Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Don’t Just Stand There

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Yisro, we learn of Kabbolas HaTorah. Following the makkos in Mitzrayim, the splitting of the sea at the Yam Suf, and the many miracles the Jewish people experienced there, Klal Yisroel appears primed to complete the transformation from a group of slaves to becoming the chosen Am Hashem.

It is most interesting that the parsha that deals with Matan Torah carries the name of Yisro and not something more descriptive of that world-changing event. It is also intriguing that the Torah interrupts its account of the Jews’ journey in the Midbar and their reaching the apex of their journey at Midbar Sinai to tell the seemingly tangential story of Yisro’s arrival.

The Torah should have continued where it left off at the end of Parshas Beshalach. In that parsha, we learned how the Jews had miraculously crossed the sea and were sustained by the heavenly bread. Parshas Beshalach tells how the Jews were able to beat back their arch-enemy Amalek, and then continued on the journey which took them to Midbar Sinai to receive the Torah. Why is the flow of the narrative interrupted with the story of Yisro’s arrival?

What lessons are implicit in the narrative of Yisro that justifies its insertion after the description of Kriyas Yam Suf, prior to Matan Torah?

The parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro - And Yisro Heard.” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Zevachim which asks what it was that Yisro heard that prompted him to come. The Gemara answers that he heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek. Upon hearing of those events, he left his home in Midyan and came to meet Moshe Rabbeinu in the Midbar.

Obviously, Yisro was not the only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek. One would imagine that there were few people who hadn’t heard about these earth-shattering events. Yet only one person was prompted enough to come see for himself what was going on. The Torah does not tell us that anyone other than Yisro came to join the Jewish people.

At the time of the splitting of the Red Sea, all the water in the world split. Whoever witnessed this miraculous suspension of nature was no doubt stunned by it.

People the world over wondered what had happened to make the water in their cups split. Surely it did not take long for word to get around that Hashem had split the Yam Suf to enable the Jews to escape from the Egyptians.

Everyone knew about it. Everyone must have been impressed. Some people might have even been inspired. Everyone had to have been talking about it. The entire world might have been nispa’el, but it was for a mere moment, not long enough for the miracle to have any impact. They quickly returned to their old habits. They reverted back to being exactly the way they were before they were awed by the power of G-d.

The only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek and was affected by the events enough to do something about it was Yisro. He was the only person who was so overcome that he was prepared to permit the experience to transform his life.

The pesukim recount: “Vayichad Yisro… - And Yisro rejoiced over all the goodness that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for the Jews and rescued them from Mitzrayim…And he said ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods… And he brought korbanos to Hashem…”

No one else came to the Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar saying, “Atah yodati ki gadol Hashem.” Everyone else remained tied to their pagan beliefs.

This is why the Torah interrupts the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s trip to Sinai to tell the tale of Yisro’s arrival. A prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is to let the experience of Hashem’s majesty so envelop the mind and the senses that it forces a person to draw closer to Torah and G-dliness.

Torah demands that a hisorerus last for longer than a day or two. Torah demands that we always seek to learn and grow. Torah demands that when we see unnatural occurrences in the world, we become spiritually aroused in a lasting way. Divine acts are intended to teach us the power of Hashem.

That was the lesson of Yisro and that is why his parsha was placed before Kabbolas HaTorah. Because it is not enough to stand up and take notice; we’ve got to do more.

The Torah recounts that Yisro noticed that Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching halachos and judging the Jewish people from morning until night. Yisro told Moshe that he thought that the system was improper and advised him to set up an arrangement where other people would adjudicate simple cases. Only the difficult questions would be posed to Moshe.

Yisro told Moshe that paskening all the shailos all day was too difficult for one person and would end up destroying him. He advised him to choose competent judges to whom he would teach the halachos so that they would be knowledgeable enough to teach them to others. Yisro told Moshe that it would also be helpful for the people if they wouldn’t have to wait all day on line for a chance to speak to him.

Yisro taught Moshe and Klal Yisroel the concept of sarei meios and sarei asaros. Yisro taught that everyone can learn from the local poseik. He taught that “Yivtach bedoro k’Shmuel b’doro.” He taught that it is not necessary to always run to Rav Chaim Ozer with your small questions. He taught that we have to respect the authority of our local rabbonim and poskim and not always seek to go over their heads running to the supreme authorities for every small issue.

Klal Yisroel is a nation of servitude. The leaders serve the people and the people serve their leaders. The people respect the leaders and the leaders respect the people. The mutual recognition of each other’s greatness coupled with an appreciation that the glory and greatness of Klal Yisroel lies in their acceptance of legitimate, qualified authority is what makes us great.

The Torah commands the Jews, “Som tosim alecha melech - You shall appoint for yourselves a king.” Concurrent with that is the admonition directed at the king: “Lebilti rum levavo.” The king is warned that he must not become imperious and conceited. He must remain a man of his people.

It was obvious that Moshe could not physically keep up with the demands of the people, but he respected them far too much to turn them away. Yisro’s advice was more for Klal Yisroel than for Moshe. His advice was directed at them. Their all-encompassing subservience to Moshe prevented them from contemplating turning elsewhere for guidance and direction. Yisro taught that asking smaller questions of people not as great as Moshe was not an affront to Moshe, but a credit to him.

Mesorah is the root of Yiddishkeit, as the Mishnah states, “Moshe kibeil Torah miSinai umesarah…” The equal degree of respect for Moshe and for those who transmitted his teachings was at the root of what Yisro taught.

In order for the Torah to be given at Sinai, the authority of talmidei chachomim had to be established. The Jews had to be admonished that they must revere every link in the chain transmitting the Torah from Moshe and Har Sinai.

There is another lesson to be learnt here. Yisro was a newcomer to the Bnei Yisroel’s camp. He wasn’t the first person to see what was happening to Moshe Rabbeinu. Everyone saw that Moshe was consumed all day long with dinei Torah. Anyone could have figured out that it wasn’t a normal situation. Anyone could have figured out a more affective system that would allow Moshe Rabbeinu to spend his time more productively. Anyone could have realized, as Yisro did, that Moshe would become exhausted from the grueling regimen and unceasing pressure, and that eventually the people would become fed up waiting for him.

And that is exactly our point. Everyone saw it. Anyone could have realized where it would lead, but no one did. It took Yisro to internalize what he saw and to do something constructive about it.

So often, the urge is to turn the other way and make believe we didn’t see. People don’t want to get involved. People want everyone to like them. People don’t want to get their hands dirty. But that is not the way of Torah and it is not the way to get a parsha in the Torah named for you and for you to achieve immortality.

Yisro saw, Yisro cared, and Yisro spoke up. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu accepted his proposal.

That is another reason that the parsha of Yisro’s arrival and advice was introduced to us before the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah. It is because Torah demands that when we see something wrong, we shouldn’t turn away as if we didn’t see it. We shouldn’t only be consumed with ourselves and minding our own business. Torah demands that when we see something which has the potential to embarrass, impose hardship or weaken our rabbeim, we speak up.

It is not enough to learn Torah and to be proficient in it. We have to care for others and look out for their benefit.

Yisro came, noticed and spoke up, thus saving Moshe from becoming physically exhausted. The Torah honored Yisro by naming the parsha for him. Yisro taught that everyone has the potential for greatness to the point of being worthy of having a parsha in the Torah named for him. One must care enough to notice what is going on around him, draw the right conclusions and attempt to remedy the situation.

Things happen and people get shaken up, but with the passage of time, most people revert to acting and thinking as they did before the disaster struck. Most people go back to being apathetic, callous, indifferent and unmoved.

We have to learn from Yisro and recognize that we each can improve the world around us. We are all capable of helping others and providing assistance in times of need. We can all help others get through the day. We can all bring meaning to the lives of the needy. If only we cared, if only we tried. If only we took Yisro’s example to heart.

So this Shabbos, when we stand in shul listening to the kriyah of Parshas Yisro, when we read the story of Yisro’s arrival, when we read how the Bnei Yisroel stood at Har Sinaik’ish echad b’lev echad” and said, “Naaseh venishmah,” let us resolve to do what we can in the spirit of the Torah, to spread goodness and kindness in the world, and to battle evil and the apathy that permits evil to fester and grow.

Yisro taught us that we can all make a difference. Let’s show that we learned the lesson.


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