A people confronted with the gift of
Shemot 18, 1-20, 23
- Listening, the key to Judaism
- The different uses of words
- The converted were at Sinai
- The reunion
- Yithro - the antithesis of Amalek
- Conversion and the divine plan
- Conversion and the destiny of the people
- Reunion of Creation
- Distribution of roles
- Over-valorization of the 10 commandments?
- History in the making
- To row or do nothing
1. Re-read the parasha with these concepts in mind.
2. Reflect on you stand within these dynamics
3. Discuss your ideas with those close to you.
4. Hebrew lesson (to be memorized).
5. Memorize these phrases
6. Consult the dictionary.
This study is dedicated
to all those who return to their roots
as the people of the Torah,
to those who are following the path
of conversion, and to those who have been chosen
to follow these paths.
It is important, in order to understand the following commentary
and the meaning of this parasha, to read first the parasha.
The above plan helps define the different themes. In order
to fully participate in the Jewish method of study, write
below the numbers of the verses for each theme in brackets.
The parasha describes the following episodes:
" Description of Yithro's receptivity and ability to
" Yithro's move towards Moshe and his family and the
expressions used at their meeting (Shmot
" Yithro's declaration of allegiance (Shmot 18, 10-11);
" The arrival of the Elders (Shmot
" Moshe legislates; Yithro's advice to Moshe (Shmot
" Moshe's answer to the converted (Shmot 18, 24);
" The first ascent on Sinai, the first message and
the people's reply (Shmot 19, 1- );
" The transmission of the reply, preparation (Shmot
" The revelation at Sinai, the warning not to approach
" The 10 commandments (Shmot
" The people, additional commandments (Shmot 20, 15-23).
The Sages often begin their study with a list of surprising
let us do likewise. Indeed we confront here a surprising
and astonishing phenomenon:
" first, this parasha, which teaches us the Torah.,
bears the name of a non-Jew;
" then, the new convert gives advice
himself on the organization of the holy people, which is
based entirely on holiness, and Moshe is quick to follow
in full his advice;
" finally, the name of this convert, Yithro, is chosen
for the title of this highly important parasha, which recounts
the revelation at Sinai and the 10 commandments:
" Even less logical is the fact that we are unable
to reconcile all of this with the common notion that Judaism
does not proselytize or encourage conversions.
We therefore need to understand the message contained here,
particularly as this moment marks the central point of Jewish
the key to Judaism
The key to the parasha is found in the first word: "Vayishma,
Yithro heard..all that Elokim had done for Moshe and for
Yisrael his people." It is immediately clear that the
word (Vayishma, He heard) will become the slogan for Judaism:
for Yithro is the first to truly "hear."
The word does not simply involve the physical act of hearing;
it also means "to hear" in the sense of "truly
For this reason Rabbenu Behaye opens his commentary on the
parasha with verse 15, 4 of Proverbs (Mishle):
marpe lashon etz hayim, ve self ba shever be ruah
"A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness
therein is a breach in the
Let us continue this Jewish
method of posing questions in order to advance our understanding
of the text:
what is the connection between this key word and the parasha
which recounts the revelation at Sinai and what Yithro heard?
It must be that we are about to receive important messages
but that they are only important if we truly listen and
Yithro showed what it means to truly listen; this is something
that is demanded of all Jews, even of the people who received
the revelation at Sinai.
This is probably why Moshe, impressed by Yithro's sincerity,
integrity and capacity to listen, trusted his advice.
The question remains: why is the man who is charged with
teaching us all of this not a member of bnei Yisrael?
uses of words
Rabbenu Behaye begins with a question that appears to be
a simple one of morality in order to reach the answers we
He first describes the negative
use of words:
--- he who humiliates someone in public has no part in the
world to come (Baba Metzia 59 a);
--- the illness which causes malicious gossip is more powerful
than any physical illness, it shatters the whole being,
as says the verse from Proverbs.
In contrast, the positive use
of words was demonstrated to us by Avraham Avinu:
--- it is this "pearl" which we are told Avraham
wore around his neck, and which healed all the sick people
who saw it: it is the science of how to put words to good
--- Avraham made God known through words and sustained people
in this path (Sotah 10b).
Rabbenu Behaye speaks of a "therapy of words"
(refuat halashon) to describe Avraham's relationship with
his people; it made many of them "come under the wings
of the shekhina" (converted) and this was their tree
In parenthesis, and on a very modest level, this also represents
the meaning and significance of the name of this site (modia,
I inform) which tries to "make known" to the reader
that the Torah is his heritage and belongs to him. Rabbenu
Behaye describes explicitly Moshe's approach: "I make
known" (vehodati, Shmot 18, 16). Indeed, He who makes
known is Hashem who made us know His Torah: the rest is
simply a necessary chain of transmission.
were at Sinai
Rabbenu Behaye explains the first 5 verses of the parasha
which describe Yithro revealing his discovery to the members
of his clan and bringing them back to conversion, then joining
all the people on Mount Sinai. His presence explains the
verse which talks of the presence of all the converted to
come on Sinai, through this symbolic representation, through
this neshama, and which says: "we and all who are with
us." The precise term used by Rabbi Behaye is legayer
The term indicates that it involves more than just a personal
process (which does not great collective value), but represents
a process of reunion within creation as much as within God's
own internal project. This is why, says Rabbi Behaye, it
is written (verse 18, 9): vayihad Yitro, "and Yithro
united for all the goodness that Hashem had done to Yisrael;"
the traditional English translation, which distorts the
Hebrew text ("and Yithro rejoiced for all the goodness
which the Lord had done to Israel..") camouflages the
The antithesis of Amalek
This is the reason why Yithro's conduct is the antithesis
of that of Amalek who attacks the very throne of Hashem,
as we saw in the last verse of the preceding parasha (Shmot
17, 16). This is why the two themes follow each other closely
and we speak of semikhut parashiyot (the joining of two
parashiot), which involves here two verses (17, 16 and 18,
and the divine destiny
This juxtaposition aims to illustrate a clear antithesis:
the reconstruction of the divine plan (Yithro arrives to
put this plan in process) or a willful and perfidious destruction
If we truly understand what is involved here, then ipso
facto we understand the important and essential role of
converts such as Ruth who became the mother of the house
of David and the Messiah, such as Ribbi Akiva and Onkelos,
Note: It is clear that this
refers solely to those who engage in true conversions and
commit themselves totally to the people of the Torah, in
the image of Yithro who, with the rest of the people, received
the entire Torah; this excludes therefore the possibility
of conversions that do not accept all the mitzvot and try
to "reform" Judaism. Jews can define themselves
and group themselves as they choose, this does not alter
their membership of the Jewish people, within diversity;
in contrast, those who wish to enter the religion can only
do so through the Torah which constitutes a complete, living
work that cannot be divided into sections. A partial conversion
is therefore, ipso facto, invalid, from the beginning and
even a posteriori, which is not the case for those who are
and the destiny of the people
Conversion does not mean "spiritual" participation
in the Jewish destiny; it means concrete participation ;
this is why, in view of the peril faced by Jewish messengers
among foreign nations, the beginning of the Book of Ruth
shows us Naomi rejecting 3 times, affectionately but firmly,
Ruth's request to convert. If Ruth perseveres, she will
be welcomed with open arms, but she will have been warned,
for her own good. This is the halakhic basis for the rabbis'three, provisional, refusals of requests for conversion.
It goes without saying that this must be done with care
and respect, but it is a duty.
Very often, and almost always, conversions involve a return
to religion after several generations; or they involve "authentic
Jewish souls who lost their way" in creation for a
particular reason, and whose struggle to return is part
of the global plan. Rabbenu Behaye demonstrates this through
" Yithro is the 10th generation from Mitzrayim, son
of Ham, son of Noah. (The name Mitzrayim will later be attributed
" Noah's son was Shem, from whom Avraham is descended,
also in the 10th generation!;
" There were also 10 generations from Ham to Midian,
Yithro's birthplace. Midian was the son of Avraham and Ketura,
the woman he married after the death of Sarah.
This genealogy (where the number
10 recurs repeatedly in this parasha) may seem at times
complicated and strangely precise; but it demonstrates to
us that our "history" involves a grand plan that
spans many generations. It is in this context that authentic
cases of conversion need to be understood and it is this
which concerns most the rabbis who rule over conversions:
they do not examine a convert's enthusiasm for Jews or for
Judaism's spirituality, but rather how he or she participates
concretely in all the mitzvot. Modestly, they do not assume
themselves judges of anything else. (See the attached paper
We have just seen the role of conversions such as that of
Yithro in the realization of the divine plan. It is this
which allows us to understand why Moshe listens to the advice
given to him by Yithro and sees in it the elements needed
for the fulfillment of the divine plan.
--- simultaneously, the roles of Moshe and Joshua, who were
born Jewish, are part of the same plan;
---- and we see how the parashiot Amalek-Moshe-Yithro are
We will also see how this linkage
will continue to figure in the long term:
" Moshe and Joshua also fight Amalek; the fight will
last (says Rabbenu Behaye) till the time of the Messiah
and the coming of the prophet Elijah.
" It should be noted that the Messiah ben Yosef will
come from the tribe of Ephraim to whom Joshua belongs, while
the prophet Elijah will come from the tribe of Levy to whom
" Thus this long process of creation involves simultaneously
these different elements: 1) all the nations who were part
of the initial story, 2) Amalek the troublemaker and destroyer,
3) conversions which represent the return of the "sparks"
to the light of the Torah, 4) the river and beacon of the
Torah represented by the Jewish people.
" This process continues from generation to generation
and lasts till the great day of judgment and the resurrection
(tehiya), and this is why the following parasha is called
"judgments" (mishpatim). All of this is taken
from Rabbenu Behaye's precise commentary, except for the
supplementary explanations I provided relating to the halakhic
view on conversion.
" An additional point which is often made by the Shla
and the Sages: Yithro also carries out a reparation (see
the word tikkun in the dictionary) for the sin of Cain who
killed his brother Abel. When Yithro comes to Moshe (Shmot
18, 6) he says to him: Ani Hoteneka Yitro ba elekha (I,
thy father-in-law, I come unto thee); Moshe understands
the message here for he knows the rules and codes of the
text and he sees that the initials of the first three words
form the word ahi (my brother), so he understands that this
represents a reconciliation between murderer and victim
represented by Yithro and Moshe, in what tradition calls
This then involves a fantastic
reconstruction following the many destructive events which
we read about in the book of Bereshit. The science behind
this reconstruction, which is highly complex, is the science
of the Torah which was given to the Jewish people; its story
is extremely rich, complex, spiritual and concrete. It is
played out against the tragedies and joys of life: it is
the history of many Jews, who have seen clearly and suffered
greatly. Andre Neher spoke of the "painful joy of being
At Sinai, the whole nation saw clearly and, yet, very quickly
they ceded to protest, revolt, and sought to flee from their
mission. Who cannot understand this?
We have before us the pieces
of this story, to guide us, sustain us and bring us joy.
One thing is out of the question: we must not forget to
study; this would be like a pilot who refuses to check his
cargo list before taking off. This is also the story of
of the 10 commandments?
Moreover, though hidden, someone is present in this story
and acts; according to the codes which He reveals to us
in each parasha.
Thus He revealed to us the essential codes of the 10 commandments.
Entire nations adopted them and they are inscribed above
the courts of justice of numerous countries. They represent
for many nations the basis of human morality, the prototype
for a universal declaration of morality, adherence to which
is "recommended." In contrast the commandment
to keep the Sabbath, constitutes the very definition of
the Jewish people. How many other universal precepts have
been prized from the Jewish treasure house ("love thy
neighbor like thyself") and been, in ignorance or willfully,
attributed to the founders of other religions as though
they represented new revelations.
It is not true that Judaism
values the 10 commandments more than the rest of the Torah;
indeed many communities do not stand during the reading
of the commandments. The great valorization of these 10
precepts is an historic artifice aimed at lessening the
importance of the rest of the Torah. The fact is that every
word of the Torah is important, as we see in every single
The Shla makes an important point in his commentary on this
parasha: every word in the Torah is a revelation of the
names of G-d. This is not the place to demonstrate this
but it is enough that those who wish to follow the path
of He who desired to make himself known to man through His
Torah should be aware of this.
in the making
History is by no means at a close, as is evident from the
present state of the world, and from the dispersion of the
Jewish people who are torn, on the one hand, between the
centrifugal force of assimilation to which hundreds of thousands
or millions of Jews are lost in every generation and, on
the other hand, between the centrifugal force of Jerusalem,
with its centrality as the bearer of the Torah. Every family
or individual history is exposed to these pressures. Fortunately,
a stable and serene torch illuminates this entire stage
-- the written and oral Torah which enables us to analyze,
understand, hope, love, fight and transmit.
To row or do nothing
What is demanded of us is not simply to find the most comfortable
cabin on board ship where we can pleasantly engage in Torah
studies, living the adventure of life like carefree pensioners.
We have the twin duty of studying and of transmitting (lilmod
The generation that was at Sinai was weak on this point:
it preferred to stay in the desert with its Torah, it manna,
its miracle and it died there. Only two men (Joshua and
Caleb -- hardly a lot for an entire generation, especially
the one that received the Torah!) opted for the dynamic
challenge of transmitting and advancing and only they entered
the land of Israel. All the women too entered the land of
Israel for they had saved the people in Egypt and had not
sinned before the golden calf. Let us not forget this.
Today, a minority of the Jewish
people know the Torah, which is an even greater reason why
those who know it, even partially, should transmit it. The
Torah is not an individual journey - it is a collective
one, and this is repeated many times in the parasha: "all
the people" (kol haam). Everyone can transmit what
he knows, on condition he provides sources and distinguishes
his personal ideas from what has been transmitted.
1. Now, re-read the parasha with these concepts in mind.
2. Take the time to place yourself in the relationships,
issues and typologies of this parasha.
3. Discuss your ideas with those close to you.
4. Hebrew lesson (to be memorized):
he converted, nitgayer
he converts, mitgayer
to convert, legayer
juxtaposition of two parashiot, semikhut parashiot
word therapy, refuat hallashon
study and transmit, lilmot ulelamed
5. memorize these phrases:
marpe lashon etz hayim, ve selef ba shever be ruah
"a wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness
therein is a breach in the spirit"
(Proverbs 15, 4).
ani hotenekna Yitro ba elekha
"I, thy father-in-law Yithro, am come unto thee"
(Shmot 18, 6).
6. Consult the dictionary
Study the subject of conversion in Jewish sources.