Seize the Moment
וישמע יתרו כהן מדין חתן משה את כל אשר עשה אלקים למשה ולישראל כי הוציא י-ה-ו-ה את ישראל ממצרים
“Moses’ father in law, Yitro (Jethro), the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people, that the L-rd had taken Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 18:1).
Jethro “heard” what G-d had done for the Jews. Rashi asks, what exactly did Jethro hear that prompted him to travel to the desert and join the Jews, instead of just sending his daughter and grandchildren? Rashi answers that he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war that the Jews had fought with Amalek.
One part of this answer makes perfect sense, while the other seems troubling. G-d splitting a sea and allowing the Jews to walk through on dry land is something spectacular, and makes for a good reason for someone to come and join the nation. (The sages even tell us that every body of water in the world split on a smaller scale to give the world a glimpse of the miracle!) But the fact that they had fought a war with Amalek and won doesn’t seem to be such a great reason for a person to uproot himself from a land where he is well respected and travel to the desert to join a new nation. It would have seemed reasonable if Jethro’s motivation to join the Jews was based on the splitting sea and the ten plagues, or the splitting sea and the exodus from Egypt. But what was so significant about the war with Amalek that caused Jethro to radically change his life?
It wasn’t the victory over Amalek that inspired Jethro, but the attack itself. Jethro wondered how it was possible that after the splitting of the sea, a miracle of gargantuan proportions that rocked the entire world, someone could dare attack the Jews. Egypt, the superpower of the world, was brought to its knees by ten terrible plagues, but still they did not stop persecuting the Jews. They followed them to the sea and were thoroughly vanquished by the raging waters. Wouldn’t that be enough to keep everyone away from the Jews?
Shortly after the splitting of the sea, Amalek came with an army to attack the Jews. This taught Jethro that even when someone sees a huge miracle, it doesn’t necessarily change him, it merely provides an impetus for change. And if one doesn’t seize the moment, the power of that moment diminishes. This is how the nation of Amalek was able to attack. They let the miracles they saw slide right off their backs and blithely continued with their evil plans. Jethro didn’t want this to happen to him, so he seized the moment and traveled to the desert to join the Jews.
Many times we experience powerful moments in our life that leave us feeling inspired. What Amalek and Jethro teach us is that if we spring from experience into action, we can elevate ourselves dramatically; if we don’t, we can lose the power of the moment forever.
וישמע יתרו “And Jethro heard.” (Shemot 18:1)
“And Jethro heard.” (Shemot 18:1)
Our parsha begins by relating that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, heard about all of the miracles that G-d 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 Yeter (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 (18:17), 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.
Hearing vs Listening
“And Jethro heard” (Shemot 18:1)
After hearing about the miracles that G-d performed for the Jewish people at the Reed Sea and in the battle against Amalek, Jethro came to convert and join the Jewish people. The Torah seems to emphasize that there was something unique and significant about Jethro hearing of these miracles.
Rav Moshe Alshich explains that while the entire world heard about these miracles, and everyone was filled with awe and fear of the Jews, only Jethro chose to do something about it – to come and convert. Proper hearing doesn’t merely connote the ability to detect and process sound waves-it requires an understanding of the message being conveyed.
Rav Shalom Schwadron likens the difference to two people walking down the train tracks. When the conductor of an oncoming train notices them, he begins to sound a shrill warning whistle. Both men hear the whistle. One is a simple farmer who has never before seen a train, and therefore continues walking, enjoying the view and the sounds of the whistle, while the other understands the warning being expressed and immediately flees from the oncoming danger.
While both men physically “heard” the sound of the whistle, only the second one can be said to have properly heard and understood the message.
Similarly, although the nations of the world heard of the miracles which G-d performed for the Jews in Egypt and in the desert, the news went in one ear and out the other, failing to penetrate and change them. Only Jethro internalized the message, understanding what was required of him and acting accordingly.
During World War I, many of the Jews of war-torn Poland fled to take refuge in Austria. One year on Shabbos Chanuka, Rav Moses Flesch, the Rabbi of a shul in Vienna, gave a speech about the strength and determination of Yehudis, a heroine of the Chanuka story. He continued by noting that while yeshivot had spread throughout Europe and a proper Jewish education was available to many boys, there was unfortunately no similar option for Jewish girls, who were forced to attend public school and received only a very rudimentary religious education.
Lacking a solid background, the girls were all too often swept up in the anti-religious movements of the time. Rav Flesch stressed the need for a modern-day Yehudis to step forward and establish a suitable system of formal education for Jewish girls, so that they would be equipped with the information necessary to remain religious in a modern world.
While everybody in the packed shul heard his inspiring words on that fateful day, only one girl up in the crowded Ezrat Nashim (women’s section) truly “heard” the message – her name was Sarah Schneirer, and she was inspired by his address to establish the modern Beit Yaakov movement, giving Jewish girls the opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education.
Many times in life G-d sends us personal messages and wake-up calls. Although we always hear the information being presented to us, we often choose to ignore the call to action which is required. At those times, let us “hear” the lesson of Jethro and of Sarah Schneirer and understand the actions and changes that we are required to undertake.
Jethro Sees Amalek and Faces Himself
וישמע יתרו… את כל אשר עשה אלקים למשה ולישראל עמו כי הוציא ה’ את ישראל ממצרים
“Jethro… heard everything that G-d did to Moses and to Israel His people, that G-d had taken Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 18:1).
Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, held the prestigious position of the high priest of Midian. When Jethro heard about the incredible events that occurred to Moses and the Jews in Egypt, he went with his daughter Zipporah (Moses’s wife) and his grandchildren to join Moses and the Jews. Eventually, he converted to Judaism. What impressed Jethro so much that he left his comfortable position to convert?
The verse says that Jethro heard everything that G-d did for Israel and that He took them out of Egypt. Rashi explains that Jethro heard two things which convinced him to convert: the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. This war came about when Amalek and his followers, all descendants of Esau, heard about the astounding events in Egypt. They left their homes and crossed a desert to attack and destroy a downtrodden nation of women, children, and former slaves. With G-d’s help, Amalek was defeated.
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that Jethro was not only a priest of Midian, he was an expert in all religions. He had an unquenchable thirst to understand the truth of the universe, and to that end he sampled every single religion in the world. When he heard about the mind-blowing, open miracles that had transpired in Egypt, he knew that he’d finally found the one, true G-d. Yet this knowledge alone was not enough to prompt him to leave Midian. Only later, when Jethro heard about the war against Amalek, did he leave. Why did Jethro find this event so much more compelling than the splitting of the Red Sea?
The events in Egypt proved to the world that there is a Being in control of world events. Yet this knowledge did not affect anyone’s daily life; people, and nations, simply continued living their lives as usual. Except Amalek. Amalek was so disturbed by the notion that there is one higher Being in charge of their lives that they had to fight it at all costs.
Jethro heard about the splitting of the sea, but he did not act on his convictions; he was happy to know the truth but lived life the way he always had. After hearing about Amalek, he realized that if he did not act, he would grow so uncomfortable with himself that he’d eventually end up like Amalek, fighting the very truth he believed in. Jethro had no choice, he had to join the Jewish people; he had to convert.
When truth stares us in the face, it should change something within us. If it doesn’t, if we continue walking the same paths we’ve always walked, our consciences will gradually evolve to the point that we deny that truth, as Amalek did. In the rare moments in our lives when we are shown a glimpse of a truth that differs from our ingrained beliefs, it behooves us to learn from Jethro to seize the opportunity to make concrete, positive changes in our lives.
Seeing and Doing
ויקח יתרו חתן משה את צפרה אשת משה אחר שלוחיה ואת שני בניה אשר שם האחד גרשם כי אמר גר הייתי בארץ נכריה ושם האחד אליעזר כי א-לקי אבי בעזרי ויצלני מחרב פרעה
“And Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, took Zipporah, the wife of Moses, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, of whom the name of one was Gershom, for he [Moses] had said, ‘I was a sojourner in a strange land.’ And the name of the other [son] was Eliezer, for ‘the G-d of my father came to my aid, and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.’” (Shemot 18:2-4)
Rabbi Joseph Pazanovski, author of the Pardes Yosef, expounds on the meaning and significance of the names that Moses chose for his sons. He explains: Moses had a dilemma, similar in a sense to one many people grapple with today. When Moses’ children were born, he and his wife, Zipporah, were tucked away in the land of Midian, far from the difficult slavery that the rest of the Jewish nation was enduring in Egypt. Moses was concerned that his children could perhaps think that Midian was the Promised Land. They had family, security, health and wealth – everything they could desire, right where they were. Moses wanted his children to live with a constant reminder that a Jew who is not in the Land of Israel with the Holy Temple is living in galut, exile.
By naming his elder son Gershom, meaning, for I was a stranger in a strange land, Moses was telling his son that while it may be comfortable in Midian, you must always remember that we are strangers here. Moses named his second son Eliezer, meaning G-d saved me. With this name, Moses was telling his son, “I grew up in Pharaoh’s palace. I had everything. Suddenly, Pharaoh changed his attitude towards me, and tried to kill me. G-d saved me from Pharaoh’s executioner, and I became a fugitive. There is no security, even in the king’s palace!”
Pardes Yosef adds that there were Jews who lived in the Spanish Golden Age (15th-17th centuries). They grew and prospered to the point that Abarbanel, a great sage of that period, became the treasurer for the king. Jews were comfortable; they had money and prestige. Life was great. Then, on the ninth of Av in the year 1492, the Jews were exiled from Spain. Everything they had built for themselves no longer meant anything in what turned out to be one of the darkest chapters of our history, the Spanish Inquisition.
It can be easy for us in America to think that we have made it, to think that we are where we want to be. Indeed, we are blessed with relative comfort and tranquility. Our day schools, synagogues, and communities are growing. We can sometimes catch ourselves thinking, ‘Do we really need the Messiah?’ or, ‘What are we lacking by not being in the Land of Israel with the Holy Temple?’ The truth is that we do have a very large void in our lives. We are missing the ultimate connection to G-d that is only possible in His land through the service in His Holy Temple. We must remind ourselves that while we may be comfortable here now, we are still foreigners in exile. We remain without complete security until the Messiah arrives, are returned to our Holy Land, and resume our close relationship with G-d.
It is well known that Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel, the late mashgiach (spiritual advisor) of Beth Medrash Govoha, kept a freshly pressed suit in his closet, so that he would be ready at a moment’s notice to properly greet the Messiah. Early one morning, a student of the yeshiva drove to pick up Rabbi Wachtfogel for their daily study session. The student was surprised that the otherwise very punctual Rabbi was not there when he arrived. After a few minutes, Rabbi Wachtfogel appeared in his robe at the door. He apologized and explained that he had heard a loud sound during the night and was hoping that it was the Messiah, and he was unable to fall back asleep for the remainder of the night.
Someone unfamiliar with Rabbi Wachtfogel’s degree of piety and with his consistent spiritual presence is likely to see no more in this incident than confusion resulting from old age. Those who were privileged to know the venerable Rabbi, however, understand that he was merely living the message that Moses wished to impart in the names he chose for his sons: that we are but transient visitors in this land, and will remain so until the Messiah comes. May we merit to see the coming of Messiah speedily in our days!
ויסעו מרפידים ויבאו מדבר סיני…ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר
They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain. (Shemot 19:2)
The old adage of “two Jews, three opinions” is more than a clever observation regarding our tendency to disagree with each other. It is also a subtle description of the difficulty we face in uniting for a common purpose. This is nothing new. In fact, it goes right back to the Exodus. In describing the various journeys of the Jewish people as they left Egypt, Rashi notes that the verse consistently uses the plural, which teaches that each encampment was accompanied by discord and strife.
There was, however, one notable exception. As the Jewish people camped at Mount Sinai, the verse suddenly switches to the singular. According to Rashi, this reflected a significant change in the mindset of the nation. Immediately prior to receiving the Torah, the Jewish people were no longer divided. Instead, they had become “like one man with one heart.”
The Jews were not the only nation to attain this level of unity, however. As the Egyptians overtook the Jews at the Sea of Reeds, Rashi notes that they drove forward “with one heart, like one man.” The language is nearly identical to that used to describe the Jews at Mount Sinai. (Shemot 14:10)
Rabbi Avrohom Bornsztain, (1839–1910, Poland) author of the Avnei Nezer commentary, points to an important distinction between the two nations and their respective unity. The Egyptians acted “with one heart, like one man,” while the Jews acted “like one man, with one heart.”
According to the Avnei Nezer, Rashi is teaching a fundamental principle about the nature of unity among people. In some cases, unity is a tool employed to achieve a certain goal or objective. This type of unity can be achieved even when there is a level of indifference, discord, or even animosity between the various individuals of the larger group. This was the unity displayed by the Egyptians. Even though each Egyptian harbored his own personal agenda for wanting to destroy the Jews, it did not detract from the larger goal. One thing they all agreed on was that the Jews needed to be destroyed.
When the Jews came to Mount Sinai, however, their unity was of a different kind altogether. There, the unity was created because of commonality of the people themselves. There was a bond of brotherhood that superseded other concerns, which in turn led to a unity of purpose as well. The question remains, however, as to how the Jewish people were able to achieve this level of unity in such a short period of time? After all, this is the same Jewish people, who prior to arriving at Mount Sinai, had been plagued by all sorts of discord.
The Kli Yakar answers this question by explaining that the Jewish people’s arrival at the mountain entailed more than simply changing their location. As far as mountains go, Mount Sinai is extremely underwhelming. Rather than majestically towering into the heavens, the place G-d chose to give His Torah to the Jewish people was rather low and unremarkable.
The message was not lost on the Jews. In order to be messengers of G-d’s Torah in the world, the Jewish people had to move beyond their personal agendas and develop a sense of humility that would allow them to truly unite as a people prior to achieving any particular goal.
The following story powerfully illustrates this idea. Several years ago, a reserve Israeli army unit was drawing up plans for an upcoming mission. When it became clear that the men could face heavy enemy fire, a heated dispute broke out among the soldiers. The unmarried men in the unit insisted that they go into battle first and that the married men stay back. They reasoned that the married men had families to take care of, while they did not.
The married men refused to accept this line of reasoning and insisted that they fight while the unmarried men stay back. They reasoned that if they should fall in battle, they had someone to say Kaddish for them, while the unmarried men did not.
In many ways, the struggle of our generation is not so much the need to unify around a common goal as it is to unify around a common sense of shared brotherhood. Indeed, there is no lack of worthy goals that must be achieved, and every act we contribute to achieving them is valuable beyond measure. However, the ability to relate to every Jew we meet as a brother, whose essence is no different than our own, is the most powerful unity we can achieve as a people.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
We are taught (Peah 1:1) that the mitzvah of Torah study is so important that it is equal to all of the other mitzvot. If Torah study is so fundamental, why wouldn’t it have been included in the 10 Commandments?
Moses’s father-in-law Yitro (Jethro) advised him to delegate some of his responsibilities, creating a hierarchy of judges and administrators so that he would have more time for those issues which required his personal attention.
1. The verse says, “People stood before Moses from the morning until the evening” (Shemot 18:13). Rashi explains that a judge who judges truthfully for even one hour is considered a partner with G-d in creation. Obviously, this does not mean that he may judge falsely during the rest of the day. What, then, might the verse be implying by judging truthfully for “one hour”?
2. How could judging correctly make one a partner with G-d in creation? What connection is there between judging and creativity in the world? To Creation?
3. From what words in the verse can Rashi’s comment be implied?
4. Jethro advised Moses to choose “men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain” (Shemot 18:21). Why didn’t Jethro mention the quality of wisdom?
Q: Jethro advised Moses (Shemot 18:22) that the judges he would appoint should bring for his judgment any דבר גדול – major matter, but Moses instituted a system (Shemot 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. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: In founding the first modern Jewish school for girls, Sarah Schenirer chose to name it “Beit Yaakov,” – the house of Jacob – a phrase which is used in our parsha (Shemot 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. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Rashi writes (Shemot 20:1) that G-d initially said all of the 10 Commandments simultaneously, and then stated each one individually because the human ear isn’t capable of understanding two things said at the same time. That being the case, what possible purpose could G-d have had in initially stating the commandments in an incomprehensible manner?
How is it possible for G-d to command a person (Shemot 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)
The Talmud relates (Avodah Zara 2b) that before giving the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai, G-d first offered it to the other nations of the world, all of whom refused. How can we make a blessing every morning thanking G-d for choosing us from all of the nations and giving us His Torah (אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו) when it was only presented to us after every other nation declined the offer?
The Talmud recounts (Shabbos 88a) that when the Jewish people were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, G-d lifted the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they don’t accept the Torah, ‘שם תהא קבורתכם – there will be your burial place.’ What is the metaphor of a barrel? If G-d’s intention was to intimidate them, being buried by a mountain seems a lot scarier than being buried by a barrel!
“Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work; but the seventh day is Sabbath to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not do any work – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, your animal, and your convert within your gates – for in six days G-d made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, G-d blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. Honor your mother and father, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that G-d, your G-d, gives you.” (Shemot 20:8-12) This selection from the Ten Commandments represents the fourth and fifth commandments.
1) Our Sages tell us that the Ten Commandments are divided in two sections. The first five inscribed on the first section of the tablets address man’s relationship with G-d. The remaining five inscribed on the other section of the tablets address man’s relationship with his fellow man. Other than a possibly obvious reason, why does man’s relationship with G-d come first?
2) Why would the obligation to honor one’s parents appear in the section between man and G-d?
3) G-d is not a physical entity and as such, surely doesn’t tire. What then could be meant by the statement that G-d “rested”?
This week’s Torah portion records the epic encounter at Sinai in which G-d handed down the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. Following this, G-d told the nation that since they bore witness to G-d’s presence, it was incumbent upon them to uphold certain laws: they may not make gods of silver or gold, and that an altar made of earth or stone should be prepared for their sacrifices (Shemot 20:19-21).
1. The verse seems to imply that the ban against silver and gold idols is only fitting because the people were present at Sinai. Obviously the prohibition against graven images is incumbent upon even those who were not at Sinai. Why, then, might the Torah phrase it this way?
2. Why would G-d request that an altar that would be used for Divine offerings be made of dirt? What message might lie in being instructed to make use of this seemingly undignified material in the service of G-d?
Q: Why did Moses wait for Jethro and his family to come on their own to rejoin him instead of sending a messenger inviting and encouraging them to come?
A: The Alter of Novardok explains that when it comes to Jewish outreach, one will only be successful if the other party is open and prepared to hear what one has to say. Before the showdown between the true prophet, Elijah, and the prophets of the idol baal at Mount Carmel, Elijah first rebuked the Jews (Melachim 1 18:21), “how much longer will you continue straddling both sides of the fence?” Even though he was about to perform open miracles which would result in a tremendous sanctification of G-d’s name, he knew that if the people weren’t in the right mindset then his efforts would be in vain. He therefore prepared the people to be influenced by delivering words of chastisement. Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Margolis explains that Moses knew that the entire world heard of the miraculous events of the splitting of the Reed Sea and the giving of the Torah. He recognized that if Jethro wasn’t inspired to come on his own, that would be an indication that he wasn’t open and prepared to be influenced, and there would unfortunately be no purpose in sending for him. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Arizal, one of the greatest mystics of all time, writes in the name of the Holy Zohar that Moses was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Abel, and Jethro was a gilgul of Cain. As all mystical teachings are alluded to in the actual text, where is this fascinating fact hinted to?
A: Rav Chaim Vital notes that this is hinted to by the letters beginning the words אני חתנך יתרו – I am your father-in-law Jethro – which spell the word אחי – my brother. Part of Jethro’s mission in this world was to atone for the sin of Cain in killing Abel, which he did in several ways. Firstly, he gave his daughter in marriage to a gilgul of Abel, Moses, which allowed Abel the descendants which were denied him through his murder (see Bereishit 4:10). The sacrifice brought by Cain did not find favor in G-d’s eyes (Bereishit 4:5), so Jethro corrected this by bringing proper sacrifices to G-d (Shemot 18:12), which were enjoyed not just by him but by Aaron and the elders of the generation. Finally, the Chida writes that while the Torah doesn’t recount the final conversation between Cain and Abel when they were in the field prior to the murder, the Targum Yonason ben Uziel (Bereishit 4:8) records that a part of it was Cain’s blasphemous claim that there is no Divine judge or process of judgment regarding our actions in this world. He rectified this by suggesting to Moses (Shemot 18:19-23) the concept of establishing a proper system of courts and judges! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
FOR THE LOVE OF IN-LAWS
“And Moses went out toward his father-in-law and he bowed down and kissed him and each man asked about the welfare of the other and they came to the tent.” Shemot 18:7
And he bowed down – This is an example of Moses’ exceptional humility. He, the leader of the entire nation, bowed down before his father-in-law, behaved deferentially toward him, and related all the events that had transpired. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Toward his father-in-law – Why does it not say “toward Jethro, his father-in-law?” The answer is that Moses’s respect for Jethro extended beyond the fact that he was his father-in-law. Regardless of who he was, Moses would have gone out to greet him. The mere fact that he was his father-in-law was more than enough to earn Moses’s respect, for an in-law plays an integral role in the upbringing of one’s spouse. Thus, one is obligated to respect his in-laws just as he is obligated to respect his own parents. – Sifsei Kohen
Massas HaMelech adds that this is not just good practice, but rather it is a halachic obligation to honor one’s in-laws. Otherwise, Moses, who had the legal status of a king, would not have been permitted to humble himself before his father-in-law. If he did so, that is proof that he was obligated to do so.
“And Moses related to his father-in-law all that G-d had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt on behalf of Israel, including all the hardship that had befallen them on the way, and how G-d had rescued them.” Shemot 18:8
And Moses related to his father-in-law – Although Jethro had previously heard all that had occurred, as the verse [18:1] mentions earlier, nevertheless, Moses recounted all the events in order to draw his heart to bring him closer to the Torah. – Rashi
And Moses related to his father-in-law – Moses wished to emphasize to Jethro that G-d did not only ensure their safety, but he also attended to their myriad needs in meticulous detail at every step of their journey out of Egypt. This was something that Jethro did not necessarily appreciate beforehand and helped him perceive G-d’s attentiveness to detail. – Sforno
All that G-d had done to Pharaoh – Moses shared with him something that he couldn’t have known earlier. He informed him that not only were the Egyptians defeated, but their Heavenly Advocate [which every nation has] was also slain, rendering them powerless to further enslave or harm the Jews. With this information in hand, Jethro now understood that they were truly free and safe from the Egyptians. – Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar)
Moses recounted the story to Jethro, although he knew it already, because there is a special mitzvah to recall the events of the Exodus, as it says in the Passover Haggadah, “ And all who excessively engage in retelling the story of the Exodus, this is praiseworthy.” The events of the Exodus are fundamental to our entire faith and trust in the Almighty, and the more we discuss them, the deeper and more powerful is our trust in Him. This is part of the reason that we recall the Exodus twice daily in the recitation of the Shema.
HAPPY FOR YOU
“Jethro said, ‘Blessed is G-d, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharaoh…” Shemot 18:10
Blessed is G-d – 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 Jethro 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 G-d’s tremendous kindness toward them? Indeed, the Jewish people wholeheartedly thanked G-d for His kindness. However, they were thanking Him for the kindness He had done on their behalf. Jethro, 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 G-d 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 G-d, is well advised to seek out the many kindnesses that G-d 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 G-d’s kindness is truly without limits.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
“Jethro said, ‘Blessed is G-d, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that G-d is greater than all the other gods, for [by the] very matter in which [the Egyptians] had conspired against them!’” Shemot 18:10-11
Than All The Other Gods – Jethro was familiar with every form of idolatry and had served every one of them [at one point or another].– Rashi
For the very matter in which they had conspired against them! – The Egyptians sought to destroy the Jewish nation [by drowning their children] in water and they themselves ended up perishing by drowning in water. – Rashi
That the Egyptians were punished by G-d came as no surprise to Jethro. What stunned him, and reinforced his awareness of G-d’s omnipotence, was the fact that He struck them in precisely the manner that they had sought to strike the Jews. Idolatry is based on the assumption that the manifold forces in nature compete with and seek to overpower one another, since each wields power in one area only and is defenseless in the others. By punishing the Egyptians through water, G-d demonstrated that not only wasn’t He vulnerable in that area as they had suspected, to the contrary, He was capable of utilizing it to overpower and annihilate them.
THE MAJORS VS. THE MINORS
“Let them administer justice for the people on a regular basis. They will bring every major case to you, but they can judge the minor cases by themselves. By sharing the burden, they will make things easier for you.” Shemot 18:22
Let them administer justice for the people – They can judge all cases in which they are experts, and those beyond their expertise, they can leave for you to judge. Those beyond even your expertise, you can pose to the Almighty for resolution. – Ibn Ezra
Let them administer justice…on a regular basis – Currently, due to the shortage of available judges, many people who have legitimate claims fail to pursue them because they do not wish to stand in line for days on end until you, Moses, are available. This creates an incentive for dishonest people to prey on others, knowing that they will probably not get called to justice. By installing a myriad of judges, justice will be administering justice on a regular basis, and peace will be restored among the nation. – Ramban
Interestingly, in describing how this plan was actually put into effect, the verse writes, “The difficult problems, they would bring to Moses, and the simple problems they would judge by themselves.” Why does it substitute the words “major,” and “minor,” used by Jethro, with the words, “difficult” and “simple?” Rabbi Chaim Berlin explains that Jethro’s choice of terms reflected his non-Jewish perspective, which maintains that there are “major” cases [i.e. when the sums in question equal millions of dollars,] and “minor” cases [i.e. when the sums amount to small totals]. Those cases do not receive nearly the due diligence or respect that the larger sums enjoy, because they’re considered trivial as evidenced by the fact that there’s such a thing as “Small Claims Court,” where smaller sums are decided. In the Torah’s view, it makes little difference whether the sums involved are millions or mere pennies. Each deserves an identical level of scrutiny when adjudicating the case. Therefore, the Torah distinguishes only between the difficult and simple cases, and places no importance on whether the case is major or minor.
NOT SO SMART AFTER ALL
“And Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he suggested.” Shemot 18:24
Listened To The Voice Of His Father-In-Law – Why did Jethro merit having an entire parsha 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 G-d 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 G-d, 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 Jethro 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.”
THE MANDATE OF JEWISH UNITY
“In the third month from the Exodus… they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai…and encamped in the wilderness, and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.” Shemot 19:1, 2
And Israel encamped there – The verb “encamped” is in the singular, in contrast to the previous verbs. This is to teach that the entire assembly encamped like a single person, with one heart. – Rashi
Jewish unity is not merely a desirable condition for the Jewish people. Rather, it is a prerequisite for the Jewish nation to partake of the Torah and its numerous benefits. Until this point, each encampment was filled with strife and disunity and thus, there was no possibility of giving them the Torah. Now that they had resolved their differences and stood as one harmonious unit, they were deserving of receiving the Torah, which requires a concerted effort to fulfill the will of G-d.
EASY DOES IT
“And Moses ascended to G-d, and G-d called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘This is what you shall say to the House of Jacob, and relate to the Children of Israel.’” Shemot 19:4
Say To the House of Jacob – This refers to the women. Say it to them in a gentle voice.
And Tell the Children of Israel – To the men you shall explain the penalties and details of the mitzvot using strong words. – Rashi
Say To the House of Jacob – 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 Shabbat, 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.
THE POTENTIAL TO BE LEADERS
“You shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation,’ these are the words that you shall speak to the Jewish people.” Shemot 19:6
A kingdom of ministers – Leaders – Rashi
A kingdom of ministers – You shall be to Me, My special portion (dedicated to serving Me in this world). – Rabbeinu Bachya
Had the Jewish people been meritorious, they could have each been a Kohen Gadol. This elevated status will be restored to them in the End of Days. – Baal HaTurim
Our decision to assume the weighty moral responsibilities of the Torah endowed us all with the potential to be exceedingly great. How firmly we would adhere to the strictures of the Torah would determine our success at attaining this lofty goal. The potential is there eternally, and although the promise that we would collectively attain it will not be fulfilled until the Messianic Era, every person is capable of individually pursuing and achieving this noble quest. To strive for less is to shortchange oneself of the unique rank accessible only to the Jewish people.
A NATION OF PROPHETS
“And G-d said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will come to you in the thickness of a cloud so that the nation should hear as I speak to you and in you they will believe forever,’ and Moses shared the response of the people with G-d.” Shemot 19:9
In the thickness of a cloud – Although the Almighty usually communicated with Moses with even greater clarity, in a manner known as “face to face;” this time, He would be speaking to him through the thickness of a cloud so that not only Moses, but all of the people too, could hear His voice. Although this diminished his experience somewhat, it offered an additional benefit in that now that they’d experienced prophecy firsthand, they would no longer doubt Moses’ ability to receive Divine prophecy and they would accept the dictates he passed on in the name of the Almighty. – Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar) Sforno
(Rabbi Ovadia Sforno) explains that what the people doubted was not Moses’ ability to prophesy. This was something known from much earlier times since others had done so as well. Their doubt lay in his ability to do so while fully awake without having to enter a trance-like state. Therefore, the Almighty promised that this time, they too would experience prophecy while fully conscious, albeit only through a cloud, and no longer would they doubt Moses’ ability to do so. It was crucial that they accept this because it was this unique ability of Moses that endowed his words with greater legitimacy and authority than that of all other prophets.
“Honor your father and mother so that your days may be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you.” Shemot 20:12
Honor your father and mother – One can honor parents through the performance of good deeds which gives them great joy. – Zohar
Honor your father and mother – How does one do so? By behaving in an upright manner that causes others to exclaim, “Fortunate are the parents who brought such a child into the world.” – Talmud
Honor your father and mother – The verse contains the word “et” before the words, “your father” and “your mother.” This word is superfluous and is written to indicate that one must honor not only his parents, but someone else as well. The extra words “et” come to include that one must demonstrate respect not only to a parent, but also to a step-parent, for acting respectfully toward a step-parent is a means of demonstrating respect toward one’s natural parent. Properly observed, this little-known obligation can spare families vast amounts of anguish that often accompany a second marriage. – Talmud
Sifsei Kohen explains that the extra words come to include that indeed, we as Jews, are bidden not only to honor our parents, but the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who are also our parents, too. Everything we do should reflect the fact that we are their spiritual heirs, and that in itself is a means of honoring them with the greatest of respect.
“’Do not covet the house of your fellow, do not covet the wife of your fellow, his servant, his maid, his ox, his donkey, and all that is to your fellow.” Shemot 20:14
Do not covet – Many people wonder how the Torah could ask us to control our thoughts to such a degree and abstain from coveting something that truly appeals to our senses. The answer is that just as a bedraggled street urchin does not ever contemplate earning the princess’s hand in marriage, so too, should a person feel about that which G-d has granted someone else. Clearly, it wasn’t meant for you or the Almighty would have granted it to you. Obsessing over it makes as little sense as wishing you had the wings of a bird so that you too could fly. Knowing that it cannot ever happen convinces you to waste no time doing so. – Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir)
Do not covet – It is important to note that this prohibition does not preclude one from seeing something that another person has and purchasing a similar item for himself. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. Rather, the prohibition extends only to items which are not possible to duplicate such as his wife, home etc.
Do not covet – Although it is forbidden to covet ones material possessions, it is perfectly acceptable to covet one’s Torah knowledge for this will inspire a person to pursue ever greater heights in Torah and observance. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Why does the Torah conclude this verse with, “and all that is to your fellow” after offering so many examples that already made this point? The commentators explain that the reason we covet that which another person has is because we don’t bother to look at the bigger picture. We see one aspect of his life that appears ideal and we yearn for that while never bothering to consider what else comes along with his situation. We don’t bother to contemplate all the hardship that went into obtaining it or the other aspects of his life that aren’t as appealing. Thus, the Torah admonishes us, “Do not covet his wife, servant, ox, donkey…unless you are also willing to take the rest of what he has, “all that is to your fellow.” Once a person thinks about the entire picture, he’ll rarely wish that he was in the other person’s shoes.
Hey, I Never Knew That
“And all the people saw the thunder, the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they shook, and stood far away” (Shemot 20:15). The revelation at Mt. Sinai was such an awe-inspiring event that the Jewish people who witnessed it literally shook with fear. There is an ancient custom for people to sway back and forth while listening to the Torah reading, and some commentaries give the above verse as the reason. When we hear the Torah, we imitate the Jews who shook with fear when hearing the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Avudraham, Birchot Hashachar). Some maintain that this is an appropriate thing to do, and that one should also sway during prayer to fulfill the verse in (Psalms35:10), “All my bones will declare that there is none like You, O G-d” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 48:3). It also became customary to encourage children to sway back and forth when they study Torah (Kol Bo 74).
What is special about the Ten Commandments that appear in the Torah portion this week? The Torah includes 613 commandments, so why is a big deal made out of these Ten Commandments? It was once a custom to read them as part of the public daily prayer service (Brachot 11b-12a); they are put up over the Ark in synagogues around the world; and it is a common custom to stand when they are read from the Torah (Igrot Moshe, OC 4:22). One possibility is that these ten are actually an encapsulation of all 613 commandments into ten major categories. In that sense, the Ten Commandments are a compact, compressed version of the whole Torah. Nachmanides hints at this idea in his commentary on the Torah (Shemot21:1-2), and he actually wrote a book called, The 613 Commandments as Derived from the Ten Commandments, showing how one can derive all the other commandments from these ten (Collected Writings of Nachmanides, Ed. Charles B. Chavel).
Word of the Week
“And Jethro ויחד — vayichad — rejoiced about all the good that G-d did for Israel…” (Shemot 18:9). The word ויחד — vayichad— is translated by many commentaries as “he rejoiced” (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra), and they relate it to the word חדוה — chedvah — rejoicing that is found in Chronicles (1:16:27) and in Nehemiah (8:10). The Aramaic term for rejoicing is חדי — chadi, derived from the Hebrew root חדה —chadah — sharp. Rashi also cites the Gemara (Sanhedrin 94a) which maintains that the word alludes to Jethro’s flesh becoming “sharp points” — חידודים, i.e. goose-bumps, from the word חד — sharp. As a convert, Jethro had been part of the Egyptian culture and society that had just been visited by enormous destruction, and so he shuddered subconsciously when he heard the news, even though he consciously rejoiced.
The first commandment, or statement of G-d, on Mt. Sinai is, “—אנכי Anochi the L-rd your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt.” The commentaries all translate —אנכי anochi as “I am” or “I.” Rabbi Hirsch relates the word to the root אנך —anach—central or pivotal, and that anochi is used to mean “I” when speaking to others and assuming a central role (Etymological Dictionary). Is there a difference between anochi and אני—ani? Rav David Kimchi sees the words as synonyms; however Umberto Cassutto shows that when the emphasis is on the subject, the Torah uses the word anochi which emphasizes the “I.” When the sentence emphasizes the predicate or the verb, the word usually used is ani (Cassutto, Eight Lectures).
MOSES VS. ABRAHAM
I have been studying with my partner for almost a year and it has proven to be a worthwhile experience. I am learning to read Hebrew and have been keeping up with the weekly parsha. I was wondering about Moses receiving the Torah for the Jewish people… Why did G-d give the Torah to Moses and not Abraham? I would appreciate your thoughts on this subject.
May all your days be filled with peace,
I’m so glad to hear that you’re finding the Partners in Torah experience satisfying. Your question is a very important one and the response is somewhat comprehensive, so please bear with me as I share with you a few essential points.
1 Abraham was a single individual, not a nation. The purpose of the creation of the universe was so that there would be at a minimum a large group of people [i.e. a nation] that worship G-d by observing His Torah. Ideally, all of mankind would do so. In lieu of that, at a minimum, an entire nation must serve G-d. Abraham could not receive the Torah because it was intended for the entire nation. It was not until Moses’ time when the Jewish people were no longer just a large extended family but totaled in the millions, that they would constitute a critical mass large enough to receive the Torah.
2 Although he was not actually given the Torah, the Talmud tells us that Abraham intuited its ideas and observed them meticulously. Not only did he observe what later were explicit commandments, but he even observed rabbinic stringencies that were only enacted many years later. His son Isaac, and grandson Jacob did likewise. Thus, his lack of having been given the Torah should not be understood in any way as a taint on his record.
3 The Torah contains a wide variety of mitzvot, some applicable only to men, some to women, and some to both. Some apply only to a Kohen, some only to a Levi, and some only to a Yisrael. Some apply only to people who live in the land of Israel, while others are universal. In sum, one person cannot possibly observe all of the mitzvot in a technical sense. For that, a large body of diverse people is needed. As an individual, Abraham was not in a position to accept the entire Torah, only those aspects of it that were relevant to his personal life. Thus, it was necessary to wait until such time as it was feasible for the entire Torah to be accepted jointly by the entire nation. This did not occur until Moses’ time.
4 The Torah, by its very nature, is not suitable for all. It is a very demanding set of rules to live by, and while immensely fulfilling, requires true commitment and perseverance. Many people are initially attracted to it only to see their enthusiasm wane when they realize the sort of commitment necessary to remain loyal to its message. Although Abraham demonstrated the commitment necessary to retain it, it could not be assumed that his children would do so as well until they themselves underwent many of his early experiences that cemented his commitment to the Torah. Therefore, the Jewish people first had to undergo the 210 years of enslavement in Egypt, a culture that represented the exact opposite of what the Torah stood for, and overcome their natural temptation to assimilate. This experience, while full of suffering and hardship, helped encode in their genes a commitment to the Torah’s ideals that sustains us until today. That’s why it had to wait until the time of Moses and could not be given to Abraham alone.
Wishing you continued growth in your studies,
Rabbi Elazar Meisels
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 kashrut (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.
IN THE BEGINNING
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
In my ‘History of World Religions’ class, I am learning about Islam and how it started through Mohammed’s prophecy. It got me thinking about my own religion, which I only recently started to discover. This question may sound silly, but how did Judaism get started? While I’m at it, I wouldn’t mind understanding why we Jews think we are unique.
Thanks for your excellent question, one I certainly don’t consider silly. While some religions expect its adherents to have ’blind faith,’ Judaism demands that we ask questions. We aspire to what is called emunah, which is often misunderstood to mean ‘faith.’ Actually, it means faithfulness. We are expected to search out the answers to all the big questions, and then live our lives with faithfulness and the integrity of living by the truths we learn.
More directly to your question, it is noteworthy that the Torah instructs us to study the history of the generations that come before us. Doing so will help answer your question.
You are probably aware that thousands of religions besides Islam have sprouted up in hundreds of locales from Alaska to Zimbabwe. While the numerous religions may be different in their practices, prayers, or rituals, they share one common aspect – they all began with one or two individuals who had a vision of sorts in which they learned about the spiritual truths they were to convey to the masses. People like Mohammed, Siddhartha Gautama, and Joseph Smith all claimed to have had a special vision, around which, Islam, Buddhism, and Mormonism are based. The smaller religions (such as Seicho-no-Ie, started by Dr. Masaharu Taniguchi; Tenrikyo, started by Miki Nakayama; and the Messianic proclamations of Sun Myung Moon) also began this way.
These individual visions are not historical anomalies. In fact, this is how every single major religion (and for that matter, cult) in the world began – except for one – Judaism.
In this week’s parsha, we read about the revelation at Sinai, where G-d spoke to the entire Jewish people (600,000 adult males, and additionally, a similarly large number of women and children – collectively well over 2 million people). G-d spoke to all of them, as the verse says clearly, “You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you” (Shemot, 20:19).
So while thousands of religions were started through individuals who claimed to have been appointed as the religion’s ambassadors or prophets, only one claims G-d appeared to millions of people. As a student of world religions, I think you can appreciate the difference between a claim that G-d privately revealed Himself to one person and another that claims a revelation witnessed by millions of people. That’s a claim that would be hard for even the most very charismatic person to sell.
The Torah in fact tells us that we can look throughout history, and we will never find another nation that will claim to have had a national revelation. “For inquire now regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day when G-d created man on the earth, and from one end of heaven to the other end of heaven: Has there ever been anything like this great thing, or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of G-d speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived?… You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the G-d! There is none beside Him” (Devarim 4:32-35).
Don’t take my word for this, Julie. Ask your professor and classmates whether they are familiar with any religion that makes a similar claim. I anticipate that the answer you get will deepen your appreciation for not only how our religion began, but also for the role it could play in your life.
All the best,
Rabbi Leiby Burnham
Recitation of the Ten Commandments during daily prayers was once standard practice. However, an end was put to the custom so as not to give room for heretics to claim that the only binding commandments were these ten (Berachot 12a). According to Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, one may never claim that any one part of the Torah is more important than another, since the entire Torah was given by G-d (Commentary on Mishnah, Sanhedrin Ch. 10, 8th principle). Maimonides was asked about the custom to stand when the Ten Commandments are read from the Torah in the synagogue, even though people do not stand for other parts of the Torah reading. He responded that it is forbidden to do so, since it appears that one is granting greater importance to one part of the Torah over another and is playing into the hands of heretics who only believe in following the Ten Commandments (Responsa of Maimonides). However, the common custom is indeed to stand for the Ten Commandments, and is justified by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein since, he says, the possibility of people making such a gross error, or of heretics using the standing as proof, are very slim possibilities (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:22).
The Jews are described as literally shaking with fear during the revelation at Mt. Sinai (Shemot 20:15). Numerous scholars have recommended that when one studies Torah or hears it being read in the synagogue, one should actually imitate this shaking. Early Ashkenazic sources maintain that it is appropriate to train children to sway back and forth while studying Torah, so that their study will be with the same “fear and trembling” as at the revelation (Darchei Moshe, OC 48:1, Machzor Vitry 508). Some argue that it is from these sources that the custom of shokeling (swaying back and forth) during prayer and study developed. Although these sources only suggest shokeling while studying, others maintain that even during prayer it is appropriate to sway in order to fulfill the verse, “All my bones shall declare, ‘G-d! Who is like You?’ ” (Psalms 35:9, Sefer Chasidim 57:117). After a discussion about shokeling, Rabbi Teomim states, “And everything is according to the individual makeup of that person. If he focuses well with movement, he should shokel, and if not, he should stand still, as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven” (Pri Megadim OC 48, Eshel Avraham par. 4).
Parsha at a Glance
After hearing about the miraculous events of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, and the war with Amalek, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law leaves his homeland and travels to meet Moses and the Jewish people in the desert. He brings Moses’ wife Zipporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer, and the entire Jewish people come out to greet them upon their arrival. After hearing Moses relate how G-d struck the Egyptians in the very manner in which they sought to harm the Jewish people, Jethro rejoices in the knowledge of G-d’s omnipotent power and converts to Judaism.
The next day, Jethro observes the interactions between Moses and the nation. From morning until evening, the Jewish people stand by Moses while he sits and adjudicates their cases. Realizing that this is too great a burden for both Moses and the people, Jethro suggests a solution. He advises Moses to choose upstanding men to serve as judges. Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and sets up a court system that includes judges over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Minor matters that can be adjudicated without difficulty will be judged by these men; difficult matters will be sent to Moses. Jethro then returns to his homeland to convert his family.
The portion continues with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Just seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people have transformed themselves from a lowly slave nation into a people ready to be G-d’s emissaries in the world. G-d informs the Jewish people that if they accept the Torah and listen to Him and keep his covenant, they will be “the most beloved treasure of all peoples…a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.”
After three days of preparation, the Jewish people gather at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As G-d descends, thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud surround the mountain. Smoke rises from the mountain and the sound of the shofar grows increasingly powerful until the entire camp shudders from the intensity of the experience. After warning the people that they must not approach the mountain, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
· I am the L-rd your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery
· Thou Shalt Not Have Any Other G-d’s Before Me
· Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of G-d in Vain
· Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy
· Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother
· Thou Shalt Not Murder
· Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
· Thou Shalt Not Steal (this means kidnapping)
· Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
· Thou Shalt Not Covet
The Jewish people directly heard the first two commandments from G-d. After that, however, the experience was too overwhelming, and they beseeched Moses to act as G-d’s messenger on their behalf. The experience of hearing G-d speak to them directly was sufficient to solidify their belief in G-d and in the truth of Moses’ prophecy forever.
The portion continues with G-d reiterating the fact that He spoke to the Jewish people directly and that they are prohibited from making any images that can misused as symbols or an intermediary between them and the Divine. This includes making images of heavenly bodies and angels, as well as “gods” of silver and gold.
The portion ends with a commandment that the altars for the future Tabernacle must be constructed of earth. When a stone altar is eventually constructed for the Temple in Jerusalem, the stones may not be cut with iron instruments. Iron shortens life, while the Temple lengthens life by offering people repentance and atonement. In addition, the Kohanim must use a ramp when they approach the altar so as to maintain meticulous standards of modesty during their service.