Parshat Yitro

The giving of the Ten Commandments
Shemot (18: 1) (Robert Alter, trans.)

And Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard …

Robert Alter
Jethro: As Umberto Cassuto and others have noticed, this episode stands in neat thematic antithesis to the preceding one. After a fierce armed struggle with a hostile nation that Israel is enjoined to destroy, we have an encounter with a representative of another people, Midian, that is marked by harmonious understanding, mutual respect, and the giving of sage counsel.

For Robert Alter, the story of Jethro is a counterpoint to Amalek, showing a relationship of respect, benefit, and peace.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Why is Parshas Yisro named after a gentile? Would not it have been more appropriate to name the parashah that describes Matan Torah after Moshe Rabbeinu…The Torah wanted to give an introduction to Matan Torah, and the stories about Yisro constitute that introduction. What is it that we are supposed to glean from what we know about Yisro?

The Torah portion that describes the central event of the entire text – the revelation on Sinai – begins with a story about a convert. This must mean, Rabbi Wolbe tells us, something very important is going to be taught about receiving the Torah. What do you think might be the message of having a respected convert preface the receiving of the Torah?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
“Yisro heard” … This is the first concept that prefaces the receiving of the Torah: the ability to hear. … The ability to truly hear is no simple feat. … one needs to hear with his heart, not only his ears. Rashi tells us that Yisro had worshipped every idol in the entire world before he recognized his Creator. It was his drive for truth, coupled with a critical assessment of his findings, that propelled him to join Bnei Yisrael in the desert. … An astute person in pursuit of the truth will undoubtedly arrive at the truth. There are two traits key to receiving the Torah: the ability to hear with one’s heart, and a pursuit of the truth.

Describe what hearing with your heart means to you. Do you have examples from your life that you can share?

Rabbi Wolbe emphasizes a pursuit of the truth, with the capacity to critically evaluate what is learned. Why must a pursuit of truth be combined with critical evaluation?

Why isn’t pursuit of the truth enough, why do you also need to hear with your heart? Why wouldn’t hearing with your heart be enough?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz says that the Torah was given to be people with “one heart.” That means that the Torah cannot be received by individuals, but must be received by a community. How do you understand that idea? Note that the community includes Yitro, the convert from a different people. Does that shift your understanding of what community might mean?

Rabbi Michel Shmuessen understands the idea of “one heart” as meaning that the community must harmonize different views and perspectives — he uses an example of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel intermarrying even though they disagreed on appropriateness of certains kinds of levirate marriage. Why might receiving Torah demand the harmonizing of different views and perspectives?

Shemot (20: 18-20)
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain in smoke, and the people saw and they drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moses, “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for in order to test you God has come and in order that His fear be upon you, so that you do not offend.”

Shemot (19: 21-23)
And the priests, too, who come near to the Lord, shall consecrate themselves, lest the LORD burst forth against them.” And Moses said to the LORD, “The people will not be able to come up to Mount Sinai, for You Yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds to the mountain and consecrate it.'”

The verses seem contradictory. Fear, don’t fear. Come close to hear, but not too close. What might be Moses trying to communicate?

Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, Alter of Slabodka
Do not look to become better; rather look to become higher.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
When one elevates himself to a higher standard, petty issues and obsessions automatically fall away. After experiencing the revelations of Matan Torah, Bnei Yisrael would gain an entirely new perception of themselves and life in general.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
One of the hardest aspects of avodas Hashem is acknowledging where one stands and not biting off more than one can chew.

Might developing a new, different or higher perspective be frightening? Can you think of real-world or personal examples?

What does it mean to look to become higher, yet not bite off more than you can chew?

Does having new knowledge always mean having greater competence?

Can you grow without taking risks? How do you balance taking risks with not emotionally harming yourself?