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by OZER APLORT
“And Jethro heard.” (Exodus 18:1)
Our parsha begins by relating that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, heard about all of the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jewish people. This motivated Jethro to come join the Jewish people in the desert and to convert to Judaism. Although the verse here calls him Jethro, Rashi notes that throughout Tanach, 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 Jethro’s suggestion to Moses in our parsha that he establish a system of courts and judges.
However, in referencing the section that was added based on Jethro’s proposal, Rashi curiously quotes the verse (18:21) in which Jethro delineated his plan to Moses and enumerated the requirements for proper judges. This is difficult to understand, as a cursory perusal of the parsha reveals that Jethro’s exchange with Moses began several verses earlier (21:17), when he advised Moses that the current arrangement was flawed and unsatisfactory. Why does Rashi seem to misquote the beginning of the portion of judges added by Jethro?
Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emes (1866-1948), 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 somehow found a problem and proceeded to poke holes in every proposal that was mentioned. Eventually, the astute Rabbi Alter approached the critic and said that because he seemed to be so good at raising questions, he would like to pose one of his own to him.
Rabbi Alter turned and asked him our question about Rashi’s apparent misquote, to which the man had no answer. He told the critic that without much effort, virtually anybody can find problems with someone else’s ideas. Rare is the individual who constructively offers an alternative plan of action.
Rabbi Alter then proceeded to offer the following response to the question we posed earlier. In quoting the later verse as the beginning of the portion added as a result of Jethro, Rashi is teaching us that had Jethro only approached Moses 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 Jethro’s critique was a constructive introduction of a superior alternative did the Torah find it worthy of recording!
We live in a society where it is considered perfectly normal to criticize the status quo and to tear apart any solutions offered by another person. 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 Rashi’s lesson that while anybody can focus on finding faults, a true leader and innovator will concentrate on proposing constructive solutions.
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Parsha Talking Points
by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS
1. HAPPY FOR YOU
“Yisro said, ‘Blessed is Hashem, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharaoh…” 18:10
Blessed is Hashem – It was taught in the name of Rav Papais, “It is an embarrassment to Moses and the six hundred thousand [Jews who were with him] that they did not say ‘Baruch’ [Blessed is Hashem] and that Yisro was the first to do so.” – Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 94a
Did not Moses, along with the entire nation, sing “Az Yashir” on the seashore in acknowledgment of Hashem’s tremendous kindness toward them? Indeed, the Jewish people wholeheartedly thanked Hashem for his kindness. However, they were thanking Him for the kindness He had done on their behalf. Yisro, on the other hand, was an outsider, as he was not [yet] a Jew. His expression of thanks toward the Almighty, was not for the kindness he personally experienced, but for that done on behalf of others. Expressing gratitude of this nature was something that Moses, and the Jewish people, still had not managed to accomplish. - Rav Shlomo of Radomsk zt”l
Why is it important to thank Hashem for the kindness that He performs on behalf of others? People often have a hard time relishing the success of others. If it doesn’t directly affect their own bottom line, they act as if they couldn’t care less. By training ourselves to feel good about the success of others, we are actively overcoming this selfish trait. Additionally, one who seeks to bolster his trust in Hashem, is well advised to seek out the many kindnesses that Hashem performs on behalf of mankind in general, and not only on what he personally receives from the Almighty. That way, he’ll surely be overwhelmed by the realization that Hashem’s kindness is truly without limits.
2. NOT SO SMART AFTER ALL
“And Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he suggested.” 18:24
Listened To The Voice Of His Father-In-Law – Why did Yisro merit having an entire parshah written based on his advice proffered when he wasn’t even Jewish? This is an eternal lesson for the Jewish people that wisdom and good sense were not the reasons Hashem chose us to be His nation, for there is much wisdom and good sense to be found among the nations of the world, as well. It was only thanks to His kindness towards us, and His great love for our ancestors that He chose us to be his unique nation. – Or HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Attar,1696-1743)
History proves that one of the most difficult lessons for the Jewish people to comprehend is the notion that as Jews, our uniqueness lies not in our overpowering intellect, but in the merit of the patriarchs and our willingness to emulate their ways. Insofar as our actions reflect their devotion and passion for serving Hashem, we are the Chosen People. If we mistakenly assume that it is simply due to an inherent mystical quality not found elsewhere in the human race, the story of Yisro serves as a powerful reminder that there is plenty of wisdom and good sense to be found elsewhere, as well. Hence, our greatest contribution to society need not be in the arts and sciences. There are plenty of others equally capable of duplicating that success. Rather, it should be in the area of morality, where the example of our patriarchs endows us with a unique ability to serve as a “light unto the nations.”
3. EASY DOES IT
“And Moses ascended to Hashem, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov, and relate to the Bnei Yisrael.’” 19:4
Say To the House of Yaakov – This refers to the women. Say it to them in a gentle voice.
And Tell the B’nei Yisrael – To the men you shall explain the penalties and details of the mitzvos using strong words. – Rashi
Say To the House of Yaakov – The women were instructed in the Torah first, because a dedicated woman is crucial to success in transmitting the Torah to the next generation, as she will be the one to encourage her children to attend Cheder (Jewish elementary school) in a pleasant and inviting manner. These early years are the foundation upon which the child’s lifelong dedication to Torah will rest. – Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya ben Asher)
Rabbeinu Bachya adds that this is the source of the custom for women to pray for their children’s spiritual success immediately following candle-lighting for Shabbos, as prayer is always more efficacious when coupled with the performance of a mitzvah. The mitzvah to light candles, which symbolize light, is an especially appropriate mitzvah to merge with a plea for success in Torah, which is also compared to light.
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by MRS. ALIZA BULOW
Dear Mrs. Bulow,
As a graduate student in architecture, I was intrigued when I heard that the Torah is the “blueprint of the world.” But in my world, blueprints are created before the construction process begins, and I recall learning that the Torah was given after the world was created, so I’m a bit confused. What exactly does this statement mean?
Your question is very astute. It is true that our sages compare the Torah to the blueprint of the world; the actual phraseology is “Istakeil b’orisa, u’bara alma” – “G-d looked into the Torah, and created the world.” And, you are right, a blueprint, by definition, comes before the fact.
How could G-d have looked into the Torah before it was written, before the events contained therein unfolded? Understanding the answer requires a complete paradigm shift.
A common understanding is that the Torah is a record of the formation of the Jewish people as well as an instruction book on how to carry out the mission with which we were charged. While it certainly serves those purposes as well, it is in fact much more than that.
Many recognize the wisdom of its laws and how well they work with human nature and physical reality. For example, there are laws requiring us to honor and respect our parents, which is of benefit to both the individual and society, but something a child might overlook. There are also laws of kashrus (dietary laws) forbidding foods that are often unhealthy, like bottom feeding sea creatures, or meat from sick animals. But if one would think that the Torah is “sensitive” or “responsive” to the world and that’s why it makes so much sense, he would be seriously mistaken. The Torah is not responsive. Here is the paradigm shift: like a blueprint, it is causative. The Torah does not describe the world, it prescribes the world. The Torah, in the largest sense of the word (both the written and the oral dimension), was created before the world came into existence. It was then made manifest in the creation of the world and in the unfolding of history. We don’t honor our parents because we have them, we have parents so we can honor them.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz, who is also a medical doctor, in his book “Worldmask,” describes the relationship of Torah to the world using the analogy of genes. Genes are causative. They not only contain the future picture of what the developing body will look like, they are what make the shape take form. In his words, Torah is the DNA of creation.
Given this understanding, a blueprint is a very apt analogy. It not only describes how a future building will look, it also “directs” the contractor in the construction process. But there is another important aspect of this analogy. Just as a contractor can understand how to build a building from looking at the blueprint, so can a very skilled architect look at a completed building and discern the blueprint. He (or she!) could walk through an intricately constructed palace, and given enough time, draw out the plans necessary to build the same structure, but… he wouldn’t know what’s inside the walls. He can’t see if there’s wiring for the Internet or what type of pipes are used in the plumbing – what’s in the walls is unbeknownst to him unless he can look at the original plans.
So too, a spiritually astute person, in accordance with his or her level of sensitivity and perception, can look at the world and discern aspects of its blueprint (Torah). For this reason, some of the world’s religions include elements of Truth, and there are individuals and communities that lead lifestyles of positive behavior because of their desire to connect to the Divine. They have been able to discern some of the truth in Torah through contemplating the world, and, being spiritual people, they have put what they understand into practice.
However, without the total blueprint before them they are at a disadvantage; they can only guess according to their level of knowledge. They have many holes in their understanding, not for lack of effort or concern, but because they did not receive the gift at Mount Sinai that we did. Part of the gift of being “chosen” is having the “security clearance” necessary to be able to view the whole blueprint. It was given, in its entirety, to us alone. And we are also blessed with sages in every generation to help us discern all its subtleties.
Just as an architect must be trained to read the special language and notations of blueprints before he can properly benefit from the plan, so too, we must learn the special language of the Torah in order to truly gain insight into its depths and meanings.
As you further your study of architecture, I encourage you to also expand your knowledge of the Torah- the Jewish blueprint- as well.
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The Torah teaches us that although everyone heard about and even saw the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, only Yisro took a lesson from it and was motivated to join the Bnei Yisrael. This concept is discussed by Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah (2:26), where he notes that often, when people hear a very moving lecture or are shaken up by terrible news, they are prompted to change their ways. However, the impact does not last long, for the yetzer hara (evil inclination) tries hard to make the person forget the lesson. In just a few days, he will be back to normal.
The only way to insure a lasting message from an inspiring incident or the like is for a person to consciously “wake himself up” and discern what lessons can be learned from that incident, and how those lessons can impact upon and change his life.
He quotes the words of Hillel (Avos 1:14): עם אין אני לי מי לי, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? This means that although a person can hear speeches and lectures given by others, nothing will become a part of him unless he is actively involved in internalizing the message, utilizing his own understanding and intellect.
This is what Yisro did. He did not simply hear the facts of the great miracles as everyone else did; he took it a step further. He asked himself: “What does my knowledge of those miracles obligate me to do? What lessons do they teach me? Who is really in charge of everything in this world? And what can I do to become close to the true G-d?”
In the Yiddish language there are two very similar words, whose meanings are worlds apart. One is דערהערען, heren, which means hearing, and the other is ןערעהרעד, derheren, which means comprehending. Someone can talk in a foreign language and he will be heard by everyone in the room, but not everyone will understand and comprehend what is being said.
This is why so many times, even after being exposed to clear indications of the hand of Hashem (such as the hurricanes and tsunamis of recent years), it does not take long for us to shake off our inspiration and go back to our regular routine. If we only hear current events, but fail to understand their messages and internalize their lessons, then the yetzer hara (evil inclination) will do a fine job of helping us to forget the initial impact.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz put it so perfectly. The Midrash (Yalkut 244) tells us that a maidservant saw at the Sea what even the great Yechezkel the prophet did not see (this refers to visions of Hashem’s Throne). He asks: Why, then, did the maidservant not become a prophet like Yechezkel? And he answers: Because even after she saw the great vision, she remained a maidservant; she did nothing more than see. Thus, while she may have indeed seen great things, this did not motivate her to grow spiritually and change her ways.
With permission from Artscroll’s Daily Dose
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FOR DISCUSSION AROUND THE SHABBAT TABLE
א) In advising Moses of the qualities to seek in prospective judges (18:21), why didn’t Jethro mention the quality of wisdom? (Rabbeinu Bechaye)
ב) How is it possible for Hashem to command a person (20:14) not to covet another person’s possessions, when he has control over his actions but no ability to restrain the feelings which arise naturally in his heart? (Ibn Ezra)
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Hey I Never Knew That
Amazing Insights About the Weekly Parsha
by OZER ALPORT
1) Q: In founding the first modern Jewish school for girls, Sarah Schenirer chose to name it “Bais Yaakov,” – the house of Jacob – a phrase which is used in our parsha (19:3) in reference to the Jewish women. However, 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 Jacob when “daughters” would seem to be the appropriate parallel?
A: Rabbi Meir Shapiro observes 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 full of the necessary antibiotic. The former 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.
Similarly, in fighting the universal illness known as the yetzer hara (evil inclination), men follow the prescription of the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) to repel it through the study of Torah. Although the latter option isn’t currently medically feasible, Jewish women nevertheless use it to ward off spiritual illness. As the backbones of the house, they imbue the entire home with an atmosphere of holiness and spirituality, which automatically benefits not only themselves but also their husbands and children and all who are fortunate to enter their homes.
This is alluded to in a well-known verse (Proverbs 1:8), “Listen my son to the rebuke of your father, and don’t forsake the teachings of your mother.” King Solomon found it necessary to instruct one to listen to the lessons of one’s father, but a mother’s wisdom permeates the very air of the house and will be absorbed without any effort. It is to emphasize this connection that the Torah refers to the women not as the daughters of Jacob but as the house of Jacob.
2) Q: Jethro advised Moses (18:22) that the judges he would appoint should bring for his judgment any דבר גדול – major matter, but Moses instituted a system (18:26) in which the judges brought to him any דבר קשה - difficult matter. Why did Moses deviate from Jethro’s instructions, and what is the difference between their two approaches?
A: Rabbi Chaim Berlin explains that Jethro judged the value and importance of a court case by the amount of money at stake. As such, he advised Moses that only cases involving large sums of money were worthy of his time and consideration. Moses, 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.
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Yisro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law, hears all that has happened to Bnai Yisroel. He brings Tzipora, Moshe’s wife, and their two sons to the desert to be reunited with Moshe. Moshe elaborates on all the marvelous events of the Exodus from Egypt. Yisro offers sacrifices to Hashem, and he and the notables of Bnai Yisroel eat together.
The next day, Yisro sees that Bnai Yisroel wait on line all day to seek advice from Moshe and to have him settle their disputes. Yisro suggests that Moshe appoint a capable group of men to assist him in judging the people. Moshe selects a group of judges who will bring to his attention only the most difficult matters.
On Rosh Chodesh Sivan, Bnai Yisroel arrive at Har Sinai. The nation is imbued with a spirit of devotion and unity. Moshe carries Hashem’s message to the people that if they will be loyal to Him, they will be His special treasure, a nation of priests and a holy people. Bnai Yisroel unanimously and enthusiastically accept this destiny. They are instructed to prepare themselves for three days to receive the Torah directly from Hashem Himself. They are warned not to overstep the boundaries set for them.
A dense cloud covers Har Sinai. Amid lightning and thunder, Moshe is called to ascend the mountain where he is given another warning to the people. Moshe feels it is superfluous, but Hashem insists, and he descends the mountain to be sure the people understand. When all is ready, Hashem speaks to His beloved people and reveals to them the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments. It is the only time in history that an entire nation hears the voice of Hashem speaking to its’ assembled multitude. The people are shaken by the experience, and beg Moshe to be the intermediary for them, lest they die. Moshe assures them that Hashem seeks only to raise them to an exalted status, and to place His imprint upon them so that they do not sin.
The parsha ends with a command to build an alter for Hashem which is to be placed on the ground, not raised on columns. The alter is to be built of stones, but they may not be fashioned with metal tools. Access to the top of the alter will be by means of a ramp, not steps, in order to insure the maximum degree of tznius (modesty).
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