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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Yisro’s Perspective

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Yisro’s first encounter with Moshe was as a judge in his capital murder trial. After the international tribunal sentenced Moshe to death for killing the Egyptian, Yisro returned home to Midyan only to find that Moshe had fled to Midyan as well.

Although he was considered the “Kohein” of Midyan, Yisro was not well liked by the locals. He was a spiritual seeker who had studied and rejected their form of idolatry. They hated him. When Yisro’s daughters were accosted at the well, the only person to help them was Moshe.

Yisro invited Moshe to his home. Rather than send him back to Egypt to die, Yisro put Moshe in a dungeon where he was secretly fed by Tziporah for ten years. After ten years, Yisro allowed Moshe and Tziporah to get engaged. He allowed the marriage on the condition that their first born son would be a priest to idolatry. Yisro did not allow Moshe to give his son a Bris Milah as long as they were in Midyan.

When Moshe retuned to Egypt to free the Jewish people he sent his wife and two sons back to Yisro. As Moshe debated Pharaoh, inspired the Jewish people and engineered the Exodus, Yisro and his family were far away and uninvolved in the city of Midyan.

Much later, when the Jews were finally travelling through the desert, Yisro decided to pay Moshe a visit. He came to the Jewish camp and identified himself, but the people on the outskirts of the camp would not let him in. He was not considered a friend of the Jewish people.

In desperation, Yisro shot arrows with messages into the Jewish camp. The first one said: “I am Your Father-in-law Yisro and I have come”, the second said “I have brought your wife”, and the third, “I have brought her two children as well”.

Moshe read the messages and decided to come out personally to greet Yisro. He was joined by Aharon and Nadav and Avihu and large entourage of Jewish people.  Moshe kissed and greeted his Father-in-law and invited him into his tent where he told him the stories of the past few months. Rashi explains that Moshe’s goal was to inspire Yisro and bring him closer to Hashem.

What caused Yisro to finally come and see Moshe? There is an argument in the Gemara. Some say that Yisro heard about the splitting of the sea and the victory against Amalek. Others say that he heard about the giving of the Torah.

The Ramban points out that the Jews were camped at the time near Har Ha’elokim (Har Sinai).  We know that Moshe chanced on the burning bush at Har Ha’elokim when he was tending Yisro’s flock, so Midyan and Har Ha’elokim were fairly close to one another. It is not unlikely that Yisro travelled back and forth between Midyan and the Jewish encampment. It is conceivable that Yisro actually came twice: once upon hearing about the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek, and again after the giving of the Torah.

II

The Medrash tells us that Yisro was not allowed to be present at the giving of the Torah because he had not been a slave in Egypt. The Jews had toiled with bricks and mortar while Yisro sat peacefully at home. He could not come now after the suffering was over to experience the joy of the giving of the Torah.

Moshe sent Yisro home. When the Torah was given, Yisro was not present but he felt the earth in Midyan shake. Together with other world leaders, he ran to Bilaam to find out exactly what was happening. Bilaam explained to the leaders that although the earth was shaking and G-d had appeared to the Jews, the world would not be destroyed. They had nothing to worry about. The world leaders were convinced that they would not be harmed and returned to their homes. Only Yisro could not return home. He was so impressed by the giving of the Torah that he returned immediately to the Jewish camp and became a Jew.

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains (Drashos 18) that the world leaders could not relate to the Torah because they could not understand why the Jews had accepted the Torah. The Jews had not been under duress or threatened with destruction, yet they agreed to keep 613 mitzvos. Only Yisro understood that the covenant of Har Sinai was the result of a very special relationship between Hashem and His people. Yisro was inspired by this relationship and it moved him to join the Jewish Nation.

III

One of the oddest aspects of Yisro’s relationship with the Jewish people was the advice that he gave to Moshe. After completely ignoring Moshe through the most tumultuous time of his life, Yisro had the confidence to tell Moshe that he was not teaching Torah properly.

Rather than allowing Moshe to remain as the sole transmitter of the Torah, Yisro set up a hierarchy of judges and decreed that only the most difficult of questions be brought to Moshe.

Initially, the Jewish people had not used the Yisro plan. They had insisted on going to Moshe with every single question. This is because the most important event in their life and the goal in all of their suffering was the giving of the Torah. They wanted nothing more than to draw out this process by continuing to learn from Moshe. They wanted more Matan Torah.

Yisro knew that the Jewish people did not need to depend on the process of Matan Torah. He was there because had been inspired just by hearing the stories and observing the relationship that the Jewish people had with Hashem. He was understood and admired the greatness of the Jewish people who had received the Torah from Hashem. It could be said that the Jewish people based their spirituality on Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), while Yisro was inspired by the Kabbolas Hatorah (the receiving of the Torah).

Yisro was able to point out that to the Jewish people that they had gained more than just knowledge at Har Sinai. They had actually received the Torah and that Torah was now within them. They each had a personal obligation to understand it and teach it. It was possible to judge a case and decide a halacha without consulting Moshe Rabbeinu.

IV

On Yom Kippur we compare Hashem to a glass blower who works patiently with a piece of glass. He develops a concept in his mind and guides the lump of glass in and out of the fire. He shapes it until it is perfect.

At any moment the glass blower could decide to stop working and leave the glass in its less than perfect state. He could even choose to give up in frustration and allow the glass to shatter. It is only a patient and dedicated glass blower who is able to see his concept through until the end. He heats and reheats and shapes and reshapes until the piece is perfect.

Yisro watched from the sidelines as Hashem worked patiently with the Jewish people. Sometimes He was shaping them and sometimes He seemed to be melting them back into shapelessness. He would make them larger and then allow them to contract. He would blow into them from of Himself and He would watch as they took shape. He made them hot and cold, magnificent and ugly. Finally, at Har Sinai, Hashem made the Jewish people into perfect pieces of art.

Yisro was able to look on from the outside and see the beautiful finished product. When the Jewish people felt like they were still a work in progress, being blown and shaped and guided and formed, Yisro was able to tell them that they looked beautiful and that they had finally absorbed the Torah and made it their own. They had absorbed Hashem’s Torah into their minds and souls.

V

We need to make our own Kabbolas Hatorah. Cultivating a relationship with Hahsem and receiving the Torah comes through hard work and, inevitably, through suffering. Hashem shapes us and molds us through our experiences and educates us through our learning. After hard work and years of connecting to Hashem, we have the ability to become walking Sifrei torah and to form a relationship with Hashem that is so strong that His will is our will and our will is His will. We can be given the gift of thinking our own Torah thoughts and of leading a life that is truly shaped by the Torah.

The giving at the Torah at Har Sinai was the most intimate bond that Hashem ever formed with a nation. The Jewish people were so used to the process of growth that they were not able to fully recognize its culmination. The nations of the world were also unable to recognize the greatness of the covenant because they simply had no appreciation for it.

It took an outsider and a spiritual seeker like Yisro to recognize our relationship for what it was.

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