There are many things that the Torah stresses in this/last week’s parsha about Yisro and what made him special. He was wise. He was thankful. But even more so: he was a man of action!
The parsha opens with the words (Exodus 18:1) “And Yisro heard all that had occurred and he came to Bnei Yisrael in the desert”. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, asks the following question. Was Yisro really the only one who heard all that HaShem did on behalf of the Jews? Of course not! As was mentioned in the shiras ha’yam, the song at the sea (ibid. 16:14) “shamu amim yirgazun, chil achaz yoshvei pelashet”. “The nations (of the world) heard (what transpired at the splitting of the sea. As our sages, ob”m, tell us that it was not just the Red Sea that parted, but all of the waters of the world did, as well) and they became unsettled. Violent shaking gripped those who dwell in Pelashet”. Every one in the world heard what happened to the Jews. It wasn’t just a legend. They knew it in their hearts to be the absolute truth. So why, ask our sages, did the Torah feel it necessary to state that Yisro heard what happened?
The answer, say our sages, is that Yisro didn’t just hear it. He internalized it’s meaning and he then put it into practice.
There are so many times that we arrive at an understanding about life. Suddenly we realize, with clear knowledge that this, this I know to be true. It’s undeniable! But do we internalize the issue? More importantly, do we then follow through with the implications of our knowledge? The unfortunate truth is that many times, we do not.
But not Yisro. Yisro, as we stated above, he was a man who put living a life of meaning as his top priority, he therefore made sure that after he internalized the truth he then put it into action.
The reason that the Torah stresses the hearing of Yisro is not because he, alone, heard what happened, but, rather, because he alone internalized the meaning. It was time to face up to the truth. So he then packed his possessions and left for the desert, that blazing hot, inhospitable place, because it was there that he would find the truth that he was always looking for.
This is a valuable life lesson to us all, in so many ways. Let’s count a few.
Internalize what is truly fundamental about life:
The story is told that when the original Artscroll Siddur was about to be printed it was taken to many of the gedolim (great sages of the generation) in the United States in order to get approbations, as is the way with all Torah publications. One of the gedolim of the day was none other than HaRav Yosef Dov Ber Solovetchick, ztvk”l, Rav of Boston and Rosh Ha Yeshiva at Yeshiva University.
When he was shown the siddur the first thing that he did was open it up to the translation of Krias Shema (the recitation of the shema). He glanced for a minute, closed the book and said “I’m sorry. I can’t give a haskomah (approbation) to this”. When he was asked why he responded “Because you improperly translated the word shema”. “Our sages, ob”m, argue in tractate Berachos over the meaning of the word shema. The opinion of Rabbi Yossi is that it means “hear”, which we do with our ears. However, it is the opinion of the chachamim (wise men, a general term for multiple rabbi’s) that the interpretation is “UNDERSTAND”, to internalize the meaning, not just to hear it. The halacha (accepted practice) in this is like the chachamim. You therefore incorrectly translated the first verse of the shema prayer when you wrote ‘Hear O’ Israel’, as it doesn’t mean to hear. It means to understand and internalize”.
To this day the translation remains the same in the Artscroll Siddur, for some reason.
One of the main lessons of the mitzvah of kriyas shema is the internalization of the message, not just to hear it’s precepts. HaShem IS (Anochi HaShem and Shema Yisroel HaShem), there is no other power in existence (Lo yehiyeh lecha elohim acherim and E-lohecha) and He is a singularity (HaShem Echod). These are three of the most basic of mitzvos in the entire Torah.
But it’s not just internalizing the message that Yisro taught us. There’s more.
Delve into searching and comprehending the life that we are given.
Another thing the Torah tells us about Yisro is an off-hand comment that he makes, which has a lot to teach us. After being accepted into the camp by his son-in-law, Moses, Yisro offers up a Thanks-giving sacrifice. During the meal that follows such a korbon (sacrifice) Yisro also speaks. “Now I know that HaShem is greater than all of the elohim (the powers)”, he says (Ibid. 18:11). On which our sages, ob”m, comment that from here we understand that Yisro was a searcher, to the extent that there was not even one type of idol in the world that Yisro hadn’t already worshiped. Only someone who knew and understood deeply could truly make such a statement. But even more so: the Torah wouldn’t have recorded it for posterity unless it, too, was a statement of absolute truth.
This teaches us another very important lesson about life. You must be a seeker. But even more so, we must be seekers of truth.
The story is told that a newspaper reporter once asked Tomas Edison “Mr. Edison, sir. What is it like to have gone through 10,000 failures in your search to create the light-bulb”? Mr. Edison is reported to have answered “Son, I just want to correct you, to give you the proper outlook that you need in life. I did not fail 10,000 times. I successfully found 10,000 ways to make a light-bulb that didn’t work”.
The lesson of positivism aside, (although also of tremendous importance), I think that we can conclude that Mr. Edison was also a seeker.
Moshe, our Teacher, before his death prayed to HaShem 516 prayers to forgive him (Moshe) of his sin and allow him to enter the land of Israel. He would have continued to pray even more if HaShem hadn’t told him to stop. Because Moshe was a seeker.
Our sages, ob”m, (Tractate Chagiga 9b) learn from the verse in Malachi (3:18) “to distinguish between he who worships HaShem and he who does not” that the difference between the person who worships HaShem and he who does not is the difference between someone that learns the Torah 100 times as opposed to someone who learns it 101. If we truly comprehend the greatness of the Torah then even if we are looking at something learned many, many times, as – in all likelihood – there is always some aspect of the topic that we overlooked we always have something to gain from learning it even one more time.
In order to succeed at life we must, ourselves, become seekers of truth and understanding.
This does not mean, however, that we should go check out other religions and types of avoda zara (idol worship) so that we, too, can be seekers like Yisro. We have a great kabbalah through the generations and an entire Holy Torah so that we don’t have to go through the mine-fields of the foreign, the ridiculous, and the preposterous. All we have to do is become seekers in our understanding, our breadth, and our grasp of the propensity and the amazingness of our Holy Torah in order to truly comprehend life.
The Torah, itself, tells us that if we would want to, once we have already understood it’s truth, to go out and verify it from outside sources as well – there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. This is explicit in the verse (Deuteronomy 4:32-35) where the Torah states
(32) For you should ask (=search), please, from the beginning of days, from those who came before you, from the day that E-lohim created man on the earth and from one end of the earth to the other. Has there ever been such a great and tremendous occurrence, or have you ever even heard of such a thing before? (33) Has there been a nation who has heard the voice of E-lohim, speaking to them from amidst the fire, as you have, and have lived (to tell the tale)? (34) Or has there ever been an occurrence of Elohim coming and taking a people from amongst another people, with signs, with wonders and with war and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with greatly fearful acts, like all which HaShem E-lokim did for you in Egypt in front of your very eyes? (35) You have been shown (all of the above) to know that HaShem, He is the E-lohim, there is none else without Him.
In his book Chovos haLevavos Rabbenu Bechaye tells us that the verification of even clear core concepts of the Torah, such as belief in HaShem, HaShem’s unity and many other facets, are only really attainable by he who goes out and works and strives to really “knock the point home” by using outside verification in order to truly solidify those issues that we already believe in based on our massora (transmission from Sinai). Only such a person, a seeker of truth who seeks not only to know, but also to put into practice that which he has learned and that which he has divined along his journey, only this person can reach the fullness of avodas HaShem.
This is one of the lessons of Yisro that the Torah stresses.
If you want to live a real life, not a virtual one, then set your sights on becoming a doer. When you hear of the opportunity to gain in perspective and understanding about life – get up and go where to where that takes you, even to the desert. Put in the effort and introspection to make sure that you understand – truly – that which you have learned. Rely on your mesorah, but do go to verify it and instead of being a guy who claims a claim that he doesn’t understand, be a person who knows and who internalizes that which he has heard and learned. Know the Torah to be true.
A word of warning, however.
Despite the fact that when it comes to science there is no actual scientific fact which “clearly” contradicts, or even just “sort of” contradicts the Torah. Despite this there are many claims to the contrary. It is the claims of those people and those of the popular media which give people pause, not the actual data. “How could all of those intelligent people be wrong?” we ask ourselves. I, personally, spent a very long time sifting through the vast information in various fields to arrive at a very clear, very concise conclusion in this regard. Not to toot my own horn, but I feel, and so do the many other people who have read my first volume of the Core Emmuna series, that the information is very clear.
Therefore if you are not sure that you can navigate the waters yourself and come out unscathed – then don’t do it by yourself! If you arrive at a certain question and you are not sure how to deal with it from a Torah/Hashkafic view – then don’t be embarrassed to ask someone with the knowledge and experience in that area as to how we are supposed to understand this issue in the light of Torah. There are no questions in the Torah that are heretical in nature, there are only people of a heretical outlook poising “questions” in a way that they feel are problematic. There are clear and intelligent answers to every single question that has ever been asked, in all areas of existence. Indeed most of the “questions” are based mostly on faulty logic. However, if you are a bayshan (too embarrassed) and do not ask, then the dictum of our sages, ob”m, in tractate Avos “The bayshan will not learn” applies. Even worse. The bayshan might lose his emmuna all because he was to embarrassed to search for the truth.
Concerning the topics compiled by certain heretics, who try to prove that the Torah is incorrect by using the simple understanding of the verses and the words of our sages in certain places I will say the following. A> In many places in Tanach (the Bible) it is quite possible to quote certain verses that seem nonsensical or contrary in nature. In all instances this is because the topic is quoted without any context whatsoever. When placed in context all of a sudden they all make perfect sense. B> 90% of the sources quoted are only partially quoted. When the whole quote is revealed (another form of context) everything makes sense. Lastly, C> the writers rely on the fact that his/her readers will be to lazy to actually look at their sources or to pursue their context, seeing as the writer is obviously such a learned individal. “Look at all of the sources he quotes” they say. The Rambam, in Iggeret Teiman (if memory serves me) wrote long ago that it is man’s nature to believe everything that they read. Don’t be a lemming and jump off the cliff trusting the guy in front of you! He/She doesn’t have your best interests at heart!
Haskel ve yadoah oti, says the Prophet Jeremiah (9:23). “Use your mind and know me” says HaShem. Be like Yitro, search for truth, truly understand and internalize the knowledge and grow powerful in your emmuna.