Parshat Yitro

Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods. For it is in the manner that they acted wickedly He punished them. (Shemot 18:11) 

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, comes to meet Bnai Yisrael in the desert. Moshe tells Yitro of the miracles of the redemption. Yitro reacts with joy to the account. He sees the work of an all-powerful Creator. Yitro is impressed with the appropriateness of the punishment applied to the Egyptians. He seems to refer to the drowning of the Egyptians in the Reed Sea. The Egyptians had attempted to destroy Bnai Yisrael through drowning the male children. The Egyptians had met their end when the sea crashed down upon them.

Targum Unkelous offers an alternative translation to the pasuk. Unkelous explains that Yitro was impressed by a different aspect of the Egyptians fate. Their punishment corresponded with the evil they had conspired to do to the Jews. Unkelous stresses a relationship between the punishment of the Egyptians and their plans not their actual actions.

Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik ztl explained the meaning of Unkelous’ translation through a story. Rav Yitzchak of Volozin ztl was approached by a minister of the Czar. The minister asked Rav Yitzchak to explain the meaning of a pasuk from Tehillim. The pasuk states, “Glorify Hashem all peoples. Praise Him all nations. For His kindness to us is overwhelming.” The minster asked, “Why should the nations of the world praise G-d because of the kindness He shows to the Jewish people?”

Rav Yitzchak explained that the Jews have no knowledge of the various plots developed in the ministries in Petersburg to undermine and persecute them. When the Jews are saved by Hashem it is the ministers who designed the devious plans that have the best opportunity to asses G-d’s intervention. The pasuk instructs those who seek to destroy the Jewish people to consider the outcome of their plans. This reflection should inspire the plotters to repent and recognize the greatness of the Creator.

This explains the meaning of Unkelous’ translation  The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches that Yitro was not always a friend of the Jewish people. Before meeting Moshe, he had been one of Paroh’s three principal advisors.[1] He was involved in designing the campaign against the Jewish people. He had intimate knowledge of Paroh’s plans to harass and destroy the Jewish people. He recognized the thoroughness of Divine justice. G-d’s judgment was not limited to evil actions of the Egyptians. The punishment even extended to the wicked conspiracies that were not successfully executed. This established, for Yitro, Hashem’s omniscience and omnipotence.[2]

And Hashem said to Moshe, “I will come to you in a thick cloud so that the nation will hear as I speak to you. And also they will believe in you forever.” (Shemot 19:9)

At Sinai, the Jewish people will hear the Almighty address Moshe. This event will permanently establish the authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy. This issue is critical. The Torah was delivered to the Jewish people through Moshe. The legitimacy of the Torah is derived from the authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy.

Why is Sinai the irrefutable of proof Moshe’s prophecy and the legitimacy of the Torah? Maimonides explains that until Sinai Moshe had not proven, beyond doubt, that he was G-d’s messenger. He had performed wondrous miracles, led Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt, and brought the sea crashing down upon Paroh and his army. But all these events were only circumstantial evidence of Moshe’s unique relationship with the Almighty. The wonders performed by Moshe were consistent with his claim. However, these miracles were not direct proof of Moshe’s authenticity. A circumstantial proof can seem very convincing. But it always remains circumstantial.

Hashem designed the Revelation to correct this shortcoming. At Sinai, the people saw Moshe enter the thick cloud representing the Eternal’s presence. They heard Hashem call out to Moshe from the cloud. They listened as Hashem spoke with their leader, Moshe. No longer was the validity of Moshe’s prophecy dependent upon circumstantial evidence. Three million people witnessed the relationship between G-d and His greatest prophet. No evidence is more respected than the testimony of an eyewitness. Revelation was designed to create a nation of witnesses to the truth of the sacred Torah.[3]

These comments of Maimonides explain the importance of Sinai for the generation of the Revelation. He seems to feel that this episode also serves as a validation of the Torah for all generations. But our generation was not at Sinai. How can we know that these events occurred?

Our Sages maintain that often the most important elements of our religion are the most easily demonstrated.[4] The existence of a Creator is evidenced by the boundless wisdom contained in the universe. Science has yet to offer any feasible alternative account for the origin of our universe, with all of its wondrous components. Similarly, our Sages argue that the unity of G-d is far easier to substantiate than alternative theologies of polytheism. We should not be surprised, if the proof of the authenticity of Revelation is obvious. We should also not be influenced by others who deny the Torah. In areas of religion and personal philosophy we cannot expect logic alone to triumph. We need look no further than the fervent “religious” belief of many scientists in a godless universe.

How do we know that any historical event occurred? After all, none of us knew Joan of Arc. Can anyone alive today claim to have visited with Ganges Kahn? Sophocles, Zeno, Plato and other figures from antiquity are accepted as having truly lived. Yet no one alive today can personally confirm these claims.

Generally, in assessing historical claims we take a critical view. We ask one simple question. Could this claim be a fraud and fabrication? If Genghis Kahn had not existed, could he have been manufactured in the imagination of some fanciful historian? This seems unlikely. Genghis Kahn conquered vast territories.  He ruled an immense empire that included many millions of subjects. Imagine our fanciful historian wished to invent Genghis Kahn. He would have had quite a job convincing millions of people that they or their ancestors were ruled by a king of whom they had never heard. Let us put this in a modern context. Could we be convinced that a great earthquake had totally destroyed New York in 1805 or London in 1600. We would never accept such a claim. We would say, “If that is true, why have we not heard about it until now?” 

If you want to fool the people about history, you are limited to events that the masses would not expect to be part of historical tradition. A historian can claim that Kennedy would never have allowed the United States to intensify the war in Vietnam. He can posit that DaVinci’s Mona Lisa was an imaginative self-portrait. How do we know? But he will never convince us that DaVinci never lived.

The Sefer HaChinuch applies the same reasoning to Revelation.[5] We must treat this event as we would any other historical claim. Could the claim of Revelation be a fabrication? To test the hypothesis, imagine Sinai was a fabrication.  So, some imaginative leader came to the Jewish people and tells them that their ancestors were at Sinai and witnessed Revelation. Let us pick Ezra as our hypothetical revisionist. Would the people believe him? He is describing an event that occurred to their ancestors. Certainly, they would have been suspicious of a claim of such magnitude. They would react as we would to the stories of the destruction of New York and London. Revelation passes the test. It simply is not possible to fool a whole nation with an obvious fabrication.

Now, the comment of Maimonides can be fully appreciated. The validity of Moshe’s prophecy was proven through the three million witnesses of Revelation. The reality of Revelation is established soundly through the same critical analysis applied to all historical claims.

Honor your father and mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem your L-rd gives you. (Shemot 20:12)

This statement of the Decalogue commands us to honor our parents. The Talmud explains in Tractate Kiddushin that this mitzvah requires that we care for our parents and provide for their needs.[6] However, it is clear from the discussion in the Talmud that the obligation is not limited to material services. The command requires an attitude of extreme deference and respect toward our parents. The Talmud even seems to say that it is impossible to fully discharge this obligation. Rashi, in his comments, comes to this very conclusion.[7] Why is this command so difficult to completely fulfill?

This issue can be understood through consideration of another comment of the Talmud. The Sages explains that the honor required towards our parents can be equated to the respect due the Creator.[8]

This statement indicates that there are two aspects to the command to honor and respect our parents. We are obligated to provide material services to our parents. In addition, we must recognize our debt to our progenitors.  The Almighty, through our parents, provides us with our very life. How can we repay such a debt? We cannot. The first aspect of the command, requiring specific services, can be discharged. We can fully provide for our parents’ needs. Yet, the second aspect, the debt, can never be repaid.

This analysis is reflected in the equation between our relationship to our parents and our relationship to Hashem.  We are obligated to appreciate all that the Almighty does for us. A prerequisite is that we acknowledge our debt to our parents. The benevolence of the Creator may, at times seem abstract. But the debt to our parents should be easier to grasp. If we cannot recognize this more concrete debt, we have very little chance of appreciating our duty to Hashem. Conversely, acceptance of our obligation to our parents is a step towards recognizing our debt to the Almighty.

[1] Mesechet Sanhedrin 106a.

[2] Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai HaGRIZ on T’NaCH and Aggadah, Parshat Yitro.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 8:1-2.

[4] Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Kobetz Ma’amarim, Essay on Conviction.

[5] Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Introduction.

[6] Mesechet Kiddushin 31b.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Kiddushin 31b.

[8] Mesechet Kiddushin 30b.