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Parshas Yisro - Vol. 11, Issue 17
Compiled by Oizer Alport
After hearing about the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jewish people at the Red Sea and in the battle against Amalek, Yisro came to convert and join the Jewish people, bringing Moshe's wife Tzipporah and two children together with him. Why did Moshe wait for Yisro and his family to come on their own to rejoin him instead of sending a messenger inviting and encouraging them to come?
The Alter of Novhardok explains that when it comes to "kiruv" (Jewish outreach), a person will only be successful if the other party is open and prepared to hearing what he has to say. Before miraculously humiliating the false prophets of the Baal at Har HaCarmel, Eliyahu HaNavi first rebuked the Jews (Melochim 1 18:21), "How much longer will you continue straddling both sides of the fence?"
The Alter explains that even though Eliyahu was about to perform open miracles which would result in a tremendous Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem's name), he understood that if the people weren't in the right mindset, his efforts would be in vain. He therefore prepared the people to be swayed and influenced by delivering words of chastisement and rebuke.
Similarly, Moshe was aware that the entire world heard of the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. He recognized that if Yisro wasn't inspired to come on his own, that would be an indication that he wasn't open and prepared to be influenced, and there would unfortunately be no purpose in sending for him.
Rashi notes that when the Jewish people arrived at Mount Sinai, they encamped k'ish echad b'lev echad - like one person with one heart in a beautiful demonstration of national achdus (unity). The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh adds that this was a necessary prerequisite for receiving the Torah. However, it is difficult to understand what makes this so unique, as Rashi himself writes in last week's parsha (14:10) that the Egyptians pursued the Jews to the Red Sea with a similar display of harmony - b'lev echad k'ish echad.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner explains that there is a fundamental difference between the achdus of the Jews and that of other nations, which is subtly hinted to by Rashi. The Jewish people are intrinsically connected as part of one large entity, whereas the members of other nations are fundamentally disassociated and out for their own personal interests. Only when their individual desires coincide do they team up in pursuit of a common goal, but not because of any deep bond. As soon as their goals inevitably diverge, they will go their separate ways.
A close reading of Rashi reveals that while he used the same expression to describe the Jews at Mount Sinai and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, he carefully reversed the order to make this very point. The Egyptians didn't have any true unity. For a brief moment, they were united with one heart (b'lev echad) in a common desire to recapture their fleeing slaves, and they therefore pursued them as one (k'ish echad). The Jewish people, on the other hand, are intrinsically bound together as one person (k'ish echad), and one person automatically has only one heart (b'lev echad).
In the list of people who are prohibited from working on Shabbos, the Vilna Gaon notes that each of them begins with a connecting letter "vov" except for the servant. He therefore suggests a brilliant and original way of re-reading our verses based on a Gemora in Berachos (35b). The Gemora teaches that when a Jew does Hashem's will, his work will be done for him by others, but when he transgresses Hashem's will, he will have to do his own work.
We can now interpret as follows: a person who only remembers Shabbos in his mind (Zachor es yom haShabbos l'kadsho) but doesn't observe its laws in action will have to work hard, as the verse continues: Sheishes yamim ta'avod v'asisa kol melachtecha - six days he shall work and do all of his labor.
On the other hand, if a person doesn't merely think about Shabbos but actually keeps its laws and makes it Holy (V'yom hashevi'i Shabbos l'Hashem Elokecha), he and his family members won't even have to work during the week - lo sa'aseh kol melacha atah u'vincha u'vitecha. If so, one may ask, how will he possibly live and who will take care of him if he and his family never do any work? To allay that concern, the Torah replies that there will be others - such as servants and foreigners - to do his work for him, as the connecting "vov" is left out to indicate that this is a new list and a separate category - avdecha v'amascha uv'hemtecha v'geircha asher bisharecha.
Parshas Yisro is one of the most well-known and dramatic portions in the Torah. It contains the details of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which cemented our relationship as Hashem's chosen nation. While one would expect the parsha containing such an important and lofty event in Jewish history to end on an inspirational note, it instead ends anticlimactically with the seemingly mundane commandment to build the Altar in the Temple using a ramp instead of steps. Why was this mitzvah selected to conclude the parsha of the giving of the Torah, and what deeper lesson does it convey?
A number of commentators answer by pointing out that the difference between ascending a ramp and climbing up stairs is that it is possible to for an object which is placed on the steps to rest and stand still, whereas doing so on the ramp will cause it to fall down. In other words, the Torah concludes the parsha by symbolically teaching us that the key to climbing in our service of Hashem is to view spiritual growth as a continual process from which we can never take a break, as doing so will result in an immediate decline in our spiritual level.
Parshas Re'eh begins, "See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse" (Devorim 11:26). The Seforno points out that there is no neutral middle option, only the two extremes of blessing and curse. He explains that the Jewish people are not like the other nations of the world, who are often content with mediocrity. The Torah tells us that if at any time we are not actively choosing to do mitzvos to earn Hashem's blessings, we will automatically be in the category of curses, as there is no middle ground.
The yetzer hara (evil inclination) tries to prevent us from learning Torah and doing mitzvos. After it has failed, one of its tactics is to try to convince us that we have already accomplished so much that we can take it easy and rest on our laurels. Therefore, the parsha in which we received the Torah ends by reminding us that we can never become stagnant and complacent in our service of Hashem, which will cause us to fall down the ramp and wipe out our good accomplishments, an insight which should strengthen and encourage us to consistently strive to grow higher and higher.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (18:1) that upon hearing of the splitting of the Yam Suf and the battle against Amalek, Yisro came to join Moshe and the Jewish people in the wilderness. Why did he wait to hear about the war with Amalek instead of coming immediately after the miracles at the Yam Suf, and why did a war impress him more than all of the miracles at the Yam Suf? (Yirah V'Daas)
2) Yisro blessed Hashem for the miracles that He performed in saving the Jews from the Egyptians (18:10). The Gemora in Berachos (54a) derives from here that a person who sees a place where a miracle was performed for Jews says a blessing. As this blessing is said only when seeing the actual place where the miracle occurred, why did Yisro recite it in the middle of the wilderness? (Sefer HaEshkol, Meiri and Maharsha Berachos 54a, Shaar HaTzion 218:17)
3) At what time of the day were the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) spoken, and how long did it last? (Pirkei D'Rav Eliezer 46, Ayeles HaShachar 20:1)
4) The Gemora in Kesuvos (103a) derives from a seemingly superfluous letter in 20:12 that a person is required to honor not only his father and mother, but also his older brother. Does this obligation also apply to one's older sister? (Bereishis Rabbah 74:4, Shu"t Shevus Yaakov 3:76, Torah Temimah, Morah Horim U'Kevodam pg. 100)
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