The character of Yitro is legendary within Jewish tradition as the non-Jew who joined the Jewish people. However, there is great deal of ambiguity within the Torah surrounding Yitro and his connection to Am Yisrael. In a number of areas the Torah casts mystery upon Yitro, leaving us wondering as to the meaning of Yitro’s enigma.
To begin with, Yitro seems to have at least four different names! The most common name — Yitro — appears throughout chapter 18 of Shemot, the chapter in which Yitro visits Moshe and offers advice regarding the people’s judiciary structure. In this chapter the man is introduces to us as “Yitro kohen Midyan the father-in-law of Moshe” (18:1), and thereafter is repeatedly referred to as Moshe’s father-in-law. From a verse in the book of Shoftim (Judges) we read of the emigration of the descendents of “Keni, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 1:16) – a second name for Yitro. Another verse in the book of Shoftim speaking of a descendent of “Chovav, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 4:11) tells us of yet another one of Yitro’s names. Our first encounter with Yitro, in which Moshe meets Yitro’s daughters at a Midyanite well and then subsequently marries Tziporah, seems to provide yet a fourth name: when the daughters return from the well, they speak to “Reu’el, their father” (Shemot 2:18). The plethora of names attached to Yitro is interesting in itself, but the issue becomes problematic when we add in a verse from the Book of Bamidbar: “And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Reu’el, the Midyanite, Moshe’s father in law, ‘We are journeying to the place of which the Lord said ‘I will give it to you’: come thou with us…” (Bamidbar 10:29). Who is Moshe extending an invitation to? We know from the book of Shoftim that Chovav is Yitro, but the beginning of Shemot indicates that Reu’el, too, is Yitro! The simplest explanation seems to be the one put forth by Rashi, based on the Midrash: “children call their father’s father — father” (Bamidbar 10:29). Thus Reu’el is really Yitro’s (=Chovav’s) father, and the girls’ grandfather. The difficulty with this explanation is that is runs counter to the simple reading of Shemot 2:16-22, which leaves the reader to assume that we are indeed dealing with the girls’ father. As well, unless we posit a tacit insertion of Yitro, Reu’el becomes the one who marries off Tziporah to Moshe, and Yitro is mysteriously absent. Assuming that Reu’el really is Yitro’s father, why did the Torah choose to write in such an unclear manner?
Another source of confusion regarding Yitro concerns the question of whether or not he joined Israel. Shemot chapter 18 concludes with Yitro returning to Midyan — “and he went his way to his own land” (18:27). However, Yitro reappears when Israel is about to depart for Israel. On this momentous occasion Moshe asks Yitro to join them on their journey (Bamidbar 10:29-32). Yitro refuses once, whereupon Moshe urges a second time — and the conversation ends with Yitro’s silence. Did Yitro join Israel? Later mention of Yitro’s descendents in connection with Israel indicates that he may have. Many midrashim pick up this theme, leading to the characterization of Yitro as a convert to Judaism. The Torah, however, at one point relates Yitro’s departure unequivocally, and another time leaves us unsure. Especially if we assume the Midrash to be historically accurate concerning Yitro’s conversion, why does the Torah cast doubt over Yitro’s joining the Jewish people?
Tziporah Kapustin, of MATAN learning centers for women in Israel, explains: The purposeful ambiguity surrounding Yitro’s name, and his ultimate union with the Jewish people cries for an explanation. In as much as a name reflects a person’s essence, the first issue deals with the personality of Yitro. Let us assume that Yitro did indeed join the Jewish people. Perhaps the Torah, in its ambiguity, was interested in conveying not the historical truth, but rather the truth regarding the character of Yitro and his identification with Am Israel. Perhaps Yitro, though eventually deciding to join the Jewish people, was initially unsure within himself as to whether he really wanted to commit this momentous step. In that case, Yitro’s actual reply to Moshe’s invitation is unnecessary — the uncertain silence contains the real response Reu’el is portrayed as the parochial father, the “kohen midyan” in control of his personal and communal affairs. With the advent of Moshe, the simple “Reu’el” disappears, suddenly replaced by “Yitro his (Moshe’s) father-in-law, kohen midyan” (Shemot 3:1) — the village priest, confronted with Moshe’s monotheistic religion, becomes filled with internal conflict. The simple phrase conveys the full paradox — he is the priest of Midyan, yet at the same time Moshe’s father-in-law!? Reu’el returns only once again: when he must decide irrevocably whether or not to join the Jewish people. At that moment he is “Chovav ben Reu’el the Midyanite, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Bamidbar 10:29) — the lover of the Torah, son of the village priest.
Through not clarifying details in Yitro’s history, the Torah uses ambiguity to give us a window into Yitro’s inner conflict as he contemplates identifying himself with the Jewish people. In this way, the Torah retains Yitro as a paradigm for the many throughout the generations who struggle over embracing their Jewish identity.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
is week’s parshah, the Israelites are finally freed of the long arm of Pharaoh. Prior to their freedom, they did acquire two very basic mitzvot: the brit milah – circumcision, and the Paschal sacrifice. Observance of Pesach and performance of circumcision are a statement of affiliation with G-d and Israel. Beyond basic affiliation, what’s next? How does a Jew get started on the path of Torah?
The very first place in which Israel learned new laws was in Marrah, Sinai Desert. The Torah states that there “He placed a law (chok) and a statute.” Rashi writes that the law or chok which was beyond comprehension (as indicated by the word “chok”) was the law of the red heifer, that it purifies the impure and defiles the pure. The statutes they learned were about the various laws governing civil matters, as indicated by the word “statute-mishpat.” There is also indication in the next section of the Torah that they knew about Shabbas at that time. Elsewere, Rashi indicates that honoring the father and mother were also taught at this juncture.
What is the source for Rashi that Shabbat and honoring the parents was taught here? In the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy, they indicate that these two laws were not new but had been taught elsewhere. Since the Torah states in our portion that some laws were taught, we deduce that the laws taught were those mentioned in the Ten Commandments as having been taught, namely honoring Shabbat and parents.
Rabbi Yehudah Amital of Yeshivat Har Etzion of Israelwas once asked, “Rabbi, we want to start doing Jewish things. Where do we start?” He answered that our parasha today holds the solution. Our first step in our renewal as Jews should be to enhance our performance of basic laws, honoring the parents and other rational laws which might think are not rituals, but which are in fact mitzvot. The second thing to do is a mitzva which is irrational, such as shaatnez, not mixing linen and wool, or kashrut. The third thing to work on is adding meaning to our Shabbat, because Shabbos is at the center of what Judaism is all about.
The Torah tells us that the children of Israel went up from Egypt ‘chamushim’. (13:18).The midrash explains that the word ‘chamushim’ comes from the root “chamesh”- five.” Only one-fifth (some say 1/500 or 1/5,000) of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Those who were rich and did not want to leave died during the plague of darkness. Another midrash says: “Why did God appear to Moshe from a thorn bush? Because just as the thorn bush is the toughest of all trees, so the enslavement in Egypt was the toughest of all exiles.” R’ Yitzchak Arieli (author of Einayim La’mishpat) observes: It would seem from these sources that only a small fraction of Bnei Yisrael were enslaved in Egypt. However, for those who were enslaved, the enslavement was bitter indeed. Those who led a good life in Egypt did not want to leave, and, therefore, they did not merit leaving. Those who suffered in Egypt and did want to leave merited leaving. Even Datan and Aviram who had tried to get Moshe killed – after they lost their wealth [see Rashi to 4:19] and felt the pain of the exile -wanted to leave and so they merited leaving.
And so it is with every exile – those who want to be redeemed merit to return to the Land of Israel.
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Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, and he does not allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, and tell him that God will send locusts that “will cover the face of the earth so that one will be unable to see the earth…” (Exodus 10:5). The Alshekh explains that the subject of the words unable to see the earth, are the locusts themselves. These locusts will cover the earth in such density, that they themselves cannot see what they are eating, as they can only see the other locusts around them. Normally, he explains, locusts descend on vegetation closely following the areas, which have seeded and have begun to sprout. In this case, arrival of the locusts will be sudden, and they will cover the who! le country simultaneously. This, despite the fact that they will have little to feed on, namely only what the hail has left undamaged. Although they must be hungry, they will only consume what is left ‘lachem’ – to you. They will not touch what belongs to the Israelites, i.e. the province of Goshen. Instead of moving to greener pastures outside Egypt, they will invade the houses, starting with the palace of Pharaoh. The words ‘asher hishir habarad’ – which the hail has left – indicate that what had appeared to the Egyptians as relief at the time, had really been nothing but the preamble to death, as Pharaoh himself describes it in v.17. For the first time, Moses leaves the presence of Pharaoh and his servants without waiting for a response. The servants are so eager to forestall this plague, that they argue with Pharaoh even before Moses could leave the premises. Therefore, Moses and Aaron are recalled for negotiations.
Moses, prior to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, tells the people: “Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold (Exodus 11:2). Later on in the parshah, we read that the Israelites did Moses’ bidding. The Torah states (Exodus 12:35-36) that they asked “…the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, as the Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed towards the people they let them have what they asked for. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians.” Nechama Leibowitz elaborates and comments that had this deed constituted the private initiative of the Israelite! s, who had been enslaved, exploited and downtrodden for two centuries. They had been accustomed to the taskmasters’ blows and the casting of their children into the river. Had it been related that they were incapable of taking advantage of the tidings of redemption because of “shortness of spirit and hard work,” that they went and did what they did, despoiling their oppressors and persecutors, no explanation would have been called for. The Torah describes the generation of the wilderness without any idealization, with all its slave mentality, ingratitude, lack of faith and longing for the fleshpots.
In this too, they would have been true to form. But this is not what is related here. On the contrary, Leibowitz reminds us that we are told that the deed they committed was not the fruit of their initiative, but was in response to an explicit, Divine command, transmitted through Moses. In the verse in 11:2, Rashi enlightens us regarding the true significance of one small Hebrew word appended to the Divine expression of command; a word not usually found in the context of orders and precepts. He refers the word na, an expression of request corresponding to the English “please” and usually translated as “I pray thee,” but here rendered by the word “now”. Rashi comments as follows: Na in this context is an expression of request – pl! ease keep on reminding them, so that the righteous man, Abraham, should not say that God kept his promise of afflicting the Israelites (Gen. 15:13), but did not fulfill his promise that “afterward shall they come out with great substance” (IBID, 14). Leibowitz concludes that at this early stage in Abraham’s time, the redemption was coupled with the forecast that the Israelite nation would go forth “with great substance.” Therefore, one must regard this transaction ( of taking the Egyptians’ jewels and possessions), not as the spontaneous, impulsive action of runaway slaves, but the deliberate implementation of a predetermined Divine plan, neither unforeseen nor unexpected.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In this week’s parshah we read of Hashem hardening Pharoah’s heart, as the Torah states : “Va’ani Aksheh Es Lev Pharaoh…”(7:3) Many commentators ask why the ‘bechira chofshit’ – the free choice- of Pharaoh was taken away from him. Rashi explains that it was clear to Hashem that the teshuva – repentance of Pharaoh would not be b’lev shalem (sincere). If Pharaoh would have been given the choice, he would have attempted an insincere teshuva. At that point, to punish him would seem unfair to the world, yet such a teshuva would still not exempt him from punishment. Therefore, Hashem removed his free choice so that the world could recognize the truth and wonders of Hashem. Rashi further notes that in the first five plagues, the Torah says that Pharaoh himself hardened his own heart. Only in the last five makot is it written “Vayechezak Hashem es lev Pharaoh” – “Hashem hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” Rabbi Mayer Lichtman explains that perhaps Rashi is saying that the proof that there wouldn’t be sincerity with Pharaoh’s teshuva or with the idolatrous nations in general is from the first five makot. Pharaoh had a good opportunity to change his wicked ways with the lessons and blows dealt to him and Mitzrayim in the first makos. By hardening his own heart – he proved his intention – his lev shalem was to hurt the Israelitesl. It was not for some economical or political excuse – it was a hatred that ran deep in his heart. When Hashem hardened his heart during the last five plagues, it was merely a result of Pharaoh’s own hardening during the first makot. If Pharaoh would have done teshuva during the final makos, it would have been heartless and meaningless.
Generally, the difficulty of making the right choice lies in one allowing the logic of mind to overcome the desire of the heart. When one continuously makes the correct choices, his heart moves to the right place. When one truly knows or is inclined to listen to the Dvar Hashem, it becomes more effortless to do what is right. As we grow in spirituality the test of bechira changes to higher levels. As Jewish people who have accepted Hashem’s Laws, we should all be able to try and comprehend the punishments doled out to Egypt and other nations, and try to elevate our hearts to serve Hashem as best we can.
In The Garden of The Torah, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explains to us the Hebrew word “Mitzrayim” – Egypt, which is related to the Hebrew word for “boundaries” or “limitations”: Mitrayim is a paradigm for what exile is and the essence of our spiritual challenge. The world was created as a dwelling place for Hashem and our souls are a part of Hashem. Yet, we often overlook this as we are caught in the exile of our material world and daily routine which shapes our thoughts. However, Hashem doesn’t allow this exile to continue indefinitely. In Mitzrayim, Hashem revealed Himself through the plagues, thereby transforming the Jewish people’s thinking. But what about us? Hashem said “I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”; Rashi comments “to the Patriarchs”. His comment, which seems redundant, is actually reinforcing that, by revealing Himself to our forefathers, Hashem make the awareness of His existence a fundamental element in their make-up (and the make-up of their descendants for all time). In every generation, Hashem sparks this awareness by performing acts transcending the natural order; some are obvious to us (e.g., the Gulf War, Entebbe, re-birth of Israel, the fall of Communism); others are not. By these acts, Hashem reveals Himself to us, allowing us to transform the limits of our “exile” and take in the awareness of His presence. We must open our eyes.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
This week’s parsha, Vayigash, deals primarily with Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers and the subsequent descent of Jacob and his whole family to Egypt. Joseph sends his brothers, laden with food and goods, to inform Jacob that he is still alive and that Hashem has placed him over the whole Egypt. Wagons are sent for Yaakov to transport the entire family to Egypt.
When Jacob and his family, now known openly to be Ivrim (Hebrews), settle in Egypt, Joseph is aware of the potential for trouble. As a minority without support systems, they could be exploited; in times of trouble, they could become scapegoats. They must demonstrate that they will be good citizens; but should they excel in business, warfare and politics, or should they call less attention to themselves, and just blend in?
Joseph is thoroughly familiar with Egyptian society and the Pharaonic court. He wants to protect his family – foreigners in the dominant world-culture – from an assault on their identity, something that he had to endure. He, therefore, adopts the strategy of downplaying their accomplishments: The Torah states: “And Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household: “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and I will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household who are from the land of Canaan have come to me; and the men are shepherds, for men of livestock have they been, and they have brought their flocks and their cattle and all that is theirs.’ And it will be, when Pharaoh will summon you, and say, ‘What is your occupation?’ You shall say, ‘Men of livestock have your servants been, from our youth until now, both we and our forefathers,’ so that you will live in the land of Goshen; because every shepherd is an abomination of Egypt” (46:31-34).
Haemek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) explains that Joseph is trying to preserve his family’s sanctity through segregation. By “keeping a low profile,” living apart as lowly shepherds in Goshen, they will not be a threat. They also can be overlooked and thereby remain untainted by Egypt, and less influenced by Egyptian idolatry.
Joseph here imitates his father Jacob’s self-effacing tone in dealing with Esau: “And I have acquired an ox and a donkey, sheep and a servant and a maid-servant, and I have sent to tell my lord, that I might find favor in your eyes”(Bereishit 32:6).
Joseph’s strategy will prove to be of limited effectiveness, because the next Pharaohs will view the Hebrews’ lowliness as repulsive, their very isolation as threatening, and will enslave and oppress them. But, for Joseph’s generation, it works.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In this week’s parshah, we see the consequences of jealousy. Joseph’s brothers’ could no longer endure the favoritism that their father displayed towards their younger brother, and plotted to get rid of him in some way. Joseph was thrown into a pit, and later sold to merchants as a slave.
Fully aware that they would have some explaining to do to their father Jacob when they returned without Joseph, the brothers “dipped the coat (Joseph’s coat that was a gift from Jacob) in its (a goat’s) blood” (Genesis 37:31). There are a few questions that need to be answered: 1) Why did the brother’s fabricate an elaborate charade about what transpired with Joseph, and 2) What made Jacob think that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast? And why did Jacob, speaking about the beast, say both has devoured himand has torn him apart? Besides, the order of what happened should have been reversed!
The Alshekh answers these questions and explains as follows: The brothers had debated amongst themselves how to present Joseph’s absence. Had they claimed never to have seen him, their father would organize search parties, questioning all caravans in the region. He would find out about the Ishmaelites who had traveled to Egypt. If they would say that Joseph had been found dead, Jacob would demand to see his grave. If they would say that they had HEARD about an accident that had befallen him, they would be telling an outright lie. For these reasons, they felt it best to let Jacob form his own opinion on the basis of the faked evidence. Had they presented Joseph’s coat in an undamaged condition, Jacob would have reasoned that Joseph had taken it off, and would have searched for him, thinking him still alive. The brothers could now imply that Joseph’s fate was due to his having slandered them.
Jacob knew for certain that it was Joseph’s coat. Being unaware of any character weakness in Joseph except his tale bearing, he persuaded himself that Joseph had been punished in this cruel manner for his weakness. In the Torah, the warning not to listen to false information is preceded by the line throw it to the dogs in the book of Exodus. Shemot Rabba 31 points out that one who spreads false information deserves to be thrown to the dogs. Upon reflection, Jacob did not think that Joseph had been eaten alive; this seeing that he was made in the image of God and this having been reflected in his face even after having informed on his brothers. Therefore he assumed tarof, toraf – he had first been ripped apart by a free agent, i.e. a human being. Afterwards, an animal had devoured his remains. This is why he repeated tarof toraf, i.e. he had been torn twice. He considered it possible that one of his sons had harmed Joseph. Jacob tore his clothing and wore sackcloth because he felt that if his interpretation of what happened was true, he himself was partly to blame. This, due to the fact that he had listened to Joseph’s tale bearing WITHOUT PROTESTING IT, although he had not believed the stories. When the brothers saw the depth of Jacob’s grief, they did not even attempt to offer words of condolence until a long time had elapsed. The Torah states that Jacob “mourned for his son for many years”. This was because of his exceptionally close bond that existed between the soul of Jacob and the soul of Joseph. He refused to accept consolation because of what he thought had been his own part in causing the tragedy. On the contrary, he felt that he himself was eventually going to die because of his complicity in Joseph’s fate. For all these considerations, our sages read v.35, his father wept for him, as referring to Isaac, who was aware that Joseph was still alive but dared not reveal it to his son, seeing that God had not seen fit to reveal it to him (Bereishit Rabba 84).
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim