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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: A father-in-law who wanted to know the law
What is the significance to mention that Jethro came out to the Wilderness? Why is this story told out of sequence? We can gain important lessons by studying why parts of the Torah have been written out of chronological order. What really prompted him to run out into the Wilderness to meet Moses at Mount Sinai? If the whole world heard of the exodus from Egypt, why does the Torah need to repeat that Jethro heard it? Jethro wanted to learn all that G'd was teaching the Jewish people. The drive to seek the truth gives us the power to move from the complacency and comfort of our daily routines. "If there is no learning of Torah, there is no proper conduct (derech eretz). If there is no proper conduct, there is no learning of Torah". Whoever wants to learn the truth of the Torah must be ready to emulate Jethro. No matter how great one may be, one must always be ready to listen to others. Jethro's advice to Moses included six points. Jethro advised Moses to teach the Jewish people to care about each other and to extend themselves to society, even beyond their obligation. We must try to be like Jethro and Moses before we can accept the Torah properly. If we have made mistakes, when confronted with the truth, we should be prepared like Moses to change our daily routines no matter where the advice to change comes from.
In this week's Parasha it says (Shemos 18:5): "And Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to Moses with his sons and wife, to the Wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of G'd". Numerous questions arise from this passage. First of all, why does the Torah need to mention that Jethro came out to the Wilderness? The Torah already related that Moses was travelling with the Jewish people in the Wilderness, so it would have been sufficient to say that he came to Moses. Secondly, the Talmud (Avodah Zorah 24a) discusses whether this incident took place before or after the revelation at Mount Sinai. According to the opinion that Jethro came after the giving of the Torah, why does the Torah relate it at this point out of its historical sequence?
In order to answer the above questions we must first of all establish that the Torah is not a history book. There are numerous incidents in the Torah that are not written in historical sequence. Rather, the Torah is G'd's manual for living. Its purpose is to provide us with lessons on how to live and to get the most out of our life. We can gain important lessons by studying why parts of the Torah have been written out of chronological order. In order to understand why the Torah writes about Jethro prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, we must first analyze why he came out in person to meet his son-in-law in the Wilderness.
Jethro very prominent
Jethro was a very prominent leader of Midian who lacked nothing. The obvious question is, why would such an important person travel into the Wilderness to meet his son-in-law? Why did he not wait for Moses to come to him? At least we would expect Jethro to send a chariot to pick up his son-in-law. What really prompted him to run out into the Wilderness to meet Moses at Mount Sinai?
The awe and fear of everyone
In last week's Parasha (Beshalach), we read the Song at the Sea, where it says (Shemos 15:14-16): "Peoples heard - they were agitated; terror gripped the dwellers of Philistia. Then the leaders of Edom were confounded, trembling gripped the powers of Moab, all the dwellers of Canaan dissolved." The whole world heard about the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. They were all in awe and full of fear after hearing how the Sea swallowed the entire Egyptian army. Yet in this week's Parasha it says (Shemos 18:1): "And Jethro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard everything that G'd did to Moses and to Israel, His people - that G'd had taken Israel out of Egypt". If the whole world heard of the exodus from Egypt, why does the Torah need to repeat that Jethro heard it?
Jethro wanted to learn
The answer may be that the Torah wants to emphasize why Jethro journeyed into the Wilderness. He did not come just to reunite his son-in-law with his family. This could have been accomplished without Jethro coming out. When Jethro heard about the events of the exodus he wanted to experience firsthand having a direct relationship with G'd. He wanted to learn all that G'd was teaching the Jewish people. This becomes apparent when we analyze Jethro's own words as he arrived in the Wilderness (Shemos 18:10-11): "Jethro said, 'Blessed is G'd, Who has rescued you from under the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh. Now I know that G'd is the greatest of all gods, for in the very matter in which [the Egyptians] had conspired against them …!'" How did he know that G'd is greater than all idols? The Mechilta explains that Jethro had tried every religion and had worshipped every deity known to mankind. In his eagerness to learn the truth about life, he left no leaf unturned. After trying everything, Jethro finally came to the conclusion that G'd is the only real Master of truth.
Drive to seek the truth
The whole world heard of the events about the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. But only Jethro came out to greet Moses and the Jewish people in the Wilderness, for he was seeking the truth. Such a person will be affected by what he sees and hears. That is the difference between Jethro and the rest of the non-Jewish world, and that is why he was willing to leave the comfort of his prestigious life to accept the truth in the Wilderness. While the rest of the world soon forgot about the greatest open display of G'd's miracles, Jethro ran to be part of the experience. Many people may experience miracles, but they only have a lasting effect on those who honestly and objectively seek to discover the truth. The drive to seek the truth gives us the power to move from the complacency and comfort of our daily routines. A person who desires to learn the truth must be ready to go wherever his search takes him, even into the desolate wilderness. This kind of earnest desire is a necessary prerequisite for anyone who wants to study the truth of Torah and serve G'd.
The Mishnah states (Pirkei Avos 3:21): "Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: If there is no learning of Torah, there is no proper conduct (derech eretz). If there is no proper conduct, there is no learning of Torah". It is not possible to be a truly good person if one is ignorant of Torah. On the other hand, it is not sufficient to be a Torah scholar if one does not practice the proper conduct that the Torah teaches. Torah knowledge and proper conduct must go hand in hand. Jethro strived to be a good person who acted with proper conduct. He realized that he had to fill the void of truth in his life and was ready even to go out into the Wilderness in order to learn Torah.
We can now understand why the Torah relates Jethro's coming out to the Wilderness before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, even though it is not in chronological order. G'd wants us to learn this lesson: Whoever wants to learn the truth of the Torah must be ready to emulate Jethro. As it says in another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (6:4): "This is the way of the Torah, eat bread with salt, and drink water in a small measure, sleep on the ground, and live a life of deprivation, and toil in Torah." It may not come to such an extreme, but ideologically one must be ready to give up the comforts of life to study the truth of the Torah. This is one lesson we must learn from Jethro.
But there is more. Jethro was not just a seeker of truth. He was also a man of action. When Jethro saw Moses making a mistake, he did not hesitate to correct him. As it says (Shemos 18:13-14): "And it was on the next day and Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood by Moses from the morning until the evening. And Moses' father-in-law saw everything that he was doing to the people, and he said, "What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening?" The Torah continues to relate that Jethro suggested how Moses should correct his method of judging the Jewish people. Moses accepted Jethro's advice and changed the judicial system. From this we learn a second lesson how Torah knowledge must go hand in hand with proper conduct. No matter how great one may be, one must always be ready to listen to others. One should not look at who is talking, but rather listen to what is being said. Moses had received the Torah directly from G'd. He was the greatest prophet of all times and he spoke to G'd face to face. Yet Moses was also the humblest person who ever lived. When confronted with the truth of Jethro's advice, Moses immediately changed his ways.
When Jethro advised Moses how to set up a judicial system he also said (Shemos 18:20): "You shall caution them regarding the decrees and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the path in which they must walk and the deeds that they must do". The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) teaches that this advice included six points: (1) "you shall caution them" refers to teaching someone a means of earning a living; (2) "the path" refers to acts of loving kindness; (3) "in which" refers to burying the dead; (4) "they must walk" refers to visiting the sick; (5) "the deeds" refers to justice; and (6) "they must do" refers to going beyond the letter of the law.
Beyond their obligation
The Chofetz Chaim points out that Jethro's advice to Moses was that at the same time as Moses cautions the Jewish people regarding the decrees and the teachings of the Torah, he should also teach them how to make a living and how to conduct themselves in a proper way. The obvious question is what has this got to do with judging people? Explains the Chofetz Chaim, Jethro advised Moses to teach the Jewish people to care about each other and to extend themselves to society, even beyond their obligation. If everyone conducted themselves in such a way Moses would have an easy time leading and judging them. But if everyone only cared about themselves then there would be no end to the quarrels and disputes.
Be like Jethro and Moses
This is why the story of Jethro precedes the giving of the Torah. G'd wants us to understand that we must try to be like Jethro and Moses before we can accept the Torah properly. We must seek truth and be willing to change and we must realize that proper conduct goes hand in hand with learning Torah. However, only when we study Torah can we truly know how to practice proper conduct.
Be prepared to change
We all have the ability to be seekers of truth and amend our ways. If truth is only available in the Wilderness, we should be prepared to leave the comfort of our daily routine to run out there like Jethro. If we have made mistakes, when confronted with the truth, we should be prepared like Moses to change our daily routines no matter where the advice to change comes from. This is an ongoing procedure, where we constantly try to grow in our study of Torah and proper conduct. In this way, we will, G'd willing, merit the concluding words of Jethro (Shemos 18:23): "And you will be able to endure and also this entire people will come to their place in peace."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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