|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah-Zalman Michoel Ben Golda Mirel
-Ariela Golda Bas Amira Tova
**Note: This D’var Torah is a re-written, much edited, and expanded version of an old one I wrote a few years ago.
יִתְרוֹ ● Yisro
●Why is Yisro’s story recorded before Sinai Experience? What did Yisro recognize that no one else did? ●
“Yisro’s Counsel: Derech Eretz Incorporated”
Following Yetzias Mitzrayim and Milchamas Amaleik—the Exodus from Egypt and the War with Amaleik—the Torah would recount perhaps the single most climactic and crucial event in world history, its own traditional basis, the event of Kabbalas HaTorah, acceptance of the Torah. At this grand scene, Hashem revealed His Divine Presence before the B’nei Yisrael at Har Sinai and entered them into an eternal covenant with Him and His Torah.
That would be the obvious focal point of the Torah in this Sidrah; however, before getting there, the Torah felt the need to cut to the viewpoint of the “outsider” after whom the entire Sidrah was named.
Indeed, before reaching the narrative of Kabbalas HaTorah, the Torah inserted the seemingly less relevant account of Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law Yisro.1 The Torah tells us that Yisro entered the scene in response to hearing about Hashem’s miracles on behalf of the B’nei Yisrael, and that Yisro subsequently brought Moshe’s family (who remained with Yisro in Midian thus far) to him. The Torah then teaches us about Yisro’s contribution to the B’nei Yisrael’s justice system as he advised Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of officials to judge the nation so that Moshe wouldn’t have to address the entire people alone. Beneath this brief summary of Yisro’s fifteen minutes of fame in the beginning of our Sidrah lie a few major issues which have to be addressed.
- Thematic Irrelevance
Firstly, as was mentioned, the passages surrounding Yisro seem to be unrelated to the larger focus of the Sidrah, Hashem’s revelation to the people at Sinai. How does Yisro’s part of the story flow into the greater picture? Why really is Yisro’s involvement mentioned here and now?
- Chronological Challenge
Before one attempts to suggest that perhaps the Torah is merely following the timeline and highlighting the meaningful aspects of history as it happened, it’s worth noting the comments made by Rashi who begs to differ.2 He points out firstly that Yisro’s advice to Moshe regarding the court system actually had to have taken place on the day following Yom Kippur when the B’nei Yisrael were atoned for the sin of the worshipping of the Golden Calf which wouldn’t takes place until way after the Revelation of Sinai, later in Parshas Ki Sisa.3 Secondly, Rashi points out that while, indeed, there is actually a dispute in Chazal as to whether Yisro’s arrival took place before Kabbalas HaTorah or after, but the part containing his advice to Moshe, Rashi argues, necessarily had to have taken place according to all opinions; the chronology of this segment seems to be universally accepted in Chazal.4
Aside from the fact that these scenes might not chronologically belong here, it is also worth our reviewing of the foundational concept in the general analysis of Torah narratives known as “Ein Mukdam U’Muchar BaTorah”-“There is no before and after in the Torah,” meaning that the Torah does not necessarily hold to a chronological order, an idea invoked by Rashi numerous times throughout his commentary, here included. Granted, this rule does not mean to suggest that there is no chronological order in the Torah, but it means that the Torah is not by any means bound to chronology, so that if there is a strong reason to assume that a story is not in order, there is a good chance that it is not.
On the basis of this discussion, our question becomes even more difficult. It is questionable when the Yisro-story actually happened, and supposedly, his implementation of the court system was only a later establishment. Moreover, even if, for argument’s sake, the placement of the Yisro-scene was chronologically accurate, it is still largely irrelevant if the Torah, by rule, focuses on theme over history. Assuming that the story does not belong here chronologically, that means we have to assume that there was some larger thematic relevance for this story that it was recorded here. With that in mind, why would the Torah supposedly force Yisro’s two cents in at this juncture of the Torah? What kind of prelude is the Yisro-encounter to larger narrative of Kabbalas HaTorah?
Yisro’s Incredible Innovation
Aside from the broader issue concerning the placement of this story, there is an issue within the story itself. The Torah goes out of its way to elaborate about Yisro’s innovation and contribution to B’nei Yisrael’s spiritual education and judicial system. The the question is: What was so incredibly innovative about it? He “created” a system of court officials? Was that it? Was Yisro really the only genius who realized that Moshe couldn’t sit all day by himself and take up every individual person’s issues, and that similarly, the entire nation of over six hundred thousand individuals could not just stand around all day waiting for his undivided attention? It doesn’t take such brilliance or insight to realize the importance of such a concept. Court systems and judicial systems were an ancient facet of many societies. Why then was only Yisro smart enough to suggest it for the B’nei Yisrael? How are we supposed to understand this supposed “groundbreaking” insight of Yisro’s?
If we can answer this question, perhaps we can answer our earlier question, what the significance and relevance of Yisro’s “insight” was in our broader context, why it was placed at this particular point.
Stating the Obvious
Even within the dialogue containing Yisro’s advice to Moshe, there is something peculiar. Again, Yisro’s plain advice was that a system of court officials would assist Moshe and judge the nation. Indeed, this matter makes up the crux of his instruction to Moshe. But, before suggesting the system, for some reason, Yisro first specified that Moshe would represent the people before G-d and receive instruction to give over to the people.5 Then, he broke out the idea of appointing officials to assist him. So the question is why Yisro needed to first remind Moshe of his role. Does Moshe not already know that He is a prophet of G-d who would receive direction on behalf of the B’nei Yisrael? What, then, was Yisro getting at, literally reiterating something that seemingly everyone already had known, certainly Moshe? This introduction was not necessary. He could have just cut to the chase. Why was Yisro highlighting this old fact that Moshe stands before G-d to give over word to the B’nei Yisrael?
Moshe Reports Back
Finally, when it actually comes to the Divine Revelation at Har Sinai, Moshe tells the B’nei Yisrael that G-d had declared that they would become His Am Segulah or His treasured nation provided that they follow His instruction, whereupon the B’nei Yisrael enthusiastically comply.6 In this passage, the Torah states that Moshe reported the response of the B’nei Yisrael back to Hashem. The obvious question is why Moshe needed to tell G-d what the people said. G-d is All-Knowing and Omnipotent. There is just no point.
Rashi was sensitive to this issue and suggested that Moshe was displaying Derech Eretz (lit., the way of the land), or proper etiquette, in that he didn’t just say, “Since the One Who sent me (Hashem) knows anyway, there’s no need for me to return the response.”7
Yes, that is the answer offered by Chazal; this display of Derech Eretz. Now, how well does that sit with you? Is it really an answer, that Moshe brought back word to G-d out of Derech Eretz, even though G-d knew? What does that even mean that he displayed Derech Eretz? It almost sounds like the question itself, spit back to us in answer form. Moshe engaged in purposeless behavior which, if purposeful, would have been helpful. Is there actually any merit to that? Where exactly did the Derech Eretz here lie? That it was polite of Moshe to let G-d know, even though He knew already? How is that Derech Eretz?
Most people would not even act this way for fellowman. We may let a friend or family member know something if we’re not sure if they were aware of the news or not, or if we think we can add a detail that they didn’t realize, but (1) G-d undoubtedly knows everything, and (2) if we’d know that our friend was right next to us and was hearing the exact same message from the same person talking to us, it wouldn’t be considered extra polite for us to then relay the same exact information to our friend who is still standing right there. In many cases, the friend may even get insulted and respond, “I know. I was there,” or “I’m standing right here.” Was it not then at least slightly insulting for Moshe to relay the message back to G-d Who always knows everything? In fact, Moshe’s behavior, which Chazal assure us was Derech Eretz, to the plain reader, appears almost heretical. So, what was Moshe doing, telling G-d what the people had said? And how was this strange, seemingly unnecessary effort on Moshe’s part understood as act worthy of praise?
Looking back at the opening question concerning Yisro, his advice, and its relevance here, it would seem that we need to attain a better grasp on what it was exactly that was unique to Yisro as a person, his particular outlook on life, and what he was truly adding to the nation’s public service when he arrived onto the scene.
The Torah mentioned that Yisro joined the B’nei Yisrael after hearing about the wonders Hashem performed for them. After catching up with his son-in-law Moshe Rabbeinu, the once Egyptian fugitive, now leader of the incredible underdog nation, and after hearing about the display in Egypt, Yisro confirmed that Hashem must be greater than any of the so-called “gods” of the world.8 Rashi points out that Yisro could make this affirmation because he had previously been a pagan and had experienced the service of every form of idolatry existent.9 Simply none compared to G-d. Now, if there was an actual competition between G-d and the “gods” of the pagans, this confirmation might be taken as a compliment. But, bearing in mind that there is no competition—nothing can actually compare to the true, One and Only Borei Olam (Creator of the world), Chas V’Shalom, Yisro’s declaration would appear as border-lining on offensive.
However, to provide Yisro some benefit of the doubt, his confirmation might be better understood as an epiphany to this very fact that Hashem was not just the most powerful, but indeed, that He was the true One and Only. He was acknowledging that there was simply no question of a competition. Again, having seen all religions of the generation, Yisro knew. This detail made Yisro different from Moshe and the entire B’nei Yisrael. Although they grew up among the Egyptian “gods,” they haven’t seen half of what Yisro had. Yisro’s unique basis for “comparison” might’ve given Yisro a sensitive concept of “G-d” that no one else quite had so clearly. This was the backdrop for Yisro’s Parsha.
The Torah describes how Yisro saw the way Moshe conducted himself when leading the nation and he was immediately disturbed to see Moshe sitting alone before the entire people. The concept of a court system was not such a novel one intrinsically, but in a world with Divine communication and a G-d who could do absolutely anything the people needed, it must not have occurred to Moshe or the B’nei Yisrael that such a simple, mundane arrangement like a system of court officials could be of such vital use. Yisro’s sense of contrast between G-d and all other forces was such that it was so clear to him that everything else, even G-d’s servants, were heavily limited. As great and in good hands as Moshe and the B’nei Yisrael were, they themselves were only human. They were not G-d. Yisro wanted the seekers of the true G-d to make no mistake about it. Thus, although man was gifted with a Divine spirit, created in the “image” G-d, and given the capabilities to transcend various heights in spirituality, by rule, they would have to work from the ground up, using their worldly, human bodies and within a worldly, human framework to do so. Accordingly, Moshe could not sit all day long and tend to every single individual, and likewise, the people could not wait all day long for him. And as of that point, Moshe had a family to tend to in addition to the entire nation. From the outside looking in, Yisro realized that only G-d can be G-d. Hence, G-d’s holy, but human nation would have to use their human intelligence to work together and devise a natural, human plan to conduct even their holiest of endeavors.
Hearing the Message
An interesting possible allusion to Yisro’s concern in the may actually manifest itself in a textual parallel between Yisro’s perception of G-d and his perception of Moshe. the Torah first says, “Vayishma Yisro…Chosein Moshe Eis Kal Asheir Asah Elokim L’Moshe U’L’Yisrael Amo…”-“And Yisro…father-in-law of Moshe heard all that G-d did for Moshe and for Yisrael His people…”10
It was after that that Yisro admitted that nothing compares to G-d. Then, after he saw Moshe trying to lead the people alone, the Torah tells us, with almost the exact same expressio, “Vayar Chosein Moshe Eis Kal Asheir Hu Oseh La’Am…”-“And the father-in-law of Moshe saw all that he [Moshe] was doing to the people…”11 whereupon Yisro challenged Moshe, “…Mah HaDavar HaZeh Asheir Atah Oseh La’Am? Madu’a Atah Yosheiv L’vadecha V’Chal Ha’Am Nitzav Alecha Min Bokeir Ad Erev?”-“…What is this matter which you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone and all of the people stand over you from morning until evening?”11
Indeed, the parallel set up by the Chumash may reflect what triggered the association and obvious contrast between G-d and Moshe which troubled Yisro when he evaluated Moshe’s work. Yisro saw and acknowledged what was perhaps was difficult for anyone else to fully recognize, that Moshe is only human, that He was not G-d.
Yisro then urged Moshe to take his advice, “Atoh Shema B’Koli…”-“Now you listen to my voice…”12 using the very expression which the Torah uses to convey that Yisro perceived the uniqueness of G-d—“Vayishma Yisro…”-“And Yisro heard…”10
Earlier, we wondered why Yisro opened up his advice to Moshe by emphasizing the seemingly obvious point that Moshe is the messenger between the nation and G-d. But if one looks at what it is that Yisro emphasized in particular, he may have been intending something more specific and poignant; “…Atah La’Am Mul HaElokim V’Heiveisa Atah Es HaDevarim El HaElokim”-“…you, for [or representing] the people, are you [do you stand] before G-d, and you shall bring the word to G-d.”12
Indeed, Yisro makes a stunning point in this seemingly obvious message, specifying that although Moshe would stand in between the people and G-d, he would do so “La’Am”—on behalf of the people, representing the people, perhaps as one of the people. Yes, he was obviously spiritually the greatest human of the generation, but he was still human. Certainly, Moshe the most humble of humans had to be aware of his limitations, but perhaps Moshe, until this point, believed that his responsibility was to push through, despite his human limitations.
It was after Yisro provided his instruction and give Moshe the “okay” to face his human limitations and comfortably lead the people as his humble self with help from others, the Torah tells us, “Vayishma Moshe L’Kol Chosno Vaya’as Kol Asheir Amar”-“And Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in-law and he did all that he said.”13 Indeed, Moshe followed suit and “heard” the same message, as did Yisro, that G-d would continue to be G-d, and that humans would necessarily continue to be human, and that that would be okay.
“Between Man and the Omnipresent”
What any of this discussion has to do with Kabbalas HaTorah should begin to make sense. As G-d revealed Himself before the nation, B’Chvodo U’V’Atzmo (in His Glory and in His Essence), if the B’nei Yisrael were to take away any one idea, it would have to be the idea that Yisro asserted, that G-d is not just a powerful force Whom they ought to listen to, but that He is the One and Only, and that following His lead is the only option. But the implications of the relationship between Yisro’s epiphany, his actions and Kabbalas HaTorah, might reach deeper.
As was explained, when the B’nei Yisrael insisted that they would do whatever G-d would ask of them, Moshe brought word back to G-d, and was praised by Chazal for doing so—for his display of this apparently virtuous decorum, this “Derech Eretz,” before G-d. What exactly was the nature of this decorum? It seems like an empty and meaningless effort to tell G-d what He already knows. What did Moshe have in mind? It could simply be that Moshe’s effort to report the nation’s response back to G-d was an innocent act of enthusiasm on his part. Did Moshe not know that G-d knew already? Of course he knew that G-d knew, but he also, like the B’nei Yisrael wanted to engage in conversation with G-d! But of course, Moshe would be confronted with the same problem that every rational but deeply religious person faces every single day: How could he be on an even ground with G-d as such that he can actually engage with Him at all, to even begin a conversation? We cannot begin to relate to an overwhelming G-d regarding Whom Moshe himself would say, “Eish Ochlah Hu”-“He [G-d] is a consuming fire.”14 Chazal widely use this analogy to illustrate the the reality that we humans can’t practically relate to G-d because we, as limited humans, have no true concept of what He really is. In this vein, when G-d revealed himself before the nation and declared the Aseres HaDibros (Decalogue; Ten “Commandments”), the nation who earlier requested to speak to G-d, face to “Face,” was forced to retreat, pleading that Moshe address them instead lest they die.
How then could one begin pray to G-d and serve Him? G-d knows everything and intrinsically needs not our praises, nor our services. He certainly doesn’t require us to tell Him about our day, or about our worries and concerns. He was there. He knows. How then does a human relate to G-d?
The Human Way
Moshe and Yisro provide the answers; first, one has to realize, as we’ve been saying, that only G-d is G-d, people are people, and that is okay. If G-d created us as people, it was so that we would serve Him as people. It means that regardless of what G-d already knows and regardless of what our services practically accomplish for Him, we seize the opportunity to engage with Him by any means He allows us to, in the most accessible way we can, in a down to earth and personal way. Since it is the way we function, it is the way G-d expects us to work with Him as we eat, drink, and sleep, and as we engage in the world, in society, or in any endeavor we have. We talk to Him and perform His commandments to create the personal relationship Him.
This is the meaning behind the Derech Eretz—literally, the worldly manner, in which Moshe Rabbeinu as well as related to G-d. And presuming that Kabbalas HaTorah preceded Yisro’s advice to Moshe, we can assume that even Moshe was well aware of everything Yisro was conveying, as we suggested earlier. That is evident by the very fact that Moshe brought the word of the people to G-d, making use of Derech Eretz in his relationship with G-d. Yisro’s epiphany and subsequent advice would have been a necessary reminder and a highlighting of Moshe’s need to make that use when serving the people. In this vein, Yisro was quite on the mark when he reiterated Moshe’s role, specifying that “V’Heiveisa Atah Es HaDevarim El HaElokim”-“And you shall bring the words of the people to G-d.”12 It was precisely this Derech Eretz that Moshe employed before Kabbalas HaTorah—bringing the word of the people to G-d, Yisro was reminding Moshe to recognize when acting as a judge and prophet for the people! Because again, Moshe apparently needed this reminder that even in the loftiest of positions, that he should not ignore his humanity, but rather embrace it and work it into the system. It is the only way for human to function, even in relation to G-d, and especially in relation to other people.
“Derech Eretz Kodmah LaTorah”
Coming full circle, the lesson underlying Yisro’s contribution—the lesson of “Derech Eretz”—is foundational in Avodas Hashem and, regardless of chronology, is an ever necessary segue to Kabbalas HaTorah. And perhaps, that is the deeper meaning of the teaching, “Derech Eretz Kodmah LaTorah”-“The way of the land precedes the Torah”15—that before one can engage in Torah, one has to understand his human limits to the way of the land.
Indeed, before one can even get started in the lofty undertaking of serving Hashem, one has to understand the difference between man and G-d. One has to know that G-d lacks nothing—one can’t add to G-d, and that man cannot fill G-d’s shoes. With such a Divine Revelation as was experienced at Har Sinai, one has to be reminded of his own humanity.
For this reason, it is equally vital for one to understand that the Infinite G-d Who lacks nothing not only accepts one’s human services, but that He welcomes and anticipates them as those services are the basis for a personal relationship with G-d. Thus, as was accomplished through Kabbalas HaTorah, we too have to bring the Torah and our relationship with Hashem down to earth. Yes, we are capable of transcending the natural world. We are connected to the eternality of G-d’s Essence. We are His treasured people! But indeed, we mustn’t forget that we are, in fact, people.
May we all be Zocheh to recognize our roles as people in this world, continue to personally engage with Hashem through the framework He has provided us, continually experience a meaningful Kabbalas HaTorah and—eventually the Revelation of the Divine Presence once again with the coming of the Geulah in the times of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Shemos 18
- To 18:3 citing Sifrei
- Shemos 32
- Note that there are those among the Rishonim who dispute Rashi on this point.
- Shemos 18:19-20
- Ibid. 19:5-8
- Citing Mechilta
- Shemos 18:11
- Citing Mechilta
- Shemos 18:1
- Ibid. 18:14
- Ibid. 18:19
- Ibid. 18:24
- Devarim 4:24
- Vayikra Rabbah 9:3