This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Yitro (5761)
This week we are reading the most important section in the entire Torah; the very foundation of existence; G-d gave the Torah to the Jews.
There was no event even vaguely comparable to it in the history of mankind; several million people, (an entire nation!) actually saw and heard the Creator of the Universe say what He wants.
In fact no other religion or nation (including those who claim to replace the Jews) even claims that such a thing happened to them.
The experience was so powerful that with each word of G-d, everyone actually died and had to be miraculously revived (Shabbos 88b) just like the raising of the dead! (See Tanya, end of chap. 36)
If so we can ask a question:
Why does the name of the parsha have nothing to do with all this?
It’s true that Yisro was a very important convert, but certainly not as important as the giving of the Torah! Why is the entire section named after him?
I would like to answer this with a story I heard over fifteen years ago.
Ofer (The name has been changed) was an embodiment of the Israeli dream. He was young, handsome, intelligent, athletic, uninhibited and … a successful stuntman in Hollywood. He ‘made it’ in California!
Money! Fun! Action! Excitement! The world was his for the taking, and he took as much as he could.
But most of all he loved riding his Motorcycle. Speeding down a desert highway over 100 Mph was what made him really happy. That’s where he wanted to be forever; on the cutting edge of life.
Of course in the true Israeli tradition he kept as far from G-d, and certainly from Judaism, as possible. “In fact” he often quipped, “If I thought that religion was like Marx said, the Opiate of the masses, I might have tried some.” But it was even more meaningless to him than that.
Until his accident.
One beautiful summer day on a lonely highway somewhere in Nevada he hit about 130 when suddenly, from nowhere, a huge semi-trailer truck appeared in front of him. It took him a second to realize that it wasn’t a mirage and then it was too late. He smashed into the front of it and flew into oblivion. When the police arrived they had to search for a while till they found his broken body several hundred feet from the scene of the accident. He was still alive, but they had seen a lot of accidents and they were sure he wasn’t going to last.
“This one is for sure a goner” was the last thing he heard as they pushed him into the ambulance and closed the doors. He thought to himself, “ I don’t want to die; I’ll do what You want. PLEASE, G-d, Save me!!!” And everything went black.
When he woke up it was dark. He couldn’t move. Was he dead? No, he was alive. Why couldn’t he see or move? Then suddenly he realized what happened; “My G-d - I’m buried alive!! They buried me!!”
He was sweating; it was getting hard to breathe. He tried to get up but he couldn’t, he couldn’t move. He started to scream, “Please G-d - Please, HELP ME!! I’M SORRY!! G-D, HELP ME!!!
Suddenly he was blinded; it was so bright! The florescent light flickered on. He was in a hospital.
“Doctor!! Doctor!! Come fast!!! He’s conscious!!”
He had been in a coma for over a month. He couldn’t move because he was in a body cast from head to toe; almost all his bones had been broken. Even the policemen that were at the accident had never had seen anything like it, it was clearly a miracle that he was still alive. But the miracles didn’t stop.
It took a lot of physical therapy and a lot of prayer but in one year he was actually back on his feet, completely recovered! He even went back to work as a stuntman, bought a new bike. And completely forgot his vow.
Although it sounds a bit hard to believe, a year later the same thing happened again!
Speeding like the wind through the desert, he lost control on a curve, destroyed his bike, broke his neck and skull and on the way to the hospital made another vow to G-d before losing consciousness.
A year and a half later after another miraculous recovery, he was back on his feet and back to his old lifestyle like nothing had happened.
(When I first heard the story I also didn’t believe it, until I remembered that the exact same thing happened with the Israelis after the six-day war, and again after the Yom Kippur war (and yet again afterwards after the Gulf war); everyone forgot the miracles and secular life continued as usual.)
He even set his sights on a promotion. He had caught the attention of a very influential manager in Hollywood and was on his way to getting some really big-time jobs with opportunities to do some serious acting. If it worked out he could be earning more than a million dollars a year! Things were looking up.
There was only one drawback; the manager was a missionary.
Now really the fact was that Ofer could have cared less. Religion meant nothing to him. He read the books the manager kept giving him because he wanted to keep on good terms. He even went to a couple of meetings with him. Everyone there was friendly, the lectures were nice, but he was interested in having a good time.
And it would have remained that way if his manager would have left him alone, but he didn’t. He kept shaking up Ofer’s indifference with strange interpretations of the Torah and ideas about sin and salvation that he had never thought about.
He didn’t know what to do. On one hand he wanted the big bucks and really couldn’t find anything wrong with the Manager’s line of thought. But on the other hand, maybe it was just his Israeli egotism or Jewish stiffneckedness. For the first time in his life Ofer felt that he was a Jew and someone was trying to take it away from him.
The only problem is that he didn’t know enough about the Torah to argue back.
This continued for several months until one Friday morning he happened to be walking downtown thinking about some of the things his manager said when someone called out to him, “Excuse me sir, are you Jewish?” “What?” he replied as he turned around and saw a young Chabadnick standing behind a small folding table filled with literature and holding a pair of Tefillin. “Are you Jewish? Come put on Tefillin, it will only take a minute. Have you got a minute?”
It wasn’t long before Ofer was sitting in the Chabad house pouring his heart out to the ‘Shliach’ (the Rabbi in charge) about his missionary friend.
Now he was ready. The next time the manager brought up the subject, Ofer wrote down all the quotations, thinking he would defeat them. But the more he read from the Torah and the prophets afterwards to prepare his rebuttals, the more he realized that he himself knew nothing about Judaism.
“My advice to you” said the Shaliach a few days later, “is to write to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice and a blessing."
“A blessing?” Asked Ofer incredulously, but he wrote anyway and in two weeks he received a reply. The Rebbe told him to concentrate only on strengthening his own Judaism through learning the Torah and doing the commandments and forget the debates.
Today Ofer is a Chabad Chasid and lives near Sefad with his wife and seven children.
That is why the portion is called Yisro.
When G-d makes miracles, even reveals Himself amidst lightning and thunder, gives the Torah and enlivens the dead something essential is still missing; The joy of free will. And Yisro added that missing ingredient.
Rashi explains that the events that convinced Yisro to convert were the splitting of Yam Suf and the subsequent attack of Amelek. In other words Yisro realized that the human ego can be so strong that it is possible for one to see the miracles and the power of G-d, and still remain as cold as Amelek, like the stuntman in our story.
But Yisro, also like our stuntman, eventually ignored his own impulses, and from his own volition rejected idolatry and devoted himself totally and joyously (18:9) to serving the G-d of Israel.
Something like what happened on the Holiday of Purim. The Talmud says that only then, (over 800 years after Matan Torah) did the Jews really fulfill the Torah for the first time! Because then they served G-d from their own free will in Joy despite the obstacles.
Yisro got his joy by leaving everything and connecting to Moshe. In the days of Purim the people connected to Mordechi and in our generation it is the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is the source of Joy and self-sacrifice to the G-d of Israel that will bring
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