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Parashat Yitro 5777 — 02/18/2017

Parashat Yitro 5777 — 02/18/2017

Shemot 18:1-20:23

Our parashah is on the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, when we all became Jewish – in the sense of changing from a family group joined by blood ties, to a national group joined by a common mission of service to Gd. There is another person who joins the Jewish people at this time, and that is Yitro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law. In both cases there is a process of preparation that must be gone through in order to enable the transition to a new status.

The parashah opens by noting that Yitro “heard” the story of the Exodus and the splitting of the Sea – this prompted him to come to the Israelite camp, where Moshe “recounted” (vay’saper) the same information to Yitro. Why did Yitro need to hear the story again from Moshe?

Furthermore, the word vay’saper (“he recounted”) implies an elaboration – Yitro had heard a general description, while Moshe was able to relate the events and miracles in greater detail

On a deeper level, Yitro, who was about to convert, needed to be spiritually readied to draw close to the holiness of the Jewish People. Unlike those born Jewish, he required spiritual lights to condition his soul – these lights would be transmitted through the story Moshe was relating to him.

R. Berkin, the editor and translator of this volume, opines in a footnote that the Israelites did not require Moshe’s recounting of the story, because they had lived through it. Those of us in subsequent generations on the other hand, who did not experience the Exodus first-hand, do need the “recounting” in order to keep on an ascending path. We experience this recounting at the Seder table each year, when we are required to “view ourselves as if we personally had been redeemed from Egypt.”

The Jewish people also needed preparation to receive the Torah:

In the third month from the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael from the Land of Egypt, on this very day they came to the desert of Sinai (19:1)

On a deeper level, the Torah is teaching us that on the same day B’nei Yisrael left Egypt, they arrived, in a spiritual sense, at the desert of Sinai. B’nei Yisrael were entrenched in the tum’ah of Egypt as their neshamot were ensnared by the surrounding tum’ah of Egypt. To tear away from that grasp would require very drastic measures.

If Hashem were to slowly elevate the spiritual state of the neshamot of B’nei Yisrael, the forces of tum’ah would sense this and tighten their grasp, not allowing them to break free. A quick and great surge of spiritual influx was needed in order to extract them from tum’ah. …

If they managed to attain this lofty level the moment they left Egypt, why did they need to wait another seven weeks to receive the Torah? … Hashem instantly lifted them to these spiritual heights for the sole purpose of extracting them from the tum’ah of Egypt – it was a momentary elevation and was not meant to last. Once removed from the tum’ah they returned to their lower spiritual level to allow them to develop themselves gradually, attaining these spiritual levels and internalizing them.

In both cases it seems that the first thing we need to move to a higher level is a shock,, to remove us suddenly from the old level, and then steady progress from the old situation to the new. How can we understand this. Maybe an analogy from physics can help.

Consider a ball sitting on top of a hill. If it is the very peak of the hill, it will just stay there. It is in equilibrium. However, if we push it ever so slightly to one side it will go rolling down the hill. Whichever side the push happens to come from, that is the direction the ball will go, even if the hill itself is perfectly symmetrical and inherently favors no direction over any other. This is called unstable equilibrium.

Now consider a ball at the bottom of a valley, If it is at the very bottom of the valley, it will just stay there. It is in equilibrium. But now, if we push it to one side or another, it just rolls back down to the bottom of the valley, and if the extra energy we put into it by raising it up off the bottom can be dissipated (e.g. by friction), it will eventually come back to rest at the bottom of the valley. This is called stable equilibrium.

There is another kind of equilibrium that is a kind of combination of the first two. Consider a ball at the bottom of a high, alpine valley. With regard to the valley by itself, the ball is in stable equilibrium. If we move the ball up the wall of the valley and let it go, it will come to rest in the bottom of the valley. Like any other valley, this is a stable equilibrium. But suppose we hit the ball with enough energy to get it above the wall of the valley. Once it’s over the wall, it goes down the outside of the high valley until it gets to another low point, which is often lower than the floor of the original valley. This is called metastable equilibrium.

In the most interesting cases in physics, chemistry and biology, we find cases of metastable equilibrium. Systems may be poised to make a transition to a more complex and ordered state, but it takes some fluctuation, some impulse either from the environment or an internal fluctuation, to get them “over the hump” so to speak and on an evolutionary course.

It appears that this same principle operates when it comes to spiritual development as well. We often get stuck in spiritual ruts, and need some great stimulus to get us out of them, to get us to re-examine our lives and our priorities, and start moving us in a better direction. I believe this is what Ramchal is describing. Yitro “heard” about all that Gd did for Israel. This made him stop and think about Who Gd is, and what our relationship should be to Him. In the same way, the Israelites had to be shocked out of their spiritual torpor, engendered by the long years of oppression in Egypt, in order to be made ready to receive the Torah.

We too, sometimes need a shock – be it the loss of a loved one, or even a great joy, to open our eyes and our hearts to what is really important in life. If we don’t like these shocks, I think the answer is that we need to be involved in a constant process of t’shuvah, re-evaluating our lives, our prejudices, our assumptions, on our own, dispassionately and honestly, and making changes as need be. If we can do this, we can make every day a fruitful day of growth and progress.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Yitro

This is the parshah in which all Israel agrees to listen to Gd’s Voice and keep His Covenant and in turn to be Gd’s treasured possession, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

All Israel hears/sees Gd’s Voice speaking the Ten Commandments, Ten Utterances.

Keeping Gd’s Covenant cannot be just an intellectual thing—it has to go deeper than that and become the natural tendency of our soul expressing itself in action. gives this quote from the Talmud that illustrates how our awareness deepens as we continue to open ourselves to Gd:

“With each and every utterance that issued forth from the mouth of Gd, the souls of Israel flew from their bodies, as it is written (Song of Songs 5:6), “My soul went out when He spoke.” But since their souls departed at the first utterance, how could they receive the second one? Gd brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead, and revived them.”  (Talmud, Shabbat 88a)

The commentary continues by saying that with each utterance the souls flew out and were revived by a drop of dew.

In terms of our own actions to keep the Covenant, we can interpret this as meaning that with action we take to keep the Covenant, we get a glimpse of Gd, Totality, and our limited personality completely departs and needs to be replenished with the Dew of Gd, Light of Gd, Unlimited Grace of Gd.

To protect us in this evolution of getting more and more familiar with Gd, our spiritual routine is there.

In our religion, Torah and the Siddur, Talmud, Kabbalah and much more, our congregation and our shul are there to help us make our actions more pure, to deepen our glimpses and to help make sure that our individual personalities become deeper and deeper and more able to live the Covenant, naturally, effortlessly, totally.

I hope that each of us, all of us, are able to draw the most from these resources with the time we have available and that as a result more time will become available and quickly (today would be great!) will all have Total Teshuvah, Total Return to Primordial Oneness.

Baruch HaShem