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One Step At a Time

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's Torah Portion, Yitro, begins with the verse:

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

Although it says that Yitro heard all that God had done, nonetheless the Talmud (Zevachim 116a) says that there were three specific things that Yitro heard which inspired him to come running across the desert to join the Jewish people.

  1. Splitting of the Red Sea.

  2. War against Amalek.

  3. Giving of the Torah.

We need to understand why it was specifically these three events which inspired him to come to the camp of Israel.

Furthermore we must examine this verse, which describes Yitro as "the priest of Midian, Moses's father-in-law." The first description is a disgrace, referring to his idolatrous past. The second description is one of praise, noting that he is Moses's father-in-law. Why do we label Yitro with these two diametrically opposed titles?

Let us share an idea based on the "Tiferet Shmuel" (volume 2). Even if a person achieves the highest of spiritual levels, it is possible for that person to fall to the lowest of places. This is more likely when a person quickly "jumps levels" and takes on too much at one time. When one takes on more than he can handle in terms of spiritual growth, this can backfire. The person can become frustrated and tense to the point where he cracks and falls back down again.

This is exactly what happened to the Jewish people after they crossed the Red Sea. The "Yalkut Reuveni" says that before the Splitting of the Sea, the angels testified to God that the Egyptians are idolaters and the Jews are idolaters as well (Exodus 14:28). "Why should the Jews be saved and the Egyptians destroyed?" they asked. "Let's destroy them both."

We find that before the Splitting of the Red Sea the Jews were just as involved in idolatry as the Egyptians. They had reached the lowest of the lowest levels. However, immediately after the splitting of the Red Sea, they proclaimed: "This is my God and I will glorify him" (Exodus 15:2). The Midrash (Mechilta) says that even the simplest of Jews saw a vision of God which was even greater than that which the prophet Ezekiel saw. It did not take very long to cross the sea, and in that short span of time the Jewish people went from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. They jumped from the spiritual depths all the way to the top.

Therefore we find toward the end of last week's portion that during the war against Amalek, the Jewish people ask, "Is God with us or not?" (Exodus 17:7) How could this be? A moment ago they all pointed and said "this is my God." How can these very same people doubt that God is among them and performing all these miracles? How can the Jews, who were such great prophets, also be borderline heretics?

Perhaps this happened because they jumped from the lowest to the highest in such a short span of time - something which is not healthy in spiritual growth and can cause a person to fall all the way back down.

* * *


There are different levels of hearing. The commentator Ohr Gedaliyahu explains the greatness in the Jewish people's statement, "We will do and we will hear," by noting that the word "we will do" (na'aseh) comes first (see also Shabbat 88a). By saying "we will do," the Jewish people expressed their ability to do the will of God even before they were specifically commanded in the mitzvot. They could intuitively "hear" God's desires. According to the Ohr Gedaliyahu, this very high level of hearing demonstrated the Jewish people's great love for God, in which they were able to anticipate His wishes.

In the second, slightly lower level of hearing, we are unable to perceive God's desires before He expresses them. Nevertheless, once He articulates His will, we are able to discern the deeper message of the mitzvot. In other words, through each mitzvah itself, we can understand what God wants from us.

Through this idea, we can understand why the Jewish people use two different expressions - "we will do" (na'aseh) and "we will do and we will hear" (na'aseh v'nishma). The first expression (na'aseh) corresponds to the highest level of hearing. Without hearing explicit instructions, how did the Jews know what to do? It must be that they were able to intuit God’s will even without physically hearing them articulated.

The second expression (na'aseh v'nishma) corresponds to the second level of hearing, in which we are able to hear, through the mitzvot, what God really wants from us. After acting on what we have been told, we can hear God's will.

The Slonimer Rebbe adds that this second level of hearing applies not only to mitzvot, but also to every situation we encounter in life. Each circumstance in which we find ourselves contains custom-tailored lessons for us to learn, if only we are able to hear them. For example, if a mentally unstable person on the street starts yelling at us for no apparent reason, instead of getting angry at him, we can assume that, for some reason, we are intended to hear his words. Perhaps there is some kernel of truth in what he is saying that can teach us a lesson.

* * *


The giving of the Ten Commandments in this week's parsha teaches us that growth has to be slow and deliberate. God did not give us one huge commandment, but rather gave us ten individual commandments. This teaches us that growth comes one step at a time. As the Talmud says (Makkot 23b), "Rebbi Chananyah ben Akashia says that God wanted to give the Jewish people merit and therefore he increased the Torah and its Commandments."

Torah has to be absorbed one step and one mitzvah at a time. The Ten Commandments reflects this by stating each mitzvah one after the other. This is the meaning of Rebbi Chananyah ben Akashia's statement. God increased Torah and mitzvot because each is a rung on our spiritual ladder, and the more rungs we have, the safer and easier it is to ascend.

* * *


This helps us understand the significance of the three things that inspired Yitro to come running across the desert. First came the splitting of the sea, where Yitro saw people at the very bottom jumping all the way to the top. Then he heard of the war against Amalek, where the Jewish people questioned God's existence. They plunged right back down to being heretics. This was because their process of teshuva moved too fast. Yitro knew that he was also a repentant and he worried that perhaps he too had moved too fast.

It therefore says that he heard of the giving of the Torah, which was a gradual process. First God gave the Ten Commandments and then he gave the rest of the laws. He gave the Torah one step at a time, one mitzvah a time. When he saw this, Yitro said "I need to learn how to grow at a slow and steady pace, as opposed to taking everything on all at once and causing myself to rebel."

That is why these three events are singled out. This also helps us understand the answer to the second question of why the Torah refers to Yitro in the opening verse as "the priest of Midian, Moses's father-in-law." This shows that even though he became the father-in-law of the great Moses, Yitro recognized that deep down inside him remained a piece of idolatrous Midian. He already tasted that, and needed to make sure that his journey from being a priest of Midian to Moses's father-in-law was going to be a permanent and meaningful one.

God wants us to grow at a pace which is healthy for us and not to take on too much at once and wind up turning our backs on the entire Torah. That is certainly not the will of God. Rather, do it with caution, one step at a time, at a rate which is healthy and productive. That way we can become all we can possibly be.

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