א) וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקִים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא יְדֹוָד אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם
1) And Yitro, the Priest of Midyan, father in law of Moshe, heard all that Hashem did for Moshe and the Jewish nation, that Hashem had taken the Jewish people out of Egypt.
In response to what he heard, Yitro gathered Moshe’s wife and two children, and set out into the wilderness to join Moshe. For this, Yitro goes down in Torah history as a hero, and gets a parsha in the Torah named after him.
At first blush, one wonders, “What’s the big deal?” Why does he receive such notoriety for such a seemingly minor accomplishment? However, after more careful consideration, we come to realize it really was a very big deal! Why?
The entire civilized world knew about the amazing miracles that Hashem performed in Egypt to free the Jewish people. Until this point, no slave was ever able to escape from Egypt, let alone a whole nation. And they didn’t escape like fugitives, they walked out proudly, leaving Egypt in shambles. The Torah reports that the surrounding nations were struck with awe and trepidation by these events. Yet, Yitro was the only one to respond and do something about it. He picked himself up, joined the Jewish people and became a Jew. This is truly remarkable! Of all the millions of people who recognized Hashem and His might, only one person was prepared to leave his comfort zone and make a change to his life and join the Jewish people in the wilderness? This must be a very special person, and for this he deserves much credit.
What was his secret? What was different about him that caused him to act the way he did?
The secret lies in the first word of the Parsha, וישמע – and he heard. Our sages teach us that there are two ways to hear something. One is that you hear the sounds of the words, like when you ask your child to do something and he just sits there as if you never said anything. At that point you ask, “Did you hear what I said?” knowing full well that his hearing is perfect. Of course, you’re not interested to know if his ears are working properly. What you really are asking is why haven’t your words caused your child to fulfill your request. He has heard, but hasn’t applied what he heard to himself. If you had yelled, “Fire!! There’s a fire!” and he didn’t move, you would have to suspect that something is blocking his hearing. Maybe he’s wearing earbuds with music blaring in his ears, and can’t hear you. But, you know there is no way he could have heard what you said and not react. Hearing the implications of the words and taking them to heart is the second form of hearing.
All the other people heard what had happened with the Jewish people, but none of them applied the lesson to themselves. The fact that there exists a most powerful G-d who can change the laws of nature at will, and apply those changes to individual people, while exempting others, has no relevance to me. I have my life to live, don’t bother me with trivial matters.
Yitro realized the significance of these events and took them to heart. “This must be the creator of the world and my creator! He created me here for a reason, and I can finally find out the purpose for my existence, and what I am here to accomplish!” He came running.
The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet 1235-1310) was once asked. “What should a person be thinking when he says the word שמע – Hear , when reciting the Shma Yisroel prayer?”
The Rashba answers that the word שמע – listen, has three different meanings in scripture.
The first is simply to listen carefully to the words being spoken so you know clearly the message being conveyed to you.
King Solomon asked Hashem for a לב שומע – literally translated “a listening heart.” What King Solomon meant was an understanding heart, one that would be sensitive to the needs of his subjects. Hence, the word שמע (shema) also means to understand. This is the second meaning of שמע – understand.
In Proverbs (1:8) King Solomon says: שמע בני מוסר אביך- Listen my son to the discipline of your father. The word שמע – listen- here, means to obey or accept to do. This is the third meaning of the word שמע – listen, obey.
שו”ת הרשב”א חלק ה סימן נה
באומרו שמע ישראל, כולל ג’ ענינים שנצטוינו לשמוע וללמוד כי לולי שנשמע ונלמוד לא נתבונן אליו. ואחרי השמיעה והלימוד וחיקור היטב אם יש ראיה סותרת ח”ו ואחר שנבא מתוך השמיעה אל החקירה באמת תביאנו החקירה ותכריחנו הכרח אמתי לקבל ולהאמין כי הוא ית’ נמצא וכן הוא משגיח על פרטי מעשנו
Hence, the Rashba answers.
Therefore, saying the word Shema includes three ideas. 1. To listen and learn about Hashem, because if we don’t learn, we can’t know Him. 2. Then, we have to make Hashem a reality to ourselves through proofs and critical thinking. 3. This will bring us to live our lives with the realization that Hashem exists and that He is in control of our lives.
This is what we are saying when say the Shema and we proclaim our belief in the one and only Hashem, Creator and Master of the universe. שמע – 1, 2 & 3 above, O’ Israel! Hashem Elokeinu is the Master of all that transpires in the world and He is One.
Only Yitro heard with all three meanings, therefore, he was the only one to join Moshe and the Jewish people in the wilderness and convert to Judaism.
The verse quoted above states that Yitro, “heard all that Hashem did for Moshe and the Jewish nation, that Hashem had taken the Jewish people out of Egypt.”
The Mechilta asks the question. מה שמועה שמע ובא? “What in particular was so impactful to Yitro that made him come?” The essence of this question is, “what made Yitro feel that he had to come and convert to join the Jewish nation, instead of just accepting to serve Hashem as a gentile?”
There are many options to choose from which could have impacted Yitro’s decision. The miraculous ten plagues, which wreaked havoc in Egypt and punished the Egyptians relentlessly, culminating with the death of the first born – a real whopper! How about all the wealth that the Jews took with them? After all the suffering they went through, the Egyptians still gave the Jews all their precious possessions! To the observant eye, one recognizes a certain justice served in these events. The Egyptians were punished measure for measure for all the pain and suffering they caused the Jewish people, and the Jews were paid handsomely for the free labor they provided to the Egyptians for 210 years.
The Mechilta answers.
מכילתא פרשת יתרו פרשה א
מלחמת עמלק שמע ובא שהיא כתובה בצדו דברי רבי יהושע.
Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was the war with Amalek, the event in the Torah just before the portion of Yitro, that was the catalyst.
Our Sages note that Rabbi Yehoshua did not say, “The victory over Amalek” rather “the war with Amalek.” Just the fact that Amalek instigated a war with the Jewish people was what influenced Yitro to come. How was that?
After seeing all the amazing miracles demonstrating Hashem’s dominion over every aspect of creation, did they think that Hashem would let them wipe out the nation He had just turned the world upside down to free from Egypt? It was suicidal for Amalek to start up with them, and they knew it very well. Yet, in spite of the fact that they knew they would be decimated, they went to war against the fledgling Jewish nation. What were they out to accomplish that was so important that they were prepared to commit suicide over it?
They were out to dampen and diminish the awe the Jewish people held in the eyes of the entire world. The Midrash gives the following parable to illustrate.
מדרש תנחומא כי תצא – פרק ט
אמר רבי חוניא מלה”ד לאמבטי רותחת שלא היתה בריה יכולה לירד בתוכה בא בן בליעל אחד וקפץ לתוכה אע”פ שנכוה הקירה לפני אחרים אף כאן כיון שיצאו ישראל ממצרים הקב”ה קרע הים לפניהם ונשתקעו המצרים לתוכו נפל פחדן על כל האומות שנא’ (שמות טז) אז נבהלו אלופי אדום וגו’ כיון שבא עמלק ונזדווג להם אע”פ שנטל את שלו מתחת ידן הקירו לפני או”ה:
Rabbi Chunya said. It’s like a tub filled with hot boiling water that no one would dare enter. Some jerk came along and jumped in. Even though he got burned in the process, he, nevertheless, cooled the water off for everyone else. In the same sense, when the Jewish people came out of Egypt, and Hashem split the sea for them drowning the Egyptians, the fear of the Jews fell upon all the nations. Once Amalek warred with them, even though they got burned, they still succeeded in cooling off the fear of the nations towards the Jewish people.
Yitro was struck by the fact that people could be so evil that they would even sacrifice their lives to hurt others. He realized that, people, left on their own, without a connection to the Divine, can sink to the lowest possible level. He had to go and join the Jewish nation, so he would not fall prey to depravity.
Harav Eliyahu Lopian זצ”ל writes, (שביבי לב קד) that after hearing of all the atrocities committed by Nazis יש”ו in the Holocaust, a group of well-known atheists in London became religious. They explained their change of heart. “Now that we have seen that without a connection to the Divine a human being can turn into something more malicious and evil than wild animals, we realize that we need to have a connection to Hashem to remain good.”
ר’ אלעזר אומר מתן תורה שמע ובא
רבי אליעזר אומר קריעת ים סוף שמע ובא שבשעה שנקרע ים סוף נשמע מסוף העולם ועד סופו
Rabbi Eliezer says, it was the splitting of the Reed Sea that caused him to come, for this miracle was know the world over.
The Sages explain that all bodies of water the world over split when the Reed Sea split, hence, everyone knew about it.
What was it about the splitting of the sea that was so attractive to Yitro?
The Jewish people are called עברים – Hebrews. Avraham was the first one to be called an עברי . The Sages explain that the word derives from the word עבר which means “side.” In the case of Avraham it represents that he was on the other side of the whole world. This refers to when Nimrod was in power and the entire civilized world believed in idols and Nimrod. Avraham believed in the one and only Hashem, and opposed Nimrod and idol worship. He was on one side of the scale, so to speak, while the rest of the world was on the other side. Avraham, nevertheless, tipped the scale in his direction.
The Midrash tells us, that after the Jews went through the Reed Sea, they were called עברים – Hebrews, for a different reason.
מדרש רבה שמות – פרשה ג פסקה ח
למה קורא אותם עברים על שום שעברו ים
Why were they called עברים – Hebrews? Because they – passed through a sea. עברו ים .
What is so significant about this event that it must be reflected in our name?
A human being cannot survive in the middle of a sea of water. Three to five minutes is all a person gets, max. Then he goes down. Here, millions of people lived and thrived in the middle of a sea. There was water all around them, but they were on dry land with air to breath all around them. This was a supernatural event! Human beings surviving in the middle of a sea? Impossible! But, yes, we did. Hashem made a miracle and we survived, no sweat.
This is a metaphor for our situation today and how things have always been for the Jewish people. There is always a sea raging about us trying to drown us, but, miraculously, just like in the Reed Sea, we survive. This is because we are a supernatural people, who are not subject to the rules of nature. By the laws of nature, we should have been destroyed many thousands of years ago. But Hashem constantly holds back the water from crashing down on us and drowning us, and thus, we are still alive and well.
Look at this map of the Middle East. In the center is the word ISRAEL next to an itty-bitty country, while massive countries, filled with hundreds of millions of people, each of whom hates Israel with a passion, surround it.
How does Israel survive? What holds back the wave of murder and destruction that our neighbors wish to unleash on us? There is only one answer. As Hashem’s nation, we have a different operating system in the world, one which is not bound by the laws of nature. Our very existence, defies nature.
Not only does the Jewish nation exist in the year 2019, after so many ferocious attempts to annihilate us, we continue to thrive and grow. It is no secret that the Jewish people defy nature in every single area of endeavor in the world. They excel and set the standard of excellence in every discipline. Our secret sauce is our connection to the Creator of nature. He is above nature, and so are we.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a special nation? This is what Yitro saw in the splitting of the Reed Sea that made him come running. We are a miraculous nation, one that is not subject to the laws of nature.
How privileged each of us should feel to be part of this amazing Jewish nation. We don’t need to cross deserts and convert to Judaism, like Yitro did. We were born into and are part of this remarkable people. The more we tap into our connection to our people and Hashem, the greater the benefit we will have from our miraculous potential.