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Derasha Parshat Yitro

02/05/2024 12:00:00 AM


The Parasha has the most pivotal moment in the Torah.  The culmination of the exodus.  The profound revelation that surpasses Creation.  In fact, according to Rashi, the crucial condition for the Creation itself.  And yet, for us, the main thing is the laying out of so many ways to prepare for the Torah.  More time is spent on these, and they must be noted, as they are the keys to our acceptance of the Torah until today.

The Parasha could have been called “Vayishma.” That’s the way of so many other Parashiot, to be named for the first verb.  That would capture a key part of preparation: the ability to hear.  The word means three things: physically hearing, understanding, and accepting.  The last is the lesson of “hearing” at the beginning of the Parasha.  Yitro hears and cannot stay away.  He accepts what he has heard as a summons that cannot be ignored.  As he arrives on the scene, there is another “hearing.”  He presents a new way of doing things and Moshe listens.  It’s a different way of doing things but he listens, understands, and accepts.  The modeling of listening/acceptance opens the story of receiving the Torah.

Another point of preparation comes in the back and forth between Hashem and the Jewish people in the days before the giving of the Torah.  Within two verses, one reads that something is being relayed from Hashem to the nation and then a response is going back to Hashem.  The verses are cryptic; they leave much unsaid.  The Gemora in Shabbos has several takes on what this dialog entailed.  One of those opinions is that of Rebbe, who says that the verses deliver the punishments associated with the Mitzvot.  Eventually, the rewards of the Torah are also enunciated.  But it begins with punishments.  Then the Gemora reverses itself.  There are those who say Rebbe interpreted the verses in the opposite order.  First Hashem delivers the rewards and then He mentions the punishments.  

This approach means that both sides were presented, both the rewards and the punishments.  Both sides exist.  There is a fundamental argument about which one gets the emphasis.  To our day, the difference between Chasidus and Mussar could be summed up in the disagreement about emphasis.  

But everyone agrees that they both exist.  Sometimes, people say that one type of Torah “speaks to them,” and that’s great.  But it can’t mean that the other side of Torah doesn’t exist.  Everyone has to have both sides.  Otherwise, it’s not complete.  And we’re all supposed to be in pursuit of completeness.  

Finally, the last preparation I want to highlight is the most famous: As the nation arrives at the mountain that first day, the verbs suddenly shift from plural to singular. VaYichan Sham Yisrael Neged HaHar -- “he encamp in front of the mountain.”  Rashi notes the singular tense, and says, K’Ish Echad, B’lev Echad, like a single person with a single [unified] heart.  Last week, there was a similar play with verbs in describing the Egyptians bearing down on the Jews.  But there Rashi describes them as approaching with “one heart like a single person.”  He switches the order.  Egypt is united by a common purpose.  When the purpose disappears, so does the unity.  

But when describing the Jews at the bottom of the mountain, Rashi says that their unity is that rare time that the togetherness mirrors what is always true -- that Jews are connected as one in a way that transcends any purpose or goal.  Jews are connected innately.  That’s a Neshama connection that goes beyond family or any other social connection.  We don’t act like it often; we don’t acknowledge it often.  But we have to know that it exists and that the giving of the Torah required a unity that reflected that deeply embedded unity.

Of course we need to be aware of the familial connection.  We are a tribe, but so are the Egyptians.  Our family connection allows us to connect in a way that would otherwise be weird.  But it does not define our connection.  Connecting as family is a helpful step toward realizing the Neshama connection I’m describing.  But it’s not the connection itself.  

We see an analogy in the 10 commandments, where number five seems out of place.  Honoring our parents is put on the side of the ledger which corresponds to our Mitzvot regarding Hashem.  Even though it plays out as a human relationship, it’s put on the other side of the ledger.  This is because what we owe our parents goes beyond what people do for other people.  It’s not about modeling peak human interactions.  No one is ever expected to treat others the way one treats one’s parents.  

Rather, the details of this Mitzva are about capturing how one relates to that which caused one to be.  This is why the Mitzva of honoring one’s parents has nothing to do with the fact that they cuddled us when we were young, or gave us the keys to the car, or covered tuition.  It’s because they gave us life, because they caused us to be.  To that, one owes fealty, one owes a sense of authority, one owes a sense of respect.  And that is what gives us an idea of how we are supposed to relate to Hashem, the ultimate source of life, the ultimate cause of our being. 

So parents are a family connection but it points to so much more.  Our sense of communal family is also supposed to point us to a connection which is more fundamental.  Our moments of communal unity are supposed to point us further.   Not just as a way we come together but the unity should mirror our Neshama connection.     

I’m sure you have seen a heart wrenching phenomenon of this war.  These are the letters so many soldiers have written.  They begin, “If you are reading this, something bad has happened.”  Times like these, with such horrible moments, demand compartmentalization.  One can only dwell on these letters for a time.  I have a friend who spends time each morning reading these letters.  That is his immersion.  So many of the letters pray for the unity brought about by the war to continue.  They say that if that unity continues, then their sacrifice will have been worth it.  They are onto something.  They want us to hold onto that which mirrors our deepest connection.  When we mirror that, anything can happen.  If that brought the receiving of the Torah, it can bring anything.  

Sun, April 14 2024 6 Nisan 5784