וישמע יתרו כהן מדין חתן משה את כל אשר עשה אלהים למשה ולישראל עמו, כי הוציא ה’ את ישראל ממצרים
(שמות י”ח, א’)
This week’s parasha contains one of the most momentous, perhaps the most momentous, event in Jewish history: the covenant of Sinai and the giving of the Torah. This is the denouement of the story about bnei Israel leaving Egypt, the raison d’etre of their liberation, indeed their existence, as the people of God. And yet this parasha is named after Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, and opens with Yitro “hearing” about what happened:
When Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father in law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel his people, and that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.
(Shemot 18, 1; KJV)
The Torah then goes on to recount the encounter of Moshe and Yitro and Yitro’s advice to Moshe on how to govern the people by setting up administrative layers to better manage his time. All this procedural account comes as an inexplicable interlude in the story, between the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah. This has prompted a debate among commentators about the chronological place of Yitro: some say this took place before Sinai, while others claim Yitro came only after Sinai. Regardless of the reasoning behind each of the opinions, the fact remains that the Torah tells us about Yitro before it tells about the covenant of Sinai, and the question is: why?
The Talmud (Shabbat 88.) tells us that when bnei Israel received the Torah in Sinai, God took mount Sinai and hung it above their heads, threatening: either you accept the Torah, or this is where you die! Even if the Talmud is speaking metaphorically and there was no actual physical threat, this story conveys the fact that the people of Israel basically had no choice in accepting the Torah. One can imagine that a people who witnessed God’s presence and deeds first hand was in such a mental state that left no choice but to accept the Torah as the truth. The freedom of choice we have must be based on some incertitude about faith and God; in a certain world, where there is absolutely no doubt about God’s existence and will, we are faced with one option only: accepting. This was the state of mind that bnei Israel were in when they “accepted” the Torah by saying “na’asse ve’nishma“.
This poses a huge question mark for future generations, for us. We have not had the benefit of witnessing Sinai first hand; indeed we live in an era where God is not present directly in our world, there are no evident miracles happening every day. Since the destruction of the Second Temple we also lack the medium of the prophets to tell us what God wants. We must accept the Torah based on our own faith and understanding, on the reading of the texts and on our inner ability to accept the truth. Indeed, the Talumd continues to say that the people of Israel “re-accepted” the Torah in the days of Achashverosh, after understanding that God works to save them even when he is not directly present in the world.
Going back to Yitro, we can perhaps venture to guess now why the Torah places Yitro came before Sinai. Yitro did not see the plagues of Egypt; he did not witness the parting of the Red Sea; he did not see Israel defeat Amalek; and he did not see the Manna descending from heaven. As the first passuk of our parasha says, Yitro only “heard” about these miracles. But this hearing was enough for him to accept God and convert to Judaism, linking his fate to that of the people led by Moshe. Before we read about the “forced” convenant of Sinai, the Torah pauses and uses this interlude to teach us that there is an alternative way to accept God and the Torah: Yitro’s way. Miracles and direct intervention of God are not the only way; one can attain faith by “hearing” and “understanding”. We should not feel incapable of attaining what bnei Israel attained at Sinai only because they “saw” and we merely “heard”. The power of our inner conviction and our decision is no less an engine (perhaps even a greater one) than God’s “coercive” miracles.
History proves this point. We read later in the Torah about the deeds of the same generation that witnessed all these miracles and we wonder how a people who saw God almost face-to-face can cotinuously put its faith to the test. On the other hand we know of generations of Jews throughout history who preferred to give their lives rather than give up their religious beliefs. This is the “inner faith” that derives from our own hearing and understanding, a faith that has proved to be real and enduring.
The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Yehuda Amital.