Parshat Yitro

Parshat Yitro

In this cycle through the Torah we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.

Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, joins the Israelites. He provides Moses much needed advice, which Moses listens to and adopts. The people move to the Sinai and encounter Mount Sinai. There they receive a direct experience of revelation from God. The ten commandments or utterances also are introduced to the people at this moment.

Shemot 18:1

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

For Thursday night Ein Yaakov, we will look at Zevachim 116a:21

“Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). What tiding did he hear that he came and converted? Rabbi Yehoshua says: He heard about the war with Amalek, as it is written adjacent to the verses that state that Yitro came: “And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exodus 17:13).

Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i says: He heard about the giving of the Torah and came. As when the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the voice of the Holy One, Blessed be He, went from one end of the world to the other end, and all of the kings of the nations of the world were overcome with trembling in their palaces and recited a song of praise, as it is stated: “The voice of the Lord makes the hinds to calve…and in his palace all say: Glory” (Psalms 29:9), i.e., each king in his own palace recited songs of praise to God.

At that time, all of the kings gathered around Balaam the wicked, who was the greatest gentile prophet, and said to him: What is the tumultuous sound, i.e., the loud noise, that we have heard? Perhaps a flood is coming to destroy the world, as it is stated: “The Lord sat enthroned at the flood” (Psalms 29:10)? Balaam said to them: “The Lord sits as King forever” (Psalms 29:10), which means that the Holy One, Blessed be He, already took an oath after the flood never to bring a flood to the world, as it is stated: “And the waters shall no more become a flood” (Genesis 9:15).

The kings said to him: He will not bring a flood of water, as he vowed, but perhaps He will bring a flood of fire, as in the future the Lord will punish the nations with fire, as it is stated: “For by fire will the Lord contend, and by His sword with all flesh; and the slain of the Lord shall be many” (Isaiah 66:16). Balaam said to them: He already took an oath that He will not destroy all flesh in any manner, as it is stated: “To destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15). Therefore, there will not be a flood of fire.

They asked: And if so, what is this tumultuous sound that we have heard? Balaam said to them: He has a good and precious item in His treasury, that was hidden away with Him for 974 generations before the world was created, and He seeks to give it to his children, as it is stated: “The Lord will give strength to His people” (Psalms 29:11). “Strength” is a reference to the Torah, which is the strength of the Jewish people. Immediately, they all began to say: “The Lord will bless His people with peace” (Psalms 29:11).

For Shabbat Torah study:

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 19th century, Poland

In the Midrash Tanchuma [it says]: “‘Yitro … heard’ — there are those who hear and suffer and those who hear and are reward … thus ‘the nations shall hear, [and] be afraid’ [Exodus 15:14]. But Yitro heard and was rewarded, for he had been an idolatrous priest, but he came, attached himself to Moses [and entered under the winds of the Shechinah (the Presence of God)].” Thus far the midrash.

You have to understand why the midrash teaches us this. For in one “hearing” some hear and are rewarded and others hear and suffer. Yitro heard of the miracles of the splitting of the Reed Sea and experience fear of God (Yirah); so he came and drew near. The nations also experience fear, but they fled from God, because they wanted to get rid of the fear.

The Kotzker says that the same truth can affect people differently. Why?

How is fear of God different from other fears?

How should we react to what we fear? What should it motivate us to do?

The next verse is at Sinai. We are starting the ten commandments.

Shemot 20:2-3

I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me.

For Thursday night, Ein Yaakov we are reading Sanhedrin 107b:5-6.

  • The mishna states thatGehazi,the attendant of Elisha, has no share in the World-to-Come. The Gemara explains that this is as it is written: And Elisha went to Damascus (see II Kings 8:7). Where did he go, and for what purpose? Rabbi Yoḥanan says: He went to cause Gehazi to repent, but he did not repent. Elisha said to him: Repent. Gehazi said to him: This is the tradition that I received from you: Whoever sins and causes the masses to sin is not given the opportunity to repent.

What did he do that caused the masses to sin? There are those who say that he hung a magnetic rock on Jeroboam’s sin, i.e., on the golden calf that Jeroboam established as an idol, so that he suspended it between heaven and earth, i.e., he caused it to hover above the ground. This seemingly miraculous occurrence caused the people to worship it even more devoutly than before. And there are those who say: He engraved the sacred name of God on its mouth, and it would declare and say: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2), and: “You shall not have other gods” (Exodus 20:3). The idol would quote the two prohibitions from the Ten Commandments that prohibit idol worship, causing the people to worship it even more devoutly than before.

What might the rabbis being trying to teach us by putting the words of the Ten Commandments on an idol’s mouth?

Mordechai of Chernobyl, 19th century, Ukraine

A descendent of Mordehai, Rabbi Abraham Twerski died on Sunday from COVID-19. Rabbi Twerski was an important figure in the Jewish substance abuse recovery. He emphasized the healing power of self-esteem.

First, a person must know and trust with perfect and robust trust that there exists a God who is One, singular and unique, and who brought about everything that exists out of nothing, faith derived both from tradition and from experience, as it is written: “Know the God of your father, and serve God” (1 Chronicles 28:9). In this verse, there are two types of faith [from tradition and from experience.]

On top of this faith in God, the person burning for divine service must give the soul for this, because this is the meaning [of the talmudic teaching that] “‘I [am the Eternal your God]’ [Exodus 20:2] and ‘You shall have no [other gods]’ [Exodus 20:3] were both heard [directly] from the mouth of the Mighty One.” [Rabbi Tabick notes that this faith from tradition.]

A Jewish person must overcome the material side, subduing it and purifying it. Then you are illuminating your spiritual being through your physical being, and becoming a vehicle for God. [Thus,] “I [am the Eternal your God]” [Exodus 20:2] and “You shall have no [other gods]” [Exodus 20:3] encompass the entire Torah, and its fulfillment. [This passage, according to Rabbi Tabick, is faith from experience.]

Faith from tradition seems like the usual idea of belief based on tradition. Because there is a chain of tradition, passed down from father to father (and mother to mother) to you too, should have faith in God.

Faith from experience is something else. It is about spiritual growth and becoming a vehicle for God. What do you think that means?