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Parshah Overview: Yitro

by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky

  

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The central event of parashat Yitro is the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. All the events recorded in the Torah, beginning with the creation of the world, have been leading up to this point. Through giving the Torah, God is about to fulfill the purpose for which He created the world: to make it into His home.

Yet, before God gives the Torah to the Jewish people, one more event must occur—and according to the Zohar,1 had it not occurred God could not have given the Torah: Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, prince and high priest of Midian, must convert and join the Jewish people.

What was so special about Jethro, and what was so significant about his conversion that it served as the final, critical prerequisite for the giving of the Torah?

In this parashah, Jethro tells Moses that “now I know that God is greater than all other deities.”2 The sages tell us that this means that Jethro was acquainted with all forms of idolatry (for otherwise he could not have made such a statement). As we have explained previously,3 idolatry arose out of the erroneous belief that since God chose to delegate some of His powers to the forces of nature, it is proper to revere these forces. Eventually, people came to worship these intermediary forces themselves and, in most cases, forgot about God. Thus, Jethro’s acquaintance with all forms of idolatry was the result of having studied all the forces of creation—from the physical forces of nature up to and including the most abstract and subtle spiritual powers and energies. He had worshipped all of these as intermediaries between God and creation.

Idolatry arose out of the erroneous belief that since God chose to delegate some of His powers to the forces of nature, it is proper to revere these forces
If Jethro was so smart, why didn’t he realize on his own that all these intermediaries have no power of their own but are rather just tools in God’s hand?

In fact, the nature of reality in Jethro’s time was more conducive to the pagan outlook than to the truth. Ever since the primordial sin in the Garden of Eden, the world had become increasingly hostile to holiness and God’s presence had been further and further banished from the world; it seemed that God really had given His powers over to the forces of nature.

Abraham and his successors reversed this trend, and their work was now about to be consummated. The breach that had developed between Divinity and worldly reality was about to be healed, enabling Godliness to permeate all reality and enabling all reality to sense Divinity.

This was why the ten plagues and their culmination, the Splitting of the Sea, were a necessary precursor to the Giving of the Torah. When the sea split, the hidden, spiritual dimension of reality (evinced by the sea, which hides all forms of life within it) became revealed; Divinity became temporarily obvious and self-evident throughout all creation.

But the Splitting of the Sea was not enough. True, the power of evil—the denial of God’s omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence—was temporarily neutralized. But it was not uprooted entirely, since the philosophical underpinnings of idolatry still existed. As soon as the sea reverted to its natural state, it was once again possible to live under the delusion that God’s power extends only throughout the realms of holiness but that nature is somehow beyond His control.

This is why Amalek could attack Israel even after the Splitting of the Sea, when “all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away [from fear].” The nation of Amalek is the personification of doubt and its resulting apathy. As long as there is room to think that God and life are two separate compartments of reality, we can entertain the notion that we can live life without God’s full involvement. This undermines our natural enthusiasm for Judaism; the Torah and its commandments become a burden to be discharged so that we can get on with the business of living. Certainly there is no point in giving the Torah to the Jewish people in this kind of climate.

Footnotes

  • 1. 2:67b.
  • 2. Exodus 18:11.
  • 3. Genesis 4:26.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Shabbat » Reading of the Torah » Torah Reading

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Zohar
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Amalek
Anti-Semitic tribe descendant from Esau; first to attack the Jews upon leaving Egypt. We are commanded to remember their vile deed and obliterate all memory of them.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Canaan
The land which G-d promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Named after the Tribe of Canaanites who dwelt there at the time. Eventually, when the Israelites conquered the land in 1272 BCE, it was renamed the "Land of Israel."
Jethro
Moses' father-in-law.