Yitro

“And Yisro heard...” (Shemos 18; 1). Rashi comments, “What did he hear that brought him [from Midyan to the desert]? The splitting of the Reed Sea and the war with Amalek”. Hearing of these two events acted as the catalyst which made Yisro leave the comforts of Midyan to join the Israelites in the desert. Surely such miracles would have been reported by every news agency in the known world, but nobody else came to join them. Why does the Torah stress that Yisro heard about these events? Why is this an appropriate introduction to the main part of our portion, the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments?

In Hebrew, as in English, ‘hearing’ also has connotations of understanding. It implies more than sound waves entering the aural canal. We find the best example of this meaning in the word ‘Shema’ in the recital of ‘Shema Yisrael...’. The instruction which we proclaim is not to hear audibly that G-d is one, but to understand that belief in G-d’s unity is the bedrock of our faith, and underlies all of creation. Though all of the other nations heard about the miracles that G-d performed for the Jews, only Yisro ‘heard’ and understood that the only possible response was to leave Midyan and come into the desert.

Yisro’s ‘hearing’ is therefore a very apt introduction to the Ten Commandments, when the Jews recited the famous words, “We will do and we will hear” (“Na’aseh v’Nishma”) (ibid. 24; 7). The Sages teach (Shabbat 88b) that when G-d heard Israel utter this phrase He exclaimed, “Who revealed this secret to My children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves”, as the verse states, “Strong warriors [angels] who do His bidding and obey the sound of His words” (Tehillim 103; 20). By pledging that they will perform anything that G-d commands without question, and only then try and hear what G-d has asked of them the Jews put themselves on a par with the angels, who also act unquestioningly to do G-d’s bidding.

After Yisro joins the nation, he watches as Moshe judges the people. He realises that having Moshe as the sole adjudicant for the nation will not provide a permanent system of justice, and that it will destroy both Moshe and the nation. He suggests the alternative of appointing courts and judges, with lower and higher courts for lesser or greater disputes. Yisro says to Moshe, “Now, listen to my voice” (ibid. 18; 19). The Torah continues that “Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.” (v. 24). Why does the Torah state that Moshe heard Yisro’s ‘voice’ rather than just telling us that he listened to his father-in-law?

Yisro understood that he was a newcomer to the nation, and though he was Moshe’s father-in-law, he was not sure whether he would be accepted by the rest of the nation. Would they be prepared to listen to the suggestion of a former idolater, in contradiction of the practise of their leader Moshe? Yet Yisro felt that what he had to say about the courts was as much a part of Torah as the commandments that they had heard directly from G-d. It was as if G-d were speaking from Yisro’s throat, using the G-d given logic in place of prophecy. This is why Yisro stresses that is not making his suggestion out of pride, but because the ‘voice’ of Mount Sinai is using his mouth as a conduit. Moshe understands this and therefore listens to his ‘voice’.

This teaches us an important principle in Torah study, often the Talmud asks on a verse, “This can be derived from logic - why do I need this verse?” There are limitations to our logic, and there are things that we don’t understand, which the Jews accepted at Sinai to do, and later come to an understanding. Also, Torah punishment cannot be given for a law derived purely from logic, and the 613 commandments only include those which are explicitly written in the Torah, but for daily living logic plays a vital role. Therefore, even though the incident with Yisro witnessing Moshe’s judging only took place after Yom Kippur, four months after Mount Sinai, the Torah presents it here as an introduction to the receiving of the Torah.
Later in the Torah reading, having just received the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, the Torah tells us “All the nation saw the voices (alt. thunder), and the flames, and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain...” (ibid. 20; 15). The people experienced synesthesia, where sounds became visible to them. Apart from the fact that we find it difficult to even conceive of such a concept, how does seeing a voice differ from hearing a voice? Why was it necessary for G-d to perform the extra miracle of making sounds visible?

We see from here that there is a clear difference from the voice of reason which resonates in the mouths of the scholars, which should be heard, and the direct prophecy of the encounter with G-d. The people went beyond hearing, and could actually see the words. The hidden meanings of each phrase became clear. Just as in English the phrase ‘I see’ implies a greater level of understanding than ‘I hear’, so too the Torah is telling us that the Jews reached the highest level of prophecy and insight. All the secrets contained within the Torah were revealed to them. When the Talmud wants to introduce a point it often uses the phrase, “Ta Shma”, “come and hear”. The Zohar, however, which contains the esoteric secrets, introduces phrases with the words, “Ta Chazi”, “Come and see”. Unless one ‘sees’ the meanings and secrets clearly they have not entered into the realms of the hidden secrets of the Torah.

Thus we see three different types of understanding in our portion. Yisro understood from events that he saw that the correct response was to join the Jews. Moshe heard and understood that Yisro’s logic was as valid as the rest of the Torah which was given directly from G-d. And the entire nation understood the Ten Commandments with such clarity that they went beyond hearing, and were able to ‘see’ what G-d demanded of them.

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The Jews encamped around Mount Sinai were like converts in many respects, approaching Judaism for the first time. Until now they had been a family, the descendants of Ya’akov; suddenly they became a nation with common goals and aspirations. Though Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov had been monotheistic and spread this belief throughout the ancient world, there was no obligation to keep the commandments which define Judaism until Mount Sinai.

Furthermore, there was no concept of matrilineal descent until Sinai. Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah all came from the family of Terach, but were no more ‘Jewish’ than Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Their children were part of the ‘Children of Israel’ because they chose to emulate the beliefs and attributes of their parents, but Yishmael and Esav exercised the freedom to abandon this lifestyle and take a different path in life. Since Sinai, however, a person is Jewish either because their mother is Jewish, or if they convert through the principles of conversion laid down at Sinai.

It is appropriate therefore that the portion begins with the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, who was the first true convert. We have a tradition that Pharaoh had three chief advisors, Yitro, Iyov (Job) and Bilaam. He asked them for their advice about how to deal with the Jews, and whether to kill the baby boys. Bilaam agreed that Pharaoh should kill them, and consequently was killed by the Jews in the war with Moav. Iyov remained silent, and as a result suffered terribly later in life (as related in the book of Iyov). Yitro disagreed, and told Pharaoh not to persecute the Jews. He was forced to flee to Midyan and renounce his position of authority, but ultimately converts in this week’s Torah portion, and shares in the inheritance of Israel.

Yitro had also been the high priest of idolatry both in Egypt and in Midyan, and had tried every religion and cult in the world before coming to realise that Judaism was the one and only true religion. When Yitro says “Now I know that G-d is greater than all other gods” (Shemot 18; 11) he is speaking from first hand knowledge, as Rashi explains “This teaches us that he knew all the idolatry in the world and there was not a single idol that he had not served”.

Thus Yitro’s choice to convert to Judaism was motivated by his search for truth. It was this quest that allowed him to speak out against Pharaoh’s decrees, and the same goal led him to every religion in the world. Rashi’s language is carefully chosen; he not only knew every religion but had also tried them all, and experienced them. Often a belief system does not make sense unless one takes part in it, conversely often a philosophy seems utopian until it is put into practise. Only through studying and experiencing was Yitro able to come to the conclusion that Judaism was the only true religion.

Since Sinai we no longer have a need to experiment with other religions. We know the truth of Judaism from our parents, and they from their parents, in a chain of tradition stretching back to Sinai. However one who converts to Judaism often only reaches their decision to convert after having denounced other belief systems as false. In the famous story about Hillel and the convert (Shabbat 31a) we see that Hillel was sensitive to this affirmation through rejection of the other.

A person once approached Shamai and told him that he wanted to convert on the condition that Shamai would teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Shamai rejected him, and sent him away. The same person then approached Hillel, who told him “That which is hateful to you don’t do to others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary - go and learn it.”

Why did Hillel not simply quote the verse from the Torah (Vayikra 19; 18) “Love your fellow as yourself”? The answer is that Hillel appreciated the ability of the convert to discern truth from falsehood through a process of negation. This is possibly a higher level than simply accepting the truth. The Torah only requires one to examine what they enjoy, and to act in a similar manner with others. Hillel’s statement also requires the convert to search out what they dislike, to understand better how to treat others.

One of the most difficult things is to seek truth. We have become inoculated by the society around us to the point where we question the very existence of an absolute truth. Even once someone accepts that there is such a thing as truth, the search to attain it can last a lifetime and necessarily involves hardship in forsaking any comforts of falsehood. Arriving at the truth is the culmination of a heroic effort, and therefore the Torah instructs us to recognise this effort, and several times (e.g. Vayikra 19; 33 and Devarim 10; 18) enjoins us not to afflict a convert, and to treat him or her with special respect.

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The Ten Commandments can be divided simply into two groups. The first five deal with the relationship between mankind and G-d - “I am the L-rd your G-d...”, “You shall have no other gods before Me...” etc. The second five commandments, those on the second tablet, are about our responsibilities to our fellow man - “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, “Do not commit adultery” etc. The only problem with this classification is the fifth commandment; although supposedly in the ‘man and G-d’ category, the commandment to “Honour your mother and father” appears to be purely interpersonal.

Furthermore, why is this one of the “Ten Commandments” anyway? The rest of the ten deal with major concepts vital to the stability of society or to our relationship with G-d. Honouring parents seems both trivial and so obvious that it need not be stated. And why does the Torah explicitly give the reward for this Mitzvah, “In order that you should....”. Surely every child must feel a sense of gratitude and debt to his or her parents, not only for physically bringing them into this world, but also for all the investment of time and love that their parents have made. Is one not “forced” to honour one’s parents even without any explicit command to do so?

The Sefer HaChinuch4 explains the commandment of honouring parents:

It is appropriate for a person to recognise and perform kindness to someone who has done kindness to him, and not be a scoundrel, estrange himself, and deny that goodness. For this is a very bad and disgusting trait in its essence both before G-d and people. A person should make himself aware that his father and mother are the cause of his existence in the world, and therefore it is truly appropriate for him to give to his parents every honour and every help that is possible. Because they brought him into this world and put every effort into him when he was a child. When a person fixes this trait into his character he will then be able to recognise the good that G-d has performed for him, that He is the reason he exists, and the reason for all his parents and grandparents back to Adam and Eve. And that G-d brought him into this world, provided for all his daily needs and keeps him in health and working order. And He gave him a cognitive and understanding soul, without which he would be like an animal without consciousness of self. Therefore a person should organise in his thoughts how appropriate it is for him to be scrupulous in serving G-d.

From this text we see that our assumptions were wrong. While it is true and obvious that we owe our parents honour and respect for all that they have done for us, this is not the reason that G-d commands it of us. The real question is why G-d created the world in such a way that people have parents, and require so much input for so many years. Surely He could have made us spontaneously generate, or at least have independence immediately after birth, like almost every other species. This commandment is telling us that the reason that G-d created human beings as dependent upon their parents, is in order that we can also recognise our dependence upon Him. Therefore the Mitzvah of honouring our parents rightly belongs on the first tablet with our other responsibilities toward G-d. That interpersonal component of honouring parents is so obvious that it does not require a specific commandment.

The Ten Commandments are listed in the Torah twice - in this week’s Torah reading, and in the book of Deuteronomy when Moshe repeats the laws before his death. Even though they are basically the same in both places, there are subtle differences which give a deeper understanding of them. Thus in Devarim (5; 16) the Torah says, “Honour your father and your mother as the L-rd your G-d commanded you...”. The underlined words are added into this version of the decalogue and seem to give added support to the idea above. The honouring of parents mandated here is not the simple repayment for past kindness performed by them, but is a way to get a closer appreciation of our relationship with G-d.