Yisro; Exodus 18:1-20:23

Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 74ff; Vol. XV, p. 379ff;
Vol. XVI, p. 198; Sichos Shabbos Pashas Yisro, 5751

Yisro’s Identity

Few of the weekly Torah readings are named after individuals, so whenever such an association is made, it commands special attention. And if this is true with regard to other Torah readings, it surely applies to Parshas Yisro, the story of the giving of the Torah. Naming the reading Yisro indicates a connection between him and the event.

Who was Yisro? The Torah describes1 him as the kohen of Midian. Our Sages offer two definitions for the word kohen:2

a) “Ruler.” Yisro governed the land of Midian.

b) “Priest.” He led the Midianites in their worship. Indeed, our Sages relate3 that Yisro had recognized all the false divinities in the world.

The connection between the first interpretation and the giving of the Torah is obvious, for it reflects the extent of Yisro’s commitment. Although he lived amidst wealth and comfort, he was prepared to journey into the desert to hear the words of the Torah.4 But the second interpretation is problematic. Our Sages teach5 that it is forbidden to tell a convert: “Remember your previous deeds.”

Recognizing Deities, Acknowledging G-d

To resolve this question, it is necessary to understand the source of idol worship. The Rambam writes:6

During the time of Enosh, mankind made a great error…. They said that G-d created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor…. Accordingly, it is fit [for man] to praise and glorify [these entities], and to treat them with honor.

Thus the worship of false divinities is rooted in a misunderstanding of the fact that G-d influences this world through intermediaries.

Our Sages comment:7 “There is not a blade of grass on this [material] plane that does not have a spiritual force compelling it to grow.” Idol worshippers, however, attach independent authority to these intermediaries, thinking they have control over the influence they disperse. In truth, these “gods” are merely “an ax in the hand of a chopper,”8 with no importance or will of their own, and therefore it is wrong and forbidden to worship them.9

By saying Yisro had recognized all the false deities in the world, our Sages implied that he was aware of all the different media through which G-d channels energy to the world. Despite his knowledge of these spiritual powers, he rejected their worship, declaring:10 “Blessed be G-d…. Now I know that G-d is greater than all the deities.”

The Microcosm Encouraging the Macrocosm

Yisro’s acknowledgment of G-d was not merely a personal matter. His words of praise brought about “the revelation of G-d in His glory in the higher and lower realms. Afterwards, He gave the Torah, in perfect [confirmation of] His dominion over all existence.”11

Yisro’s individual acknowledgment of G-d expressed the purpose of the giving of the Torah. This prepared the macrocosm, the world at large, for such a revelation.

To explain: The Rambam states:12 “The Torah was given solely to create peace within the world.” Yet peace is not the purpose for the Torah’s existence; the Torah existed before the creation of the world.13 It is G-d’s wisdom,14 at one with Him.15

Thus just as G-d transcends the concept of purpose, so too does the Torah. The Rambam, however, focuses, not on the purpose of the Torah itself, but on that of the giving of the Torah why the Torah was granted to mortals. He explains that the Torah was given, not merely to spread Divine light, but to cultivate peace.

When the Twains Meet

Peace refers to harmony between opposites. In an ultimate sense, it refers to a resolution of the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual, the forward movement enabling a world in which G-d’s presence is not outwardly evident to recognize and be permeated by the truth of His Being.

On the verse:16 “The heavens are the heavens of G-d, but the earth He gave to the children of man,” our Sages explain17 that originally, there was a Divine decree separating the physical from the spiritual, i.e., the nature of material existence prevented one from truly appreciating spiritual reality.18 At the time of the giving of the Torah, however, G-d “nullified this decree” and allowed for unity to be established between the two.

Moreover, true peace involves more than the mere negation of opposition. The intent is that forces which were previously at odds should recognize a common ground and join together in positive activity. Similarly, the peace which the Torah fosters does not merely involve a revelation of G-dliness so great that the material world is forced to acknowledge it. Instead, the Torah’s intent is to bring about an awareness of G-d within the context of the world itself.

There is G-dliness in every element of existence. At every moment Creation is being renewed; were G-d’s creative energy to be lacking, the world would return to absolute nothingness.19 The Torah allows us to appreciate this inner G-dliness, and enables us to live in harmony with it.

In a personal sense, Yisro’s acknowledgment of G-d’s supremacy accomplished this objective. From his involvement with “all the false deities in the world,” he came to a deep recognition of G-d’s sovereignty.20 The transformation of Yisro made possible the giving of the Torah, which in turn transforms the world.

From Darkness to Light

The Zohar21 associates the transformation of material existence with the verse:22 “I saw an advantage to the light over the darkness.” The word Yisaron, (יתרון, sharing the same root as the name Yisro, יתרו) translated as “advantage,” can also be rendered as “higher quality.” Thus the verse can be interpreted to indicate that light which comes from the transformation of darkness possesses a higher quality.

There are two implications to this. Firstly, that the transformation of darkness results in a higher quality of light than would otherwise be revealed, and secondly, that this higher light does not stand in opposition to the material world. On the contrary, the darkness of the world is its source.

The Path to Redemption

The Tanya23 describes the giving of the Torah as a foretaste of the Era of the Redemption. For when the Torah was given, all existence stood in a state of absolute oneness with G-d.

At the time of the giving of the Torah, however, the revelation was dependent on G-d’s initiative. Since the world had not yet been refined, its nature stood in opposition to the manifestation of G-dliness, and so the miraculous revelation did not endure. In the centuries that followed, however, mankind’s observance of the Torah and its mitzvos has slowly woven G-dliness into the fabric of the world. In the Era of the Redemption, the dichotomy will be permanently dissolved, and we will realize that our world is G-d’s dwelling.24

1. Exodus 18:1.
2. See the Mechilta to this verse.
3. Mechilta to Exodus 18:11; Zohar, Vol. II, p. 69a; Rashi, Exodus 18:9.
4. Rashi, Exodus 18:5.
5. See Bava Metzia 58b, quoted in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mechirah 14:13.
6. Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 1:1.
7. Bereishis Rabbah 10:6, Zohar, Vol. I, p. 251a.
8. Cf. Isaiah 10:15. See the maamar VeYadaata 565 7 (English translation, Kehot, 1993) where this concept is explained at length.
9. See the fifth of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith (Commentary to the Mishnah, Introduction to the Tenth Chapter of Sanhedrin).
10. Exodus 18:10-11.
11. Zohar, Vol. II, p. 67b.
12. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, the conclusion of Hilchos Chanukah. The Rambam’s source is a matter of question. The Tzemach Tzedek (Or HaTorah, Mishlei, p. 553) cites Gittin 59b. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, p. 349ff.
13. Midrash Tehillim 90:4, Bereishis Rabbah 88:2.
14. Tanya, ch. 3.
15. Zohar, Vol. I, p. 24a.
16. Psalms 115:16.
17. Shmos Rabbah 12:3. See the essay entitled What Happened at Sinai (Timeless Patterns in Time, Vol. II, p. 91ff, Kehot, 1994) which elaborates on this concept.
18. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “world.” (Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 37d) עולם, shares the same root as the word העלם, meaning “concealment.”
19. Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 1.
20. Yisro willingly acknowledged G-d’s presence and endeavored to modify his life to conform with this appreciation. Other nations were also awed by the miracles of the Red Sea and recognized G-d’s power, as it is written (Exodus 15:14-16): “Nations heard and shuddered…. The [inhabitants of] Canaan melted away. Fear and dread fell upon them.” Unlike Yisro, however, they did not reflect this appreciation of G-d in their conduct.
21. Zohar, Vol. III, p. 47b.
22. Ecclesiastes 2:13.
23. Ch. 36.
24. Cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Bechukosai, sec. 3.
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