Parshat Yitro – Enduring Inspiration
In this week’s parsha, the Jews, as G-d’s chosen people, are officially established as a fearsome force among the nations. After decimating Egypt and defeating Amalek, they begin their journey through the desert. The Torah tells us of Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe:
וישמע יתרו – “And Yitro, Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard about all that Hashem had done for Moshe and for His people Israel, when Hashem brought Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 18:1). “Yitro came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the Wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of G-d” (ibid. 5).
Interestingly, the Torah finds it necessary to inform us that the Jews were encamped in the wilderness; don’t we already know this? Rashi, of course, notes this and quotes the Mechilta which explains that the Torah, by adding this detail intends to praise Yitro, for he Yitro was living amidst worldwide honor, yet “his heart inspired him” – ונדבה לבו, to go out into the wilderness, a desolate place (מקום תהו), for the purpose of hearing words of Torah.”
Yitro, as Rashi explains, was overcome with so much emotion from hearing all the miracles that Hashem performed for the Nation, that although he was one of the most respected members of the world, he abandoned his life of luxury to go to a place of desolation, a “מקום תהו”.
Tohu v’bohu: unformed and desolate
To get an image of the concept of “תהו,” we find in Bereishit that the same term is used to explain what the world was like before creation: “תוהו ובהו” – “unformed and desolate.” From this we see the extent to which the word can connote literally nothing, and yet still Yitro was willing to go there to hear words of Torah. This was the power of his inspiration; it allowed him to look past the impediments of the desert. It drove him out of a life of security and comfort to join the Jewish people in the wilderness, a place fraught with danger and discomfort. All this to take part in Hashem’s chosen Nation.
However, further on in the parsha we are struck with a tremendous difficulty. When Yitro reaches the encampment of the Nation, Moshe comes to greet him. ויספר משה – Moshe recounts all the miracles that Hashem performed for Klal Yisrael. Rashi (ibid. 8) quotes the Mechilta to explain why Moshe felt it important relate this to Yitro, as we already know that Yitro had heard of the miracles G-d did in Egypt for the nation (that is what brought him there). Moshe intended not to inform Yitro, but rather:
למשוך את לבו לקרבו לתורה – “In order to draw his [Yitro’s] heart to bring him closer to the Torah.”
What is Moshe trying to accomplish?
Why must Moshe draw him closer to Torah? We were not just told that Yitro gave up everything he had and came to the desert to learn Torah and join the ranks of the Jewish people! What is Moshe trying to accomplish here?
The Mechilta describes the emotion which overcame Yitro as “ונדבו לבו – Inspiration of the Heart.” As we saw earlier, this inspiration was so powerful that it caused Yitro to change his entire life. To sacrifice wealth, honor and comfort in order to become part of the Jewish people. Clearly this was a powerful feeling. However, we are all familiar with the notion that even the strongest emotions can dissipate over time, and once the emotion is lost, we can be found bereft of motivation and direction.
Moshe understood this, and in “bringing Yitro’s heart closer to Torah” once again by repeating the miracles that Yitro had already known, he wanted to teach Yitro the importance of capitalizing on his feelings of inspiration, by thrusting them into something concrete.
As is known, Yitro was coming from a lifestyle of Avodah Zarah and according to the Mechilta (ibid. 11), he had practiced every religion known to man; he moved from one form of worship to the next, never finding lasting satisfaction. He may have experienced exultation and intense inspiration, but once it dissipated, Yitro moved on to the next religion in search of lasting and fulfilling devotion. This is perhaps what brought him to the recognition of G-d. However, Moshe knew that the intense feelings Yitro experienced when finally finding Judaism were not enough, thus necessitating drawing him closer to Torah.
Judaism is not a ‘feel-good’ religion
Judaism does not profess to be a “feel-good” religion offering ecstasy and ascendant euphoria. If one commits, thinking that he will feel constant elation, he may be sorely disappointed. Rather, he will find within it a perfect blend of dedication of mind and heart, a structure built for the ups and downs of everyday life. A commitment to Torah must be independent; it is obligatory even when we lose our original inspiration.
Perhaps this is the explanation of the Mechilta: “In order to draw his heart to bring him closer to the Torah.”
Not just the heart, but the person himself, so at that inevitable time when the initial inspiration leaves, the true whole person, with his commitment to Torah, will remain. By bringing Yitro closer, Moshe was ensuring that he would continue his upward progress and dedication to Hashem’s Torah.
According to this explanation, we can now understand another difficulty: After Moshe retells of all the miracles in Egypt, the Midrash says that Yitro responded:
“I was aware of Him in the past but, now, all the more so.”
The question is: why now? Didn’t Yitro come out to the wilderness with the recognition of Hashem already in mind? In light of what we have said above, while it is true that Yitro already came to the desert with belief in Hashem, his belief was rooted in that initial “fleeting” emotion. Although this inspired him to change his whole life around, it would not be enough to carry him through the long journey ahead. Now that Yitro has firmly established his belief, he can say that he is honestly “more aware of Hashem.”
This idea fits beautifully with an explanation I heard from HaRav Yecheskel Weinfeld Shlit”a of Jerusalem. As Moshe says “all that Hashem had done for them,” he also recounts “all the troubles that had befallen them until now – and that Hashem had refused them” (ibid. 9). Why does Moshe offer this as well? What is he trying to accomplish?
We try to dissuade gentiles from converting
Rav Weinfeld explains that Moshe did this in order to fulfill the injunction in Halacha to dissuade the Gentile from converting. The Gemara (Yevamot 47a-b) says,
“Our Rabbis taught: If a [prospective] convert comes to convert nowadays, we say to him/her: ‘Why do you desire to convert? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’”
Thus, by telling Yitro of the troubles that the Nation travailed, Moshe was testing his commitment to G-d, to ingrain in him that even when things will become difficult he will be prepared to remain.
We see from Yitro the importance of taking our moments of inspiration and making them into a concrete reality in our lives. Motivation towards full belief in G-d may begin as a feeling, but unless one builds upon it to come to a consistent plateau, it will not carry him through life. Only once he does this essential work can he proclaim a deep and real belief in Hashem and His Torah.