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Getting the Message Loud and Clear

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Three tools for attaining clarity.

In this week's parsha, three million Jews gather at the foot of Mount Sinai and personally witness God Almighty giving the Torah. Despite what you may remember from Hebrew School, let me assure you that Mount Sinai is the central event in Jewish history!

It is surprising, therefore, that the name of this parsha is "Yitro." Who was this man Yitro?

The Parsha begins:

"Yitro, the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God did for Moses and Israel... " (Exodus 18:1)

Yitro heard about the amazing events of the Exodus and came to join the Jewish people. Rashi asks: "What was it specifically that Yitro heard that caused him to come? He heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and about the war with Amalek."

But really the entire world heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek! So why does the Torah single out Yitro?

The answer is that Yitro was a truth seeker. He had traveled around, trying every type of spiritual path, ultimately rejecting one after another as false. He was honest with himself and committed to the truth. Did others hear about the Exodus? Of course! But only Yitro was open to its message. It was this act of greatness which brought Yitro to become part of the Jewish people – and for that the parsha of the Ten Commandments bears his name!

Knowledge Or Faith?

Certainly the Ten Commandments is the most famous part of the Torah. But what is the first of the Ten Commandments anyway?

"I am God."

What kind of commandment is that? That's not a command – that's a statement!

Explain the Sages: This is the mitzvah to know there is a God.

But to whom is this mitzvah addressed? If it's for people who already believe in God, they don't need to be told. And if it's for people who don't believe in God, they don't care what the Torah says anyway!

The answer is as follows: The Torah does not say "BELIEVE" in God. Nor does it say to wonder, feel, intuit, assume, presume, hope, or aspire that there's a God. Rather, the Torah commands us to "KNOW" there is a God!

Western society typically associates religion with "blind faith." But the Torah commands us to use reason and logic to ascertain God's existence. This intellectual understanding is crucial; feelings alone can deceive. In the Aleynu prayer, we say "know today and place it on your heart." Rational knowledge comes first; only then are we to connect emotionally. "Know there is a God" is the first Commandment – the most central idea of Judaism.

How does one achieve this knowledge? One word: Objectivity. The Talmud (Avot 1:8) tells us: "Be a judge, not a lawyer." A lawyer may sometimes advance his position without regard for its truth or validity. A judge, on the other hand, weighs each side carefully. When considering a question as profound and deep as the existence of God, we must be an impartial jury!

The Torah suggests 3 tools for attaining this objectivity:

Tool #1: Listen to What Others are Saying

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are two famous disputants in Talmudic literature. They argued about almost everything and saw the world from nearly opposite perspectives. (For example, Beit Hillel says we should light one Chanukah candle the first night, and add one candle each subsequent night. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, says to light 8 candles the first night and then decrease one candle each night.)

Jewish law, interestingly, follows Beit Hillel. And the Talmud explains why: In any disagreement, Beit Shammai would always state his own opinion. Whereas, Beit Hillel would always first state the opinion of Beit Shammai, and only then state his own position. In this way, Beit Hillel demonstrated that he was not just concerned with being right, but was seeking the truth that lied somewhere in between. That's why Jewish law follows Beit Hillel.

We see this dynamic in our own relationships as well. We've all met someone who stubbornly defends a ridiculous position, to avoid admitting being wrong. (The irony is that ultimately there is far more embarrassment in stubborn persistence, than in admitting the truth.)

To elude this trap, we can train ourselves to take other people's ideas seriously. The cardinal rule is: stay focused and calm. Communicate and discuss, rather than yell-and-proclaim. If anxiety about needing to be right becomes the primary concern, you become entrenched in a position. Getting defensive, interrupting, and responding impetuously you've lost the battle. Hillel (and Yitro), on the other hand, was willing to listening to another's opinion, subjugate his ego and acknowledge a truth not his own.

This is particularly important in marriage. Each partner brings to the relationship different insights and strengths. The ways we differ is not a threat; it is our opportunity to grow. If God had wanted us to be free of the need for each other, He'd have created us to split like an amoeba. Marriage is a unit, and when we focus on our common goals, we begin to view life in terms of "we," instead of the narrower "you-and-I."

This is true on a national level as well. Today, a wide gulf exists between different Jewish groups. As times, it seems the gap is unbridgeable. But in fact, there is greater area of agreement than we might think. We all agree on the need for tolerance, mutual trust, respect and understanding. We must find those areas of agreement and use them as a basis for building our relationships.

Tool #2: Seek Friends Who Challenge You

The Talmud tells the story of Rebbi Yochanan, a great scholar who had a study partner named Reish Lakish. (Before becoming a rabbi, Reish Lakish was a bandit. But that's another story...) These two men studied together for many years, until one day Reish Lakish got sick and died. Rebbe Yochanan was seen walking in the street, totally depressed. His students asked him, "What's wrong?" He said, "My study partner died and now I have none." They told him, "Don't worry Rebbi, we'll take care of it." So they went and found a brilliant young man to study with Rebbe Yochanan.

Two weeks later, Rebbi Yochanan is seen walking in the street again, totally depressed. They asked: "Rebbi, what happened? Why are you so sad? We sent you the most brilliant study partner. What's the problem?"

He told them: "My new study partner is so brilliant that whatever I say, he brings 24 proofs that I'm correct. But when I studied with Reish Lakish, he showed me 24 proofs that I was wrong. That's what I miss. I don't want someone who will just agree with me; I want a partner who will challenge my position. In this way we will arrive at the truth together."

A good challenge – is that what friends are for? YES! The Sages say: "Better the criticism of a friend, than the kiss of an enemy." Your friend will tell you when you have spinach stuck in your teeth; your enemy will smirk and say you look great! The Torah speaks of Dikduk Chaverim, which literally means fine-tuning with friends. With this attitude, I see others not as adversaries, but as a welcome counterbalance to my own perspective. In choosing my friends, I want someone who will challenge me to become better in life, not just better on the tennis court.

Tool #3: Don't Be Afraid To Ask

One more story:

About 100 years ago in Europe, there was a wealthy man, named Rav Eisel Charif of Slonim. His daughter was ready to get married, so Rav Eisel sought the best young man. In those days, "the best young man" meant the top Yeshiva student. So Rav Eisel traveled to the town of Volozhin, which was brimming under the tutelage of its famous Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv. (It is said that in the years the Netziv ran the Yeshiva, some 10,000 students passed through.) When Rav Eisel arrived, he walked into the study hall, made a loud klop on the table, and announced: "I have a very difficult question on a passage in the Talmud. Whoever can supply the correct answer will have my daughter's hand in marriage."

A great buzz swept through the study hall. The chance to marry Rav Eisel's daughter! Soon a long line formed, and one by one the students were given their chance to provide the answer. And one by one, Rav Eisel rejected the answers as incorrect. This went on for days. Some students even stood in line 2, 3, 4 times. But still no one came up with the correct answer. When the students had all exhausted their options, Rav Eisel packed his bags and began to head out of town.

He had just reached the edge of the city, when he heard a voice shouting after him: "Rav Eisel, Rav Eisel!" He turned around to see a young Yeshiva student running in his direction. The student explained: "Rav Eisel, I know I wasn't able to satisfy the condition for marriage, but just for my own sake, sir, could you please tell me what is the correct answer?"

"Aha!" shouted Rav Eisel. "You will be my son-in-law!"

In our lives, the pursuit of truth can sometimes be stifled if we don't have the courage to ask. Seeking another's help is an admission that I don't have all the answers myself. This may necessitate asking an uncomfortable question. Or humbly admitting I don't know. Or risking the appearance of ignorance. But all this is infinitesimal when compared to a life perpetuated in falsehood. The Yeshiva student demonstrated this courage; it is the hallmark of intellectual honesty.

The Sinai Experience

When the Jewish people stood at Sinai, they unconditionally accepted to fulfill all 613 Mitzvot. For those just beginning, 613 sounds like an awful lot... even overwhelming! Where does one begin to tackle such massive breadth and depth? If only there was one, powerful idea we could grasp. Something that summed up all the rest.

Rebbeinu Bechaye explains that while the Torah contains 613 mitzvot, everything is ultimately contained in the very first command, "I am God." It all boils down to that one line. Why? Because it is around this point that all else revolves. Once we "know there is a God," the rest flows from there – because we recognize it as a unified, holistic system.

What was the exact encounter at Mount Sinai? The Talmud says: Every Jew experienced God's Voice. A Voice so powerful that the people not only heard, but they "saw the sound waves" emerging from God's mouth. This physiological phenomenon is called "synesthesia," whereby all the senses are intensified and fused.

Jewish tradition tells us that each and every Jewish soul – past, present and future – stood that day at Mount Sinai. When The Voice tore through all 7 Heavens, the Torah was engraved on the stone tablets... but was first engraved on the heart of every Jew. The Voice spoke and we heard.

In Shema Yisrael, (the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance), we begin with the word Shema – "Listen." Carefully and calmly, we listen. Just like Yitro listened.

The Sfas Emes says that to receive the Torah, one has to desire truth. Do we truly want to attain clarity in life? Be a pursuer of truth. Listen carefully. For the mitzvah of "Know there is a God" invites us to rediscover the truth.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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