Yitro's Yearning

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

“Yitro… heard everything that God did to Moshe and to Israel… that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt… And Yitro came to Moshe… to the Wilderness…” While the Torah says that Yitro heard everything Hashem had done for Israel under the general category of taking them out of Egypt, Rashi asks for the details. What specific events prompted Yitro now to travel from a very comfortable home in Midyan to join Moshe and Bnei Yisroel in the Wilderness, specifically to learn Torah? Rashi specifies two events that led to Yitro’s decision. He heard about the splitting of the Sea and of the battle against Amalek.

What was so inspirational about these two events, even more inspirational than the plagues inflicted upon Egypt, that led to Yitro’s decision, asks Rabbi Birnbaum in Bekorei Shemo. Interestingly, the Medrash offers three events, the two cited by Rashi and a third, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Why does Rashi cite only two events, seeming to link them together rather than as separate opinions?

We begin our discussion with an esoteric idea presented by Rabbi Chayim Menachem Wein in Gan Naul. Rabbi Wein interprets the verse, “My Beloved went down to His garden to the perfumed orchard,” in Shir Hashirim as a parable that explains how Bnei Yisroel merit pure souls from other nations to convert to Judaism, specifically citing Yitro here and Rachav in Joshua’s era. In the parable, a king has a beloved son for whom he plants a wonderful garden. When the prince obeys his father, the king travels the world searching for the most beautiful plant. This plant he then transplants into this special garden. However, when the prince misbehaves, the king uproots some of the beautiful plants. Similarly, when Bnei Yisroel follow Hashem’s ways, we create a positive energy that draws these wonderful converts to join our ranks.

This parable explains why Yitro was drawn to join Bnei Yisroel at this time. When Hashem redeemed Bnei Yisroel from Egypt, Bnei Yisroel had not yet done anything on their own to create this energy; it was purely Hashem’s chessed and promise to our forefathers that had redeemed them. However, when Bnei Yisroel jumped into the waters of the Sea, we displayed our faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and when we battled Amalek, we raised our eyes to follow Moshe’s uplifted hands heavenward, again displaying our complete faith in Hashem. These actions acted as a magnet that drew Yitro to Bnei Yisroel. Rachav too, who eventually became Joshua’s wife, was also drawn to convert after hearing of the splitting of the Sea.

How could Yitro and Rachav remain loyal to Hashem and to Bnei Yisroel? Rabbi Kofman answers this question with the third event mentioned in the medrash, our acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai. Our acceptance of Torah at Sinai created the glue that enabled these souls to cling to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Whenever there is a spiritual awakening in the world, continues Rabbi Kofman, it impacts not only the actual witnesses to the event, but also all others who are searching for that connection. If this is true about a convert, how much more so is it true about Bnei Yisroel. Even if we feel we are not worthy, a pathway has been opened to draw us closer to Hashem as well.

Yitro felt a special message conveyed by our exodus from Mitzrayim, writes Rabbi Eisenberger in Mesilot Bilvovom based on the Eretz Tzvi . Yitro himself, as a priest in Midyan, was surrounded by impurity. If Hashem could extract Bnei Yisroel from the deepest depravity of Egypt, then perhaps Yitro himself could leave the impurities that were constraining him in Midyan. But if his ear was not open to hearing the message of the exodus, Yitro’s heart would not have been stirred to to go to Bnei Yisroel.

Rabbi Eisenberger relates that our sages debate which sense is more powerful, seeing or hearing. While seeing is crucial, hearing is a deeper experience, says Rabbi Yonah. A quick email (or text) to relay some good news is not as powerful as a phone call or visit. Hearing impacts the listener and inspires him to integrate the information and act on it.

When Bnei Yisroel were in Mitzrayim, both their ability to hear and their ability to speak were enslaved. They couldn’t initially hear the message of redemption Moshe brought them, and their cries were wordless. The very name of the holiday reveals the depth of the servitude; upon redemption, Bnei Yisroel were able to experience a Pe-sach, a mouth that can speak. {How many tyrannical despots worldwide have started by silencing their opponents, keeping their voices from being heard? CKS]

Hashem opened the pathways of listening at Yam Suf/The Reed Sea. All the nations heard, they trembled, but they did not act. Only Yitro was so impacted by what he heard that he acted, seeking to join this Godly people. Amalek also heard, and they acted according to their character. Amalek acted to destroy the certainty of God’s providence.

We all hear many inspirational things, but we tend to let the inspiration pass. Rabbi Frand asks us to take a lesson from Yitro. When we hear something that inspires us, we should take immediate action or the moment will pass unfulfilled.

Yitro had already wanted to come to Bnei Yisroel just after hearing of our exodus from Egypt, writes the Tosher Rebbe in Avodat Avodah. He had already renounced idolatry. Yitro was now waiting for a sign for the proper time to convert. When the yam/sea split, Yitro understood that the fifty gates of wisdom, of the yam, were opened. But Yitro did not yet feel himself worthy of joining Bnei Yisroel. Then, when he saw that Bnei Yisroel going into battle against Amalek, he understood that each of us has our personal Amalek to fight to be worthy of receiving the Torah. Bnei Yisroel’s battle was a battle of Teshuvah for the doubt in Hashem that Amalek instigated. Yitro had also struggled to renounce his doubts and his idol worship. Now, hearing of Bnei Yisroel’s victory, he felt he too had earned the right to join Bnei Yisroel and study Torah.

Although technically we received the Torah over 3,000 years ago, our prayers bear witness that we in fact receive the Torah anew each day, continues the Tosher Rebbe. Each day we ask Hashem to give us the wisdom to learn and understand the Torah. But we receive this gift of Torah as a reward for our daily battles against our personal yetzer horo, our personal Amalek.

Why did these two events spur Yitro to take action, asks Rabbi Schrage Grosbard. Yitro realized that even the most awe inspiring experience does not guarantee lasting results. Bnei Yisroel at the Sea saw greater spiritual visions than even the Prophet Ezekiel who saw God’s heavenly throne with the ministering angels. Yet shortly thereafter, they asked,”Is Hashem truly within us or not?” Yitro realized he must seize the moment to come to Bnei Yisroel, for that enthusiasm may leave him if he doesn’t act on it in the moment.

In fact, as the Torah states, this battle with Amalek, both externally and internally, is a battle “from generation to generation,” reminds us Rabbi Schlesinger in Eileh Hadvarim. That voice of doubt constantly tries to disturb us. It is only through the help of a mentor, a rabbi and teacher, that we can overcome this lapse in faith. That is the greatest joy, the resolution of doubt. Yitro wanted to retain his certainty in Hashem. He knew that if he stayed in Midyan, that certainty could easily dissipate. He went to the Wilderness, to Moshe, his Rebbe, and Bnei Yisroel, to secure a mentor.

The truth is, writes the Netivot Shalom, that no matter what proof exists, there will still be deniers. The whole world quaked when the Sea split, yet Amalek sought to deny and eradicate God. [Amalek are the precursors to Holocaust deniers. CKS] We believe not because of miracles and proofs, but because Hashem declared, “I am the Lord your God.” It’s not about logic or reason, and our observance of mitzvoth, whether difficult or easy, is based on Hashem’s command, not on our understanding.

Rabbi Wolbe brings a beautiful new dimension to our discussion. Rabbi Wolbe writes that Yitro saw something unique in the miracles at the splitting of the Sea. Yitro saw in the drowning of the Egyptians an exactitude that he had never witnessed before. Hashem had punished the Egyptians measure for measure for their oppression of Bnei Yisroel. As the Egyptians had drowned the Jewish babies, the Egyptians were now punished with being themselves drowned.

At the war with Amalek, Yitro saw yet another reason to join Bnei Yisroel. Here he saw a stark contrast between Amalek and Bnei Yisroel, writes Rabbi Pliskin. Amalek, with no basic values, was ready and willing to annihilate Bnei Yisroel, who posed no danger to them, for no reason. It was pure, baseless hate. Bnei Yisroel, with Hashem in their lives, lived with a humanitarian value system.

Rabbi Zeidel Epstein cites a medrash that illustrates this point. The medrash tells us that there was not one but twelve paths through the water, a separate path for each tribe. Yet the walls between the tribes were transparent, had windows, so that the people in each tribe could see each other. Hashem understood that Bnei Yisroel would not be content with their own safety unless they could be assured that their brothers in the other tribes were also safely crossing the Sea. Yitro saw how the Jews cared for each other, how they later camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, not only with one heart, vayichan in the singular, but also how they wanted to find chen/favor in each other’s eyes. In this, Bnei Yisroel mirrored the sensitivity of angels who ask each other for permission to join in sanctifying Hashem.

Today, we demonstrate our caring for each other by doing acts of chessed, especially during quarantine, shopping for each other, checking on each other, and especially and always using our freed mouth to pray for each other to the God Who always hears us, for we know that the only way we can be whole is by striving to make others whole as well.