Sunday, January 20, 2008

Parshat Yitro 1

My translation of a piece of R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein's "Tosefet Bracha" on the parsha can be found here

“And Yisro heard...” (Shemos 18; 1). Rashi comments, “What did he hear that brought him [from Midyan to the desert]? The splitting of the Reed Sea and the war with Amalek”. Hearing of these two events acted as the catalyst which made Yisro leave the comforts of Midyan to join the Israelites in the desert. Surely such miracles would have been reported by every news agency in the known world, but nobody else came to join them. Why does the Torah stress that Yisro heard about these events? Why is this an appropriate introduction to the main part of our portion, the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments?

In Hebrew, as in English, ‘hearing’ also has connotations of understanding. It implies more than sound waves entering the aural canal. We find the best example of this meaning in the word ‘Shema’ in the recital of ‘Shema Yisrael...’. The instruction which we proclaim is not to hear audibly that G-d is one, but to understand that belief in G-d’s unity is the bedrock of our faith, and underlies all of creation. Though all of the other nations heard about the miracles that G-d performed for the Jews, only Yisro ‘heard’ and understood that the only possible response was to leave Midyan and come into the desert.

Yisro’s ‘hearing’ is therefore a very apt introduction to the Ten Commandments, when the Jews recited the famous words, “We will do and we will hear” (“Na’aseh v’Nishma”) (ibid. 24; 7). The Sages teach (Shabbat 88b) that when G-d heard Israel utter this phrase He exclaimed, “Who revealed this secret to My children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves”, as the verse states, “Strong warriors [angels] who do His bidding and obey the sound of His words” (Tehillim 103; 20). By pledging that they will perform anything that G-d commands without question, and only then try and hear what G-d has asked of them the Jews put themselves on a par with the angels, who also act unquestioningly to do G-d’s bidding.

After Yisro joins the nation, he watches as Moshe judges the people. He realises that having Moshe as the sole adjudicant for the nation will not provide a permanent system of justice, and that it will destroy both Moshe and the nation. He suggests the alternative of appointing courts and judges, with lower and higher courts for lesser or greater disputes. Yisro says to Moshe, “Now, listen to my voice” (ibid. 18; 19). The Torah continues that “Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.” (v. 24). Why does the Torah state that Moshe heard Yisro’s ‘voice’ rather than just telling us that he listened to his father-in-law?

Yisro understood that he was a newcomer to the nation, and though he was Moshe’s father-in-law, he was not sure whether he would be accepted by the rest of the nation. Would they be prepared to listen to the suggestion of a former idolater, in contradiction of the practise of their leader Moshe? Yet Yisro felt that what he had to say about the courts was as much a part of Torah as the commandments that they had heard directly from G-d. It was as if G-d were speaking from Yisro’s throat, using the G-d given logic in place of prophecy. This is why Yisro stresses that is not making his suggestion out of pride, but because the ‘voice’ of Mount Sinai is using his mouth as a conduit. Moshe understands this and therefore listens to his ‘voice’.

This teaches us an important principle in Torah study, often the Talmud asks on a verse, “This can be derived from logic - why do I need this verse?” There are limitations to our logic, and there are things that we don’t understand, which the Jews accepted at Sinai to do, and later come to an understanding. Also, Torah punishment cannot be given for a law derived purely from logic, and the 613 commandments only include those which are explicitly written in the Torah, but for daily living logic plays a vital role. Therefore, even though the incident with Yisro witnessing Moshe’s judging only took place after Yom Kippur, four months after Mount Sinai, the Torah presents it here as an introduction to the receiving of the Torah.
Later in the Torah reading, having just received the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, the Torah tells us “All the nation saw the voices (alt. thunder), and the flames, and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain...” (ibid. 20; 15). The people experienced synesthesia, where sounds became visible to them. Apart from the fact that we find it difficult to even conceive of such a concept, how does seeing a voice differ from hearing a voice? Why was it necessary for G-d to perform the extra miracle of making sounds visible?

We see from here that there is a clear difference from the voice of reason which resonates in the mouths of the scholars, which should be heard, and the direct prophecy of the encounter with G-d. The people went beyond hearing, and could actually see the words. The hidden meanings of each phrase became clear. Just as in English the phrase ‘I see’ implies a greater level of understanding than ‘I hear’, so too the Torah is telling us that the Jews reached the highest level of prophecy and insight. All the secrets contained within the Torah were revealed to them. When the Talmud wants to introduce a point it often uses the phrase, “Ta Shma”, “come and hear”. The Zohar, however, which contains the esoteric secrets, introduces phrases with the words, “Ta Chazi”, “Come and see”. Unless one ‘sees’ the meanings and secrets clearly they have not entered into the realms of the hidden secrets of the Torah.

Thus we see three different types of understanding in our portion. Yisro understood from events that he saw that the correct response was to join the Jews. Moshe heard and understood that Yisro’s logic was as valid as the rest of the Torah which was given directly from G-d. And the entire nation understood the Ten Commandments with such clarity that they went beyond hearing, and were able to ‘see’ what G-d demanded of them.

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