Did You Hear What He Didn't Say?

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

Yitro is one of the most interesting personalities in the Torah, yet he is rarely discussed. He's not a figurehead, or a forefather, or a tribal head. He's Moses' father-in-law, who faded into obscurity.

Most likely, the reason for his fall from notoriety is that he only stayed around for a year after he came to the nation of Israel.

Originally, after hearing about the events of the going out of Egypt, Yitro traveled to visit the Israelites. He was so impressed that he converted to Judaism.

He understood the events that had happened between the Egyptians and the Israelites differently than all the other people around at the time, and saw the need to come and join, rather than merely sitting back in awe. The news of several million people leaving their enslavement in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and other events was heard by all the nations. But Yitro was the only one who came.

Yet still, he only stayed for a year. After absorbing the wisdom from Moses, he decided that his life goal was best served by going back to his hometown to convert them to his newfound way of life. Hence his fall to oblivion. Moses told him to stay. He left. He disappeared.

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If Yitro did the wrong thing by leaving, and faded into obscurity, then why does this Torah portion feature him so prominently? Why is this portion, arguably the most important in the Torah as it contains the famous Ten Commandments, named after someone who made such a mistake as to leave the Nation of God? (Noble, yes; he wanted to help others, but mistaken nonetheless.)

Some say the reason that Yitro is held in high esteem is that his status as a convert juxtaposed with the Ten Commandments serves as a reminder that even someone born Jewish should feel like a convert to the Torah. Every Jew should make a full-fledged, emotional, intellectual commitment to learn from and follow the Torah to the best of his/her ability.

But there is another point. It says that Yitro "heard" and came. In Hebrew the word for hear - "shema" - also means to understand. Yitro didn't just hear, he understood. And then he acted.

God does not always tell us explicitly what He wants from us. If He did, the relationship would be somewhat stale and technical, like a commanding officer. Rather, God wants us to arrive at a deeper understanding of what He wants from us. He wants us to read into the commandments, and see the principles behind them.

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When people make requests, they often hint to something they wish the other person would do but are not comfortable requesting outright. If one of my children comes home with a "goodie bag" from a birthday party, another child will say, "Wow, what did you get?" Which also means, "I hope you'll share something with me." They want to be offered; they don't want to have to ask.

This happens with a boss and an employee, with a spouse, and every relationship there is. Each person in a relationship has a different subtle reason for hinting to a request without being explicit. One person may be embarrassed to be explicit; another might test their partner's sensitivity.

Similarly, in His wisdom, God did not state explicitly everything that will cause us to be better people, more spiritual, and more one with the Infinite. He left a lot up to us. Therefore we need to be constantly on the lookout for hints as to what is the right thing to do.

For example, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (in Path of the Just) points out that the Torah describes a person called a nazir, someone who takes an oath of abstinence from wine. Along with a prohibition on wine, the person also accepts a prohibition on grape juice, grapes, grape skins, and other things only tangentially related to wine. Rabbi Luzzatto's conclusion is that the Torah was hinting to a suggestion: If you want to grow spiritually, you need to create "fences" of protection.

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Yitro taught us (for now and all eternity) that God hints to avenues of spiritual growth. If you get the hints, you can access the highest levels of enlightenment.

Everyone else heard the same things that Yitro heard. But they didn't fully "hear" them. Yitro heard, understood, and acted.

Not only in biblical times, but now as much as ever, the Almighty is trying to get our attention. He sends messages to us through events that happen globally, locally and individually. Because He is infinite, no person or act is too "small" for Him to be involved with.

One piece of advice: Make sure to keep your insight focused on your own messages, as opposed to the messages of others. Have you ever heard someone say, "I think God is trying to send her a message"? Some may think they know why God does things to other people. But the messages from the Almighty are very personal and individual. God is sending you messages for you. Don't try to figure out someone else's messages; it's usually in poor taste (and often off the mark).

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Spiritual Exercise:

Look at the events of this week for things that are happening to you, in your community, or in the world, and ask yourself if there's a message there for you from God.

Look at one of the Ten Commandments and ask yourself if there's a hint to a deeper principle that God wants from humanity.

Next Steps