Parashas Yisro

Yisro arrived in the Israelite camp after hearing about the events of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Amalekite attack. The news of these miraculous events convinced him to join the Jewish nation and he became the first recorded convert to Judaism. The more popular view is that Yisro arrived before the giving of the Torah at Sinai but there is evidence in Zevachim that claims his entrance was not made until after this event as he was convinced to come by the news that the Ten Commandments had been given. Rashi doesn’t disclose a preference on the varying opinions but simply mentions them. If we were to take on the opinion that Yisro arrived after the giving of the Torah then why is his arrival mentioned now?... According to the Ibn Ezra, the Torah wanted to make a contrast between the previously mentioned Amalek and Yisro. By mentioning Yisro at this point it shows the stark contrast between someone who was an outsider but became a major benefit to Israel compared to the Amalekites who were outsiders who launched an unprovoked attack against Israel (end of last weeks Parasha, Beshalach). I personally do not like this opinion and hold by the Ramban who teaches us that the Torah should always be assumed to have occurred chronologically, unless there is compelling evidence to say otherwise.

When Yisro is greeted by Moshe we see how much of a role reversal has taken place between the two. Yisro was once the minister of Midian and a former advisor to Pharaoh (very distinguished roles), and greeted Moshe as a homeless wanderer when he was on the run from Egypt. We now see Moshe as the great leader of the Jewish people greeting Yisro as his father in law who brought Moshe’s family with him to join the nation. Yisro is received royally by Moshe and the entire nation. Almost immediately the kiruv work starts with Moshe taking Yisro to his tent to tell him ‘everything that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel’s sake’ [18:8] and we are told that ‘Yisro rejoiced’ [18:9]. The implication of this rejoicing is that Yisro was genuinely happy over what G-d had done for the nation, Or HaChaim takes this one step further by telling us that the word ויחד/rejoice alludes to the word חדודים/prickles which describes the ‘prickles of excitement’ Yisro felt due to feelings of being physically thrilled, ‘like someone who may weep or become faint when he is overwhelmed with unexpected joy’. Rashi sees signs of slight distress in the way the Torah describes Yisro rejoicing however, describing ‘prickles of unease’ over what had happened to the Egyptians. We have to remember that Yisro was once a high ranking member of Egyptian society and although we see rejoicing there would naturally still be some sensitivity towards how the nation he lived amongst for so many years was destroyed. In fact it is brought down in the Sifsei Chaim that a reason we spill wine during the Pesach seder (when we use our finger to make nice spotted stains on the table cloth for our mummies to clean) is to show remorse for the Egyptians who suffered through all the plagues. Although we understand that strict justice was undertaken by Hashem, we still do not gloat as Jews about the way in which it had to be done. Another opinion brought down is that these ‘prickles’ were unease at the thought that Yisro could have been there, experiencing the plagues with the Egyptians, had things turned out differently for him… comparable to a situation where someone missed was to miss their flight only to hear afterwards that it had crashed, a feeling of ‘prickles’ and unease would certainly be present.

Following his rejoicing, Yisro goes on to say that ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the G-ds…’ and this sentence gives us a glimpse into Yisro’s background as he exclaims that he had experimented with every manner of idolatry, but now he was thoroughly convinced that Hashem is superior to them all. So faster than an Aished teenager, Yisro does teshuvah and converts which we see from the offerings which he gives in possuk 18:12. Ramban expands on this to tell us that Yisro converted to Judaism through circumcision and immersion, and the dignitaries of Israel joined him in a festive meal to celebrate the event. So as we all know Yisro and advised Moshe and was responsible for the setting up of a successful judicial system. Before Yisro came along, Moshe handled all ‘matters’ and ‘judged between man and his fellow’ [18:16]. Yisro educated Moshe in the construction of an arrangement whereby people with suitable leadership skills would be able to deal with matters of lesser importance, leaving Moshe with less involvement in petty matters and more time to play golf… and deal with the difficult matters within the camp. This was undoubtedly a great idea and produced the perfect set up by which most the world runs today, ‘Moshe heeded the words of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said’ [18:24]. So this was all fine and dandy but regardless of how good the advice was, how can Yisro start making suggestions? He just joined the nation and is already throwing around his opinions… who is he to come in and start telling Moshe what to do? This would be similar to someone joining a Shul and on his first Shabbat there, getting up on the Bimah and start making suggestions on how the davening should be done or on how the Shul’s finances should be distributed… great suggestions maybe but no one is going to listen to you and you are going to make people very angry.

In order to answer this we once again need to delve into Yisro’s background. Yes, Yisro was the father-in-law of Moshe which meant that maybe he held a bit more authority than a standard new-comer but this can only get you so far. Yisro was an advisor to Pharaoh back in Egypt and this was therefore his field… he made a living out of successfully giving over good advice and was the equivalent of the vice-president of America as Egypt was the greatest power in the world at the time. So why did Moshe personally accept the suggestions of someone else? Because Yisro was active in a piece of advice which saved Moshe’s life... It is written in a Midrash that when Moshe was a baby he climbed down from Basya’s lap and walked over to Pharaoh, picked up his crown and placed it on his head. Pharaoh’s minister Bilam interpreted this to mean that Moshe would one day try and snatch his crown and kingdom literally and therefore he should be killed before it was too late. Pharaoh asked his other advisors whether they agreed and only Yisro spoke up in an attempt to save Moshe’s life by advising a test whereby they could see if these were his true intentions. A diamond and a hot burning coal were placed in front of Moshe and when Moshe reached for the diamond, the angel Gavriel ‘pushed’ his hand towards the coal which Moshe then put in his mouth, hence his speech impediment. Yisro’s advice therefore saved Moshe and with this knowledge there was no way Moshe could deny his advice all those years later.

With all that advice given and over seventy eight thousand judges appointed at any given level of the system, we are told that ‘Moshe sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his land’ [18:27]. According to Rashi, Yisro was sent to go and convert the rest of his family although that seems like a bit of a lame excuse to get rid of your father-in-law. An interesting opinion is brought down by the mefarshim on this action; they say that although this was a good suggestion by Yisro there was the risk that he might come up with more recommendations and try to advise Moshe on how to run the nation. This was dangerous as Moshe was the leader of a nation of vulnerable Jews who had just been taken out of slavery… he therefore needed complete leadership over them. So like a mother-in-law in her new daughter’s home, Yisro is sent away so that things can be run properly and he can have complete leadership absent of unneeded advice.

The next chapter in the sedra deals with our preparations as a nation to receive the Torah. In the opening lines we are told that the Jewish people… ‘journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai’. The nation didn’t just physically journey from Rephidim but they also journeyed from the attitudes which they portrayed at Rephidim, which were of rebelliousness and woe. They therefore cast away the sloth of Rephidim and devoted themselves to the mission of Sinai, arriving in repentance and encamping not only in a literal sense but also figuratively. ‘And Israel encamped there’ is written in the Torah in the singular which Rashi teaches us implies that they encamped like a single person, with a single desire… a united nation. They encamped ‘Opposite the mountain’ [19:2], which was of course Sinai which we are told was the humblest of mountains, due to its low height. The nation was therefore able to look from their camp to Mount Sinai and humble themselves. Or HaChaim comments that they humbled themselves to the word of G-d, for the words of Torah remain only with the humble.

The Torah teaches us that ‘Moshe ascended to G-d, and Hashem called to him…’ [19:3]. This order seems strange as surely Hashem should first call to Moshe and only then should he ascend to him? According to Rashi, Moshe ascended early in the morning and this shows eagerness to do the will of Hashem. We learn an important lesson from Moshe’s enthusiasm… In life, people sit around waiting for Hashem to call to them before they act. I have personally heard numerous friends tell me that they will start keeping Shabbat or davening when ‘it feels right’. There is an error in their order however; Hashem isn’t going to come calling until one takes the initiative to act, to ascend… only then, once we ascend to the will of G-d will he come and call to us, because only then once we are immersed in his Torah and mitzvoth will we see the truth behind it all.

With that I pray that we all have the strength and saychal to act and not sit around waiting for the call, we are not Buddhists (I think they are the ones who sit on mountain tops all day), we have 613 mitzvoth to get on with! Have a good Shabbat and successful week ahead.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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