Friday, February 05, 2010

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

Twice we read the ten commandments in the Torah, once here in Parshat Yitro, and once when Moshe recounts Matan Torah, in Parshat V’etchanan in the fifth bok of the Torah, D'varim. Despite one of the grandest and most important events to occur in the entire Torah being detailed in it, for some reason, this week's parsha is named not in some way after the the giving of the ten commandments, but rather is named after a convert to Judaism who was, if we are honest with ourselves, most famous for being Moshe's father in law. There is a question that begs to be asked: of all the characters in the Torah, how come Yitro deserves this honour? His son-in-law, Moshe, did not recieve such a distinction, neither did his brother, Aharon who was the Kohen Gadol. Surely Moshe, the man who received the Torah from Hashem, deserved this honour more? Why has this week's Parsha been named after Yitro?

If we look at the end of the first Aliyah of this week’s reading, we see the sentence, "עתה ידעתי כי גדול ה' מכל האלהים כי בדבר אשר זדו עליהם - Now I know that Hashem is greater than the gods for the matter which they did to them [the Jews]."

The classic understanding is that Yitro saw the awesome miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, saw that Hashem exerted total control over the natural forces of the world, and as such recognised Hashem as the one true God. This is certainly true, but the Ramban opens up another dimension to Yitro’s perspective on what turned out to be a watershed moment in his life.

If we analyse the words closely, we notice the word זדו, Zadu. This comes from the same root as the word מיזד, Maizid – Hebrew for intentional. There is a famous question – were the Mitzri’im (the Egyptians) really responsible for their fulfilling of the ancient and well known prophesy that the Jewish people were to be sold into slavery and oppressed? After all, they were merely messengers of God, enacting the prophesy? The Mitzri’im surely couldn’t be held accountable for that?!

The answer that the Ramban gives is illuminating. He explains that the Mitzri’im correctly state that they were fulfilling the prophesy by enslaving and subjugating the Jews, but they went above and beyond the prophesy by killing Jews by throwing them into the Nile. This was the Zadu, this was their malicious intent that they were being punished for.

So now, back to our point. Yitro sees Am Yisrael make their miraculous getaway through the sea, and moments later, the same sea closes in on the Egyptians and condemns them to their deaths. He sees how those who were the nastiest and most despicable to the Jews tossed about like corks and endured a very slow and painful demise, whereas those who were less spiteful died faster deaths, some sinking straight to the seabed.

What impressed Yitro was not that Hashem’s display of control over nature; any old “god” would dictate and direct nature’s forces. What impressed Yitro was Hashem’s way of Middah-K’neged-Midah, (acting in a manner corresponding to an original action,) that despite waiting over one hundred years and tolerating all the unnecessary suffering imposed on the Jewish people, Hashem exacted a fitting punishment on every last Egyptian. Yitro wasn’t impressed by Hashem’s dominance over nature; any pretender to Hashem’s crown would claim a certain level of authority and supremacy over the natural world. No, what Yitro was impressed by was that this God, the true God, was one who clearly played a role in history and continued to oversee events to the present day. Yitro understood then that all that Hashem had done, and was continuing to do was part of the master plan.

Incidentally, later in our Sidra, we read of Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah. There are many interesting things that we can talk about there, but one thing I would like to focus on is the use of synaesthesia, when the Pasuk there famously says that the people saw the thunder. Interestingly enough, of all the two senses to cross over, Hashem caused our hearing to cross with our vision, and only in one way. What is the meaning of this?

We often say the words “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad - Hear O Isreal, Hashem is our Lord, Hashem is one." Unfortunately, we all too often seem to accept the wording blindly, without thinking to question the odd sentence structure. The meaning and the concept of the entire sentence is clear enough, but the wording is a little odd. What indeed is so special about the word Sh’ma that it merits to be included in the single most important line in Judaism? What is it about the faculty of hearing that it deserves a mention in Judaism’s cardinal prayer and statement of faith?

The answer, in short, can be stated that as long as we live in this “Alma d’Sfaika,” this World of Doubt, this world that is known as an “Alma D’shikra,” a World of Lies, we cannot rely on our sense of vision to perceive things as they truly are. When was the last time a man could look at a woman and tell that she was a good person just by “checking her out?” Such a concept is laughable in this world. We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot, because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses.

Now if we return to Yitro, we understand that Yitro had his own revelation *before* that of Am Yisrael’s. Whereas many marvelled at Hashem’s spectacular rule over nature, Yitro understood what the miracles truly signified – Hashem’s eternal reign. Yitro, the former priest correctly perceived Hashem and correctly understood what a real God, THE real God is. It may well be for this reason that Yitro deserved the merit of having the portion of Matan Torah allotted to the Parsha with his name.

This D’var Torah is adapted from the words of R’ Raphael Katz of Netanya and R’ Daniel Katz of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach!

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