Monumental Meal

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During the entire unfolding of the exodus experience, while Moshe was leading Bnei Yisroel, Moshe’s family remained behind in Midyan with his father in law Yitro. Now that Bnei Yisroel has left Egypt and has safely crossed the Red Sea, Yitro brings his daughter and grandsons to the Israelite camp to be reunited with Moshe. He sends word to Moshe, “I, your father in law Yitro, have come to you, with your wife and her two sons with her.” Moshe goes out to greet them, recounting to Yitro all that had transpired in Egypt and that Hashem had rescued them. Yitro is elated at Hashem’s rescuing Bnei Yisroel. He blesses Hashem, acknowledging that Hashem is the greatest of all gods. Then Yitro brings an elevation offering and a peace offering to Hashem, “And Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before God.”

Rashi asks why Yitro identified everyone who came instead of just saying,”I’m here,” or, “We’re here.” Rashi then answers that Yitro was telling Moshe that even if Moshe did not want to greet him personally, certainly he should do so for his wife and children. But this sounds as if Yitro craved honor. Do we really believe that? The Torah emphasizes that Moshe went out to greet his father in law, emphasizing that we give respect to others because everyone deserves respect, and not because we have anything to gain from them.

Yitro then praises Hashem, brings offerings to Hashem and sits down to eat bread with Aharon and all the elders before God. How was Yitro’s praise extraordinary and different from the praises Bnei Yisroel had offered? Why did Yitro bring these offerings to Hashem? Finally, why did they all sit down together to eat bread specifically before Hashem?

That these events were extremely important can be determined by later history, writes Rabbi Goldwicht in Asufat Maarachot. When King Saul is about to wage battle against Amalek, he approaches the Keini, traditionally the descendents of Yitro, and urges them to leave the area lest they be caught in the crossfire of the war and be killed. Saul explains his warning to the Keini, saying, “For you have done chesed/kindness with all of Bnei Yisroel when they went up from the land of Egypt.” Rashi explains that the chesed King Saul is referring to is the feast that Yitro prepared for Moshe, Aharon and the elders, that all of Bnei Yisroel derived pleasure from this feast.

Making this connection raises even further questions. How was this feast for the leaders a chesed for all of Bnei Yisroel? How does this earlier feast merit the Keini being saved from Amalek?

We associate Yitro with advising Moshe to set up a judicial system to handle questions of Torah law. But Yitro provided us with lessons even prior to this, and together these lessons warranted naming the parsha that contains the Ten Commandments by his name, Parshat Yitro. The first lesson here is the importance of greeting everyone with respect and dignity, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. When you see another, give him respect and take an interest in his well being, Treat him as one created in the image of God. When our souls ascend to heaven, one of the questions we will be asked is, “Did you coronate your friend as king over you in good spirits?” To honor another is not so much for them as for me, to know what it means to honor another and make him king. Yitro is not looking for honor for his own sake, but to teach us how to interact with others we make contact with.

Rav Schwab gives us a different perspective on what seems to be Yitro’s request for honor. Yitro had practiced every form of idol worship of his day. In fact, he was a priest in Midyan. He was afraid the impurities of these false gods remained with him as he approached the holy Israelite camp, and he would be unable to enter. But when a sinner receives honor from a Godly person dedicated to holiness, these impurities flee. Yitro needed Moshe to honor him so that these impurities of his previous life would depart, and he could enter the Israelite camp. Indeed, once Moshe went out to greet him, probably all the elders of Bnei Yisroel went out with him to honor his father-in-law. Rabbi Parness, in Lev Tahor, adds that it was not simply for Yitro’s personal honor that Moshe went out to greet him, but because he knew that Yitro wanted to convert and needed help to enter.

There is an enigmatic verse in Kohelet/Ecclesiastics that Rabbi Goldwicht brilliantly interprets in connection with our current discussion: “Send your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it.” Obviously, this makes no sense in physical reality. However, Rabbi Goldwicht associates this verse with Yitro and his relationship with Moshe who was “drawn from the water.” Yitro fed Moshe, gave him bread, when Moshe fled Egypt and helped his daughters. Now Yitro is again breaking bread with Moshe and with all the elders before Hashem.

This connection deepens and explains why the parsha that contains the Ten Commandments bears the name of Yitro. The very first commandments tells us why we need to accept the yoke of Heaven: “I am the Lord your God Who has taken you out of Egypt.” When Bnei Yisroel left Egypt, they felt a tremendous sense of gratitude to Hashem for all the miracles He had done for them. With the passion of this gratitude, Bnei Yisroel were eager to accept Hashem as their King and submit to Him. However, right before they arrived at Sinai, Amalek came and chilled their fervor so that now they questioned, “Is Hashem within us or not?” As Rabbi Mintzberg says in Ben Melech, when Yitro now came and blessed Hashem, brought offerings to Hashem, feasted with a desire to serve Hashem, Yitro reignited the fire of gratitude Bnei Yisroel needed in order to accept the Torah willingly. It was in this merit that King Saul warned his descendants to flee from Amalek generations later.

What was the purpose of this seudah/feast? The Riminover Rebbe in Lev Tahor explains that this was a feast celebrating Yitro’s conversion and thereby entering the brit/covenant of Bnei Yisroel with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Since both parties must be present to ratify the covenant, Hashem was indeed present, and this was truly “eating bread before God.”

We show our love and appreciation for some mitzvoth by an accompanying seudah, writes Rabbi Belsky in Einei Yisroel. That’s why we have a seudat mitzvah at a bris, often celebrated and eaten in a shul, before God. Here too, Yitro’s spiritual transformation through conversion and the brit was being celebrated by partnering it with the physical act of eating. Rabbi Broide in Sam Derech sees this meal as the source for our having a seudat mitzvah at a brit milah.

With his conversion, Yitro brought a new dimension to Bnei Yisroel. If we recognize Ruth as the paradigm for conversion, Yitro is the father of converts. When Yitro declares that “Hashem is the greatest of all gods,” he is speaking from experience. Yitro studied and practiced every form of god worship, and came to the conclusion that there was no God but Hashem. Yitro taught us the value of accepting true converts from the other nations, for these are the hidden sparks with special qualities that are often deeply hidden within them. These are qualities that may be lacking in Bnei Yisroel, but that Bnei Yisroel needs to integrate within the national character. Perhaps this is one of the positive reasons for our being in exile among the other nations, suggests Rabbi Goldwicht, to return these sparks to their source through their conversion to Judaism.

In a related idea, Rabbi Leibel Eiger in Toras Emes suggests that at first Moshe did not want to accept Yitro as a convert. After all, when the erev rav joined Bnei Yisroel from Egypt, Bnei Yisroel were steeped in idol worship just as the Egyptians were. But now Bnei Yisroel have been purified. Why accept other idol worshipers into their midst now? But when Yitro sends word to Moshe about his arrival, Yitro introduces himself with “Ani/I,” and then continues with identifying himself as Moshe’s father-in-law. This Ani alludes to Hakodosh Boruch Who Who is the One Who brings some people close to Him while He may distance others. This Ani tells us that it was Hashem Himself Who told Moshe to go out to greet Yitro and accept him into Bnei Yisroel. And this acceptance gives validation to every baal teshuvah who was distant from Hashem and now wants to return. It teaches us that Hashem loves the baal teshuvah just as much as He loves the talmid chacham who studies in the Beit Medrash all day.

Everything, especially food, has an element of the spiritual within it waiting to be realized. It is not only those who eat the food who elevate it with blessings, but those who prepare the food also share in actualizing this sanctity. When Yitro was preparing this feast, he was thinking about bringing it before God, and his thoughts affected the mental attitude of those who sat with him, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. Rebbetzin Smiles reminds us all, then, to invest our meal preparation, especially for Shabbat, with thoughts of Torah and mitzvoth. In a similar vein, Rashi says that those who eat a meal with a talmid chacham are symbolically rejoicing in Hashem’s presence. If you eat and incorporate divrei Torah into your meal, adds Rabbi Wolbe both the food and the Torah, the physical and the spiritual, come from heaven. This may mean that the cafeteria, if used properly, may be on a higher spiritual level than the study hall itself.

When Aharon and Yitro sat down to eat with the great Moshe Rabbenu, writes Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen, perhaps they felt that it would be difficult to focus on a connection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. But the verse teaches us that, just as here, in every situation, you are in, you are still in Hashem’s presence. In every difficulty and challenge, even if you feel less spiritual at that moment, you are still in God’s presence. If we feel we cannot daven with the proper focus or learn with as much depth as we would like, this too is from Hashem.

Mishchat Shemen presents the scene at Sinai when we received the Torah. There was thunder and lightening, a frightening situation. If the Torah is so sweet, why didn’t Hashem set the scene with soft music and beautiful weather? Then Moshe ascends the mountain and enters the arafel/darkest cloud where he encounters Hashem. This too teaches us that when we are faced with dark clouds in our lives that is precisely where we can find Hashem. The Baal Haturim equates these dark times with Hashem’s presence, the arafel that Moshe entered is numerically equal to shechinah/God’s presence, 385. Hashem’s vision of our service to Him may in fact be what we think is imperfect. We can meet God in every situation and in every human encounter, especially when we honor His image in another human being. It is our mission to recognize that Godliness and expose it to the world, to demonstrate that we are always lifnei Hashem/before God.