Parshat Yitro תשפא

Yitro (in English Jethro), the person for whom this week’s portion is named, should have been the very last person in the world to have a portion in the Holy Torah named for him.  Indeed, not only did he spend most of his life serving idols, he served every idol there was to serve. And not only did he serve every idol, he became its high priest and taught its tenets to his followers! Is this the kind of person you would expect to find respectfully talked about in Hashem’s Torah with a portion named after him? Hardly! So, what is so special about this man that made him worthy of this honor?

The answer lies in the first word of the portion, וישמע  – and he heard. Here is the first verse in this week’s portion (Exodus 18:1).

(א) וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקִים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא יְדֹוָד אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם

1) Yitro, the Midianite minister, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard everything that Hashem did for Moshe and to Israel, his people – that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt.

Inspired by what he heard, Yitro immediately took Tzipporah his daughter and Moshe’s wife, and their two children, and came out to the desert to join Moshe and the Jewish people. (After the burning bush, Moshe went alone to Egypt, leaving his wife and children with his father-in-law.) With this, the Torah has revealed to us what Hashem found so special about Yitro such that He created a portion in the Torah special for him. There is much that we can learn from Yitro’s conduct.

Yitro has a long history in our Torah.

Per the Midrash, our first encounter with him is as one of Pharaoh’s closest advisors. Along with Bilam and Job, he was present when Pharaoh came up with the plan to subjugate and then exterminate the Jews. While Bilam was clearly for it, and Job did not express an opinion, Yitro opposed it, and had to flee for his life because of his opposition to Pharaoh’s idea.

This privileged knowledge of Pharaoh’s plans to exterminate the Jews gave Yitro a deeper appreciation of the events that befell the Egyptians. In his description of what impressed him to join the Jewish people, Yitro said (Verse 11),

(יא) עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל יְדֹוָד מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם

11) Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods, for (Hashem punished the Egyptians) in the same manner in which the Egyptians had conspired against the Jews,.

Hashem’s method of punishment is measure for measure, and Yitro was able to see the correlation between Pharaoh’s evil plans and the punishments that he ultimately received for them. This knowledge played an important role in Yitro seeing that Hashem was in control. Coincidences like these don’t happen in real life. There was a plan and a method to what Hashem did to Pharaoh, and Yitro grasped how the pieces fit perfectly together.

This verse reveals another facet of Yitro’s life. He proclaimed, “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the other gods!” How would he know? Did he serve them all? The answer is, well, yes, he did. And after serving each one with his heart and soul until he became its high priest, he discovered its fatal flaw, and he left it to try the next one. He spent his entire life searching for the truth, going from one “god” to the next, until he found the truth with Hashem and, ultimately, the Torah.

Yitro suffered scorn and rejection from the adherents of all the false gods that he rejected, but that didn’t bother him. He stood strong in his pursuit of the truth, and did not allow social pressure to deter him. This happened time and again, but Yitro remained committed to finding the true religion and the true G-d to serve.

We see this from when Moshe first ran away from Pharaoh to Midian, he met Yitro’s daughters at the well. They were banned from drawing water because their father was excommunicated as a result of his different beliefs. Moshe had to rescue them from the hands of the other shepherds.

It was this quality that distinguished Yitro from all the millions of others who also heard of the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jews in Egypt, and the blow that Hashem dealt the Egyptians. Upon hearing about them, everyone else lifted their eyes and said to themselves, “Wow! That’s amazing!” and then, just went back to life as usual. What they heard did not affect them one iota.

When Yitro heard of the events, he heard them deeply, realized their significance, and took them to heart. “This must be the creator of the world and my creator! He created me for a reason, and I can finally find out the purpose for my existence and what I am here to accomplish!” He gathered his family and belongings, left everything else behind, and went out to the desert to join the true religion, Judaism.

This is the great compliment that Hashem bestowed on Yitro with the first word of this parsha. “Yitro heard!”He took to heart what he had heard.

The most important verse in the Torah for a Jew is Shema Yisroel …” Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. With these words we proclaim Hashem as the one and only G-d in the world, and our G-d.

The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet, 1235-1310) was once asked, “What should a person be thinking when he says the word שמע  – shema – “Listen ,” when reciting the Shema Yisroel prayer?”

The Rashba answers that, in scripture, the word “shema” has three different meanings.

1Simply to listen carefully to the words being spoken so that you know clearly the message being conveyed to you.

  1. King Solomon asked Hashem for a לב שומע  – literally translated “a listening heart.” What King Solomon meant was that he was seeking 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 its second meaning.
  2. King Solomon says (Proverbs 1:8),   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 –  obey.        Hence, the Rashba answers.

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

           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 (understand). 3. This will bring us to live our lives with the realization that Hashem exists and that He is in control of our lives (obey).

This is what we should be thinking when we say the Shema and proclaim our belief in the one and only Hashem, Creator and Master of the universe. שמע  – 1, 2, and 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 to convert to Judaism.

Rashi‘s first comment on this portion delves deeper into the matter. He says:

(א) וישמע יתרו – מה שמועה שמע ובא קריעת ים סוף ומלחמת עמלק

1) What exactly did he hear that compelled him to come? The splitting of the Reed Sea and the war with Amalek.

In last week’s portion Beshalach, we read about how the entire Jewish nation crossed through the Reed Sea on dry land, with the water standing straight up giving them passage through the sea. When the pursuing Egyptians entered the very same dry channels, the waters came crashing down upon them to drown them. It is easy to understand how such a miracle would impress Yitro and make him want to join a nation whose G-d is so powerful.

The final episode recorded in the previous parsha was the war with Amalek. Our Sages note that Rashi did not say, “The victory over Amalek,” but, rather “the war with Amalek.” That Amalek merely instigated a war against the Jewish people was what influenced Yitro to come. How was that?

He was struck with the following question. How could Amalek possibly start a war with the Jewish people? After seeing the amazing miracles demonstrating Hashem’s might and dominion over every aspect of creation, did they really think that they could defeat the nation of such a powerful G-d? Indeed, Hashem had just turned the world upside down to free the Jews from Egypt! It was suicidal to start up with them, and they knew it very well. But they were out to dampen and diminish the awe that the Jewish people held in the eyes of the world, and this goal would be achieved even if they were decimated. They were so evil that they were prepared to give their lives to diminish the image of the Jewish nation in the eyes of the 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 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 of the nations. Once Amalek warred with them, even though Amalek 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 level. He therefore had to go and join the Jewish nation and connect himself to Hashem so that 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.”

Looking back at Yitro, we now realize that there is really much that we can learn from him. He is most worthy of having a portion of the Torah named after him because he is a shining example of how we should be.

Yitro spent his entire life in pursuit of the truth. He did not care about the effort and time invested in all the false gods that he tried. When he discovered the fatal flaw in the idol, he cast it off and set off to find the next candidate. And when the real thing came along, he didn’t flinch, and went for it at great sacrifice.

He was also someone who took the events that transpired around him to heart. He not only “heard” the message, he listened to it. When he heard that after all Amalek saw, it went to war with the Jewish nation, he realized that he must join the Jews to remain good.

This lesson applies today as well. Society has drifted so far from the Torah’s morals and values, which have always provided a stable framework for life. Simple values like family, integrity, and honesty are rare qualities in today’s society. These are the core values of the Torah and provide the basis for a minimal quality of life. We must reconnect to the Torah in a very deep way to restore our compass of what is important and critical for living an upstanding and fulfilling life. Our search for the truth and the proper foundations upon which to build our lives should lead us to the true and tried values of the Torah, which have endured unchanged for thousands of years creating the framework within which the Jewish nation has flourished and thrived, and has become a beacon for what is good and proper in the world. There is no nation like the Jewish nation, and we must do everything within our power to keep it that way.

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