Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )
The giving of the Torah is considered to be one of the most far-reaching episodes known to humanity. Whilst God Himself utters the first two commandments, the magnitude of God's voice is so great that the Jewish people beg for Moses to speak in place of God, lest they die. This is the first and only recorded time that God reveals Himself to an entire nation - a pinnacle of human history - and yet, rather than giving this episode a grandiose name or even referencing the Ten Commandments, it is named after a relatively minor character from the story, who happens to be a convert - Yitro. Why? What is so great about Yitro that he merits to have this extraordinary section named after him?
The whole world sees the amazing miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea. The Midrash says that every other body of water in the world was also separated at that time. The impact of witnessing this supernatural event, however, dulled, and eventually people began to forget. This unfortunate phenomenon occurs on a micro-level almost daily. We are constantly surrounded by everyday miracles; from the birth of a baby to the blossoming of a flower. Yet we walk around as if everything is normal, carrying out day to day activities, blind to the miracles taking place all around us.
The key to living an enriched life can be found in the character of Yitro. In contrast to the generation around him, Yitro internalizes and appreciates the greatness of the miracles he has witnessed. His exposure to the spiritual fosters within him an increased sensitivity and awareness of similar experiences. So when the Jewish people are victorious in their battle against Amalek, he immediately understands that this was not simply due to the might of the Jewish army and he acknowledges that this must be the work of God.
This unique section of the Torah is always read around the time of the festival of Tu bishvat, the new year or 'birthday' for the trees. Just as on a person's birthday, we celebrate their existence, reminisce about their younger years and share blessings for their future, similarly the Jewish calendar has identified an appropriate date for celebrating the existence of trees. On Tu bishvat we celebrate the beauties of nature, we take wonder in the new blossoms flowering after a dormant winter season and we marvel at the magic of a bee pollinating a flower. In acknowledging the way that a tiny seed can grow into a magnificent tree, we acknowledge the simple everyday natural miracles that underpin the world.
It is therefore no coincidence that the miraculous and supernatural story of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is read precisely around the time of Tu bishvat. The wonder and inspiration felt in that moment of revelation should be the same wonder and inspiration we experience when witnessing the everyday miracles of life and the world around us. And perhaps it is for this very reason that this portion of the Torah is called Yitro.
Having witnessed the miracle of the splitting of the sea, and the Jewish people's miraculous victory over Amalek, Yitro begins to realize that his whole existence is one majestic miracle. It is relatively easy to marvel at supernatural phenomena, but to take that wonder and superimpose it into everyday life, to notice the miracles hidden beneath the surface of nature, and to appreciate God's role in our everyday world, brings gratitude to an altogether different level.
From this viewpoint of wonder, this moment of gratitude for all that is around him, Yitro converts to Judaism. He journeys forward with his family and joins the Jewish nation. His decision reflects the underlying tenet that a prerequisite for receiving the Torah and living a life of Judaism is to be grateful for everything one has, to acknowledge daily miracles and to integrate their meaning into the fabric of our lives. Yitro's attitude towards the wonders of the world, and his subsequent conversion to Judaism, is a blueprint for the mindset required by the Jewish People as they stand and prepare to receive the Torah.
The sages encourage every Jew, every morning to begin the day with the Mode ani prayer: Mode ani lefanecha melech hai vekhayam, which literally means 'grateful I am before you, living and Eternal King.' The order of the wording is strange as grammatically it should read ani modeh lefanecha i.e. 'I am grateful before you'. So why is the order reversed? The answer reveals a fundamental tenet in Judaism. How can one begin their entire day with the word ani, 'I', implying a focus on one's self? Even if grammatically inappropriate, it is a far greater value to begin our day with mode reflecting gratitude, in order to predicate the day on appreciation, rather than focusing on self-centredness.
The message of Yitro and perhaps the reason this portion is named after him, is that the grandiose morality and groundbreaking content of the Ten Commandments is predicated upon a basic level of appreciation. Practicing as a Jew involves allowing gratitude and appreciation to infuse every facet of our life. This finds expression in daily blessings over food, sights, smells and actions. In this way we affirm the ideal that acknowledging and making blessings over life is the greatest way to transform life into the ultimate blessing.
Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel are on the brink of receiving the Torah. One would expect this momentous unparalleled event in history, to be highlighted as special, with a majestic name relating to its historical and significant meaning. Yet our sages choose to name this section of the Torah, Yitro. This puzzling choice presents profound insights into the type of mindset that the Jewish Nation needs to develop as a prerequisite for receiving Torah and embarking on a relationship with God.
1. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkot 24a.
2. Exodus, 20:15-18.
3. Exodus Rabba 21:6.
4. Mishna, Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1.