Rabbi Yehoshua says he heard of the war against Amalek.
  • ר”א המדעי אומר: מתן תורה שמע ובא Rabbi Eliezer haMadai says he heard of the giving of the Torah, the Revelation at Sinai
  • ר”א אומר: קריעת ים סוף שמע ובא R Eliezer says he heard of the splitting of the Sea.

Add to this two more possibilities raised by the Midrash Chadash

  • אמר ר’ שמעון, שמע כי המן יורד מן השמים והשליו וכל תאותם ובא ונתגייר. Shimon says he heard of the manna and the quail
  • אמר ר’ יוסי שמע כי ענני הכבוד עליהם מגינם מחום היום ומקרח הלילה ובא ונתגייר. Yossi says he heard of the clouds of glory.

Commentators are also troubled by the timing of Yitro’s arrival. Despite the many possibilities suggested as to what prompted Yitro’s coming, many are of the opinion that Yitro came AFTER the giving of the Torah. Why then does the Torah interrupt its narrative to tell us about Yitro?

Regardless of which specific event prompted Yitro to come, or when he came, the comment of the Sforno is significant:

ולכן נשאו לבו ללכת בעצמו אל המדבר, ולא שלח על ידי שליח למשה את אשתו ואת בניו,

He was moved to go himself to the wilderness and he did not send Moses’ wife and children to him through an emissary

Yitro knew that there was something going on with B’nei Yisrael. Something awesome. And it was not enough to hear about it second-hand. He had to experience it for himself. Yitro felt a personal need to come and experience for himself.

Rav Lichtenstein z”l says that this is the reason why the Torah inserts the story of Yitro here, right before the giving of the Torah.

The Torah was given to the entire Jewish people, as one entity. We read

וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

And there Israel encamped before the mount. (Exodus 19:2)

Rashi famously writes on this:

ויחן שם ישראל — כאיש אחד בלב אחד,

“Israel camped there” – Like one person with one heart.

While we celebrate the mass revelation at Sinai, there is also a danger. It is very easy to get swept up in the excitement of the group without internalizing any of it on an individual/personal level. One simply goes with the crowd. At the same time, a person may dismiss the mass experience as not being relevant to him or herself – it wasn’t directed toward me.

Yitro counters this danger. As Rav Lichtenstein explains:

“It was necessary for Yitro to appear, of his own initiative without any mountain being held over him, to accept the Torah of his own free will. He had no obligation, nor anyone urging him to act. Nevertheless, he bursts the bounds of his present state and come to receive the Torah.” Yitro further shows the Jewish people that the Torah was given to the nation, but also to every individual.

In fact, this message is seen in the structure of the Torah itself. Perek 19, which describes the preparations for מעמד הר סיני is formulated in the plural:

Exodus 19:4-6:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles ‘wings, and brought you unto Myself. (19:4)

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ

And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (19:6)

But the עשרת הדברות (Ten Commandments) given in chapter 20 are in the singular form. The Ramban explains:

כל הדברות כלן בלשון יחיד, ה’ אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך, ולא כאשר התחיל להם>אתם ראית וגו אם שמע תשמעו (לעיל יט ד ה), להזהיר כי כל יחיד מהם יענש על המצות, כי עם כל אחד ידבר, ולכל אחד יצוה שלא יחשבו כי אחר הרוב ילך והיחיד ינצל עמהם ויבאר להם משה זאת הכוונה בסוף התורה בפרשת אתם נצבים (דברים כט יז):

The Ten Commandments were uttered in the singular…for God was speaking to each individual so that they would not think that He would focus on the majority, such that the individual would be saved along with them…

I believe that this message – of finding personal relevance and meaning while also celebrating the communal, mass experience explains an interesting thought I had about the 10 commandments. This morning, as we read of the mitzvah of Shabbat in Sefer Shemot, the Torah says:

זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ

Zachor – Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)

Yet in Sefer Devarim when Moshe recaps the story he says:

שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ׀ יְהוָ֥֣ה אֱלֹהֶֽ֗יךָ

Shamor – Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD thy God commanded thee. (Deut. 5)

Chazal tell us that זכור relates to the positive commandments of Shabbos while שמור refers to the negative commandments. And despite the fact that the Gemara tells us שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו , Shamor and zachor were said in one utterance, it is interesting that when Hashem tells us about Shabbos the emphasis is on the positive. On all the aspects of Shabbat that would make someone WANT to keep Shabbat. In the same way that Yitro had to come and experience for himself the wondrous things happening to the Jewish people in the desert.

When Moshe conveys the message of Shabbos he focuses on the negative – all the things we can’t do. This is not an approach that makes a person WANT to keep Shabbos. It is not an attitude that leads to a love for Shabbos and Yidishkeit.

I believe that all too often we fall into this same trap. We experience the beauty of Shabbos and we couldn’t imagine life without it. Yet in describing Shabbos to others, and in talking with our children about Shabbos we become like Moshe. The conversation becomes about all the things we CAN’T do. We get caught up in the communal norms of Shabbos observance and lose site of the wonderful gift that is Shabbos. I’m sure that we have heard of the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon of teenagers going through the motions of keeping Shabbos until they retreat to their rooms and text with their friends.

In our conversations of Shabbos and all other aspects of Judaism and Jewish practice we must be more Godly – by emphasizing the positive elements that make a person WANT to keep these mitzvoth and not get caught up in all the things we can’t do. We need conversations in the mode of zachor in order to ensure that we and our children keep both shamor and zachor.

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