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Yitro

This Issue's Halacha Article

Parshat Yitro

22 Shvat 5767

February 10, 2006

Vol.16 No.19

In This Issue:

It's Only a Couple of Names

by Rabbi Ezra Frazer

Parshat Yitro opens with Yitro arriving in the wilderness upon hearing about the great miracles that God had performed during the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim. After greeting him, Moshe proceeds to tell him about these miracles (Shemot 18:8). Moshe presumably added a greater level of detail to Yitro's knowledge of these events, prompting Yitro to gush with praise of God (18:10-11). Although the Torah does not fully explain whether this encounter left a lasting impact on Yitro, certain textual clues chart an interesting set of developments in Yitro's experience.

Yitro's title in the opening verse is "Chohein Midyan Chotein Moshe," "Priest of Midyan and father-in-law of Moshe," linking his name with both his past history as a pagan priest and his current relationship to Moshe. He retains the title "father-in-law of Moshe" throughout the first story of the Parsha - culminating with his offering sacrifices to God in 18:12 - while he is never again called "priest of Midyan." Starting with the end of 18:12, his first name disappears, and he remains "father-in-law of Moshe" for the rest of the story, as he counsels Moshe regarding the proper way to build a judiciary system and then departs for Midyan. The Or HaChaim (18:1-2) observes part of this shift in Yitro's titles, and suggests that the Torah is subtly praising Yitro; as a prominent Midyanite priest, he married off his daughter to a complete stranger, without worrying about his image as a priest. Moreover, by now visiting Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness and by praising their God for Yetziat Mitzrayim, Yitro demonstrates that he prefers being known by his son-in-law, Moshe, to his own lofty title of priest of Midyan. The Or HaChaim thus reads the words "VaYikach Yitro Chotein Moshe," "And Yitro the father-in-law of Moshe took" (18:2) homiletically to mean that Yitro took for himself the title "father-in law of Moshe" and all that it represents, while he rejected the aforementioned title of priest of Midyan and its pagan associations.

Yitro's titles are not the only ones that shed light on his spiritual development. The use of God's names in Chapter 18 adds further meaning to Yitro's character. In the Parsha's opening verse (VaYishma Yitro Chohein Midyan Chotein Moshe Eit Kol Asheir Asah Elokim LeMoshe UlYisrael Amo Ki Hotzi Hashem Et Yisrael MiMitzrayim) the objective narration refers to God with the more intimate name YKVK when describing His miracles, but the Gentile Yitro - while he has heard about these same miracles - knows God only through His less intimate name, Elokim. Upon hearing Moshe describe these events with the more intimate name (VaySaper Moshe LeChoteno Eit Kol Asher Hashem LePharoh UlMitzrayim), Yitro, too, learns to praise God with this name (Baruch Hashem Asheir Hitzil Etchem… Atah Yadati Ki Gadol Hashem MiKol Elokim). Surprisingly, though, the story reverts to the name Elokim for the rest of Chapter 18. While Yitro is proud of his son-in-law and is wowed by his son-in-law's God, Yitro nevertheless remains a foreigner, with a simple reading of this Parsha giving no indication that Yitro ever considered formal conversion or anything similar. He embodies God's values, but God will never be the God of him or of his people.

The final story of Chapter 18 drives home this point. Yitro successfully convinces Moshe to create a proper justice system, and Yitro demands high ethical standards for these judges, including the trait of fearing God. Here, too, Yitro uses the term for fearing God (Yirei Elokim) that is normally associated with the morality of virtuous Gentiles (e.g. Shemot 1:17, Iyov 1:1; see, however, Bereishit 22:12). Yitro thus represents high ethical standards, but he expresses no interest in changing his national affiliation.

The Torah offers one final hint of Yitro's character with the word Shalom (peace). This word appears only three times in Shemot, and all three relate to Yitro. He sent Moshe in peace to check on Bnei Yisrael when they were enslaved (4:18), he greets Moshe in peace in our Parsha (18:7), and his plan for a justice system brings peace to a nation that he does not intend to join, with the help of a God who will never be his own (18:23 "Im Et HaDavar HaZeh Taaseh VeTzivecha Elokim VeYachalta Amod VeGam Kol HaAm HaZeh Al Mekomo Yavo BeShalom).

Despite his seeming aloofness, Yitro made important, lasting contributions to the Jewish people. If an outsider can "add an extra Parsha to the Torah" (see Rashi 18:1 s.v. Yitro), then imagine what those who are "insiders" can do.

Greatly Difficult

by Ilan Griboff

In the beginning of this week's Parasha, when Yitro describes his plan regarding the national judicial system to Moshe, he tells him, "Kol HaDavar HaGadol Yaviu Eilecha," "Any great matter should be brought to Moshe" (Shemot 18:22). However, when the plan is put into action, the Torah says, "Et HaDavar HaKasheh Yeviun El Moshe," "Any difficult matter was brought to Moshe" (18:26). The Brisker Rav asks a seemingly apparent question: What is the difference between something "great" and something "difficult" that the Torah switches the word?

He answers by quoting Sanhedrin 2a which relates that the Beit Din HaGadol served two functions. The Beit Din would deal with matters which were too important for the lower courts, including cases regarding the Kohein Gadol, cases about false prophets, and war-time decisions. Such things are examples of what Yitro referred to as "great." However, Beit Din HaGadol also served another purpose, that of serving as the final authority when a regular case was too difficult for the lower courts to handle. Therefore, although these cases may not have been that important, they were still brought before Beit Din HaGadol, and are illustrations of "difficult" matters.

The Torah Temimah offers an alternative explanation. In the secular court system, items dealing with lesser amounts of money were brought before the lower courts and the matters dealing with larger amounts of money were brought before the higher courts. In the Jewish court system, however, the amount of money in question does not matter. The procedures for cases involving different amounts of money are the same; the cases brought to the higher courts were only those dealing with complicated and serious issues. When Yitro told Moshe to handle only the "great" cases, he was speaking from personal experience within his non-Jewish society where the larger and greater monetary cases were brought before the higher courts. However, while Moshe did in fact take Yitro's advice to heart, he implemented it using Jewish standards, choosing to take on all of the difficult and serious issues, regardless of the value of the claim.

Throughout life, pressing issues arise that deal with every aspect of one's daily functioning. Such issues must be taken care of expeditiously no matter what type of quandary it is. By tackling all problems head-on and not shirking our duties, perhaps such difficulties will not recur in the future.

Reality Check

by Josh Rubin

In Parashat Yitro, we read about Yitro, Moshe's father in-law, joining Bnei Yisrael as they travel in the desert. We see the miracles that Hashem performed for Bnei Yisrael which pushed Yitro to choose the path of Judaism.

Many commentaries argue about the issue of chronology in this Parasha, with each side bringing proofs to support its position. Though it would make sense for the Torah to be in chronological order, it is odd that Yitro mentions Yetziat Mitzrayim without mentioning Kriat Yam Suf, which happened right afterward. The Parasha begins, "Yitro, the priest of Midyan, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that God did for Moshe and for Bnei Yisrael, His people- that Hashem took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt." The Parasha then records that Yitro traveled to the Israelite camp to live with Moshe, and that Moshe "told his father-in-law everything that Hashem had done to Paroh and Egypt for Bnei Yisrael's sake- all the trouble that had befallen them on the way- and that Hashem had rescued them." Next, the Torah explains that Yitro "rejoiced over all the good that Hashem had done for Bnei Yisrael" by saying, "Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods."

It appears that Yitro heard two separate things about Bnei Yisrael, each of which elicited a distinct reaction. First he heard about the exodus from Egypt, after which he swiftly runs to accompany Bnei Yisrael. After hearing about "all the goodness that Hashem did for Bnei Yisrael," he rejoices. What exactly is this "goodness" that Yitro heard about? Rashi says that Moshe told him about the splitting of the sea, the miraculous victory in the war against Amalek, the Mann, and even the water well that accompanied the nation.

The issue that truly requires an explanation is why Yitro rejoices only after being informed of these other miracles, and not when he first hears about the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Rashi teaches us that Yitro must have experimented with every possible form of religion. If he hadn't, he could not have said, "Now I know Hashem is greater than all the gods." All of Yitro's life is surrounded by fantasy. He creates his own "gods" in order to solve his problems, gods that obviously don't exist. However, when he hears about a God who has performed an unprecedented miracle (Rashi explains that the borders of Egypt were sealed, and not one person had ever managed to escape), he knows that he has found something authentic. When Yitro hears that a nation of 600,000 people just walked out of Egypt, he recognizes Hashem's omnipotence. When he is assured of this reality through the countless miracles that occur, he celebrates. Yitro finally encounters authenticity.

When people are faced with problems, they try to avoid them by creating an alternate reality in order to preserve their happiness. This alternate world can last only for so long before reality hits. With his new perspective on God, Yitro was able to live out the rest of his life in happiness, and if we can follow Yitro's example, we can too.

-Adapted from a Dvar Torah by Rabbi Uri Pillchowski

The Ultimate High

by Daniel Weintraub

Parashat Yitro is one of the few Parshiot that is named after somebody. But who is this Yitro after whom the Parasha is named? Why did he merit to have the Parasha, which includes Matan Torah, named after him?

The Gemara (Sotah 11a) states that Paroh had three main advisors: Bilam, Iyov, and Yitro. Whenever Paroh wanted to do anything, he would consult with his advisors. When Paroh wanted to harm the Jews in some way, he asked for his advisors' suggestions. Yitro had compassion, and said that he didn't think that Paroh should harm the Jews. As a result of his outspokenness, he had to give up his high position and flee from Paroh.

At the beginning of Parashat Yitro, the Pasuk states, "VaYishma Yitro Chohein Midyan Chotein Moshe Eit Kol Asheir Asah Elokim LeMoshe UlYisrael Amo," "Yitro, the priest of Midyan, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that Hashem did for Moshe and for Yisrael, His nation" (18:1). Rashi poses a question on this Pasuk: What did Yitro hear? Rashi explains that Yitro heard about the miraculous splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek, which led him to convert to Judaism.

This raises another question. Does someone who relinquished his high-ranking position in order to save the Jews really need to see the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek in order to decide to which nation he should really belong? After all, we should have Emunah Peshutah, "simple faith," in Hashem. It is therefore hardly a great or noteworthy accomplishment for one to "jump on the bandwagon" and join a nation for which miracles have just been performed (as the Eirev Rav did). Why did Yitro come to the Jews now and not earlier?

An answer emerges from the theme of the war with Amalek. Previously, Yitro was the one who had had the compassion to try to protect the Jews. When he saw that Hashem was also clearly assisting the Jews by helping them defeat Amalek, he was drawn to the nation because he saw that Hashem also had compassion for it.

When Yitro encountered Bnei Yisrael, he continued to have compassion for the Jews. He saw that Moshe was overworked with judging the nation, so he said, "VeAtah Techeze MiKol HaAm Anshei Chayil Yirei Elokim Anshei Emet Sone'ei Vatza," "You shall take from among the entire nation men of accomplishment, God-fearing people, men of truth, who despise corruption" (18:21). Yitro told Moshe to get help by appointing a very noble set of people to assist him in making judgments for the Jews. Later, the Pasuk states, "VaYishma Moshe LeKol Choteno VaYaas Kol Asher Amar," "Moshe heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said" (18:24). Moshe seems to have had no problem fulfilling the request of Yitro. But in describing Moshe's course of action, the Torah records, "VaYivchar Moshe Anshei Chayil MiKol Yisrael," "Moshe chose men of accomplishment from among all Yisrael" (18:25). First it says that Moshe listened to exactly what his father-in-law said, but then Moshe implemented only part of what he was told. Yitro said that he should find people who have accomplishment, fear God, are truthful, and despise corruption, but when Moshe actually carried it out, he seemingly chose only men of accomplishment. Was there nobody in Bnei Yisrael that met Yitro's higher criteria? The Jews were at their highest level ever, and they were about to receive the Torah!

When Yitro encountered Bnei Yisrael, he continued to have compassion for the Jews. He saw that Moshe was overworked with judging the nation, so he said, "VeAtah Techeze MiKol HaAm Anshei Chayil Yirei Elokim Anshei Emet Sone'ei Vatza," "You shall take from among the entire nation men of accomplishment, God-fearing people, men of truth, who despise corruption" (18:21). Yitro told Moshe to get help by appointing a very noble set of people to assist him in making judgments for the Jews. Later, the Pasuk states, "VaYishma Moshe LeKol Choteno VaYaas Kol Asher Amar," "Moshe heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said" (18:24). Moshe seems to have had no problem fulfilling the request of Yitro. But in describing Moshe's course of action, the Torah records, "VaYivchar Moshe Anshei Chayil MiKol Yisrael," "Moshe chose men of accomplishment from among all Yisrael" (18:25). First it says that Moshe listened to exactly what his father-in-law said, but then Moshe implemented only part of what he was told. Yitro said that he should find people who have accomplishment, fear God, are truthful, and despise corruption, but when Moshe actually carried it out, he seemingly chose only men of accomplishment. Was there nobody in Bnei Yisrael that met Yitro's higher criteria? The Jews were at their highest level ever, and they were about to receive the Torah!

In reality, Yitro was actually referring to people like himself, people that, when they sense that something isn't right, aren't afraid to speak up and offer their suggestions. Though nobody perfectly fit Yitro's description, Moshe understood his general idea and did everything that Yitro had wanted, choosing people who would follow in Yitro's footsteps.

Once Bnei Yisrael understood that they must all be like Yitro and stand up for what is right, they merited receiving the Torah. Because of this, the Parasha in which we receive the Torah is named after Yitro, who taught us this all-important tenet of faith.

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