Thoughts on Parshas Yisro 5773
by Rabbi Tanchum Burton
There is a running theme in our parsha, which is known by several names: oneness, unity, and integration.
The parsha begins by noting that Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbenu, was moved to join Klal Yisrael when he heard about the events of the exodus from Egypt and the war fought against Amalek. Both Mitzrayim and Amalek represent a contradiction of God’s Providence over the world. Mitzrayim is otherwise referred to as the “iron crucible” (I Kings 8:51), a land that imposed such a crushing burden upon its Hebrew slaves that they had no ability to even imagine redemption.
Pharaoh himself was a human representation of the Other Side, and the forces that draw spiritual sustenance away from its intended recipient. Hence, the neck is the part of the body that brings in food, air and water to nourish the body; the Midrash refers to the Holy Temple as the “neck of the world,” because it served as this type of conduit. On the other hand, if we rearrange the letters of the name Pharaoh, we get העורף , “ha-oref”,
which means the back of the neck. Imagine a spiritual force whose purpose it is to syphon nourishment away from the one needing it. Such a force would probably station itself at the back of the neck.
In addition, Pharaoh denied the existence of God entirely, as the verse states, “Who is God that I should listen to His voice and send Israel out? I do not know of God, and I will not send out Israel!” (Exodus 5:2). The root letters of the name of Pharaoh are peh-reish-ayin, which are the same root letters of the verb “to disturb”, i.e. Pharaoh was a force that disturbed or prevented others from recognizing God; he regarded himself as one.
Amalek is a nation that does not deny God per se, but that openly flouts His rulership and casts doubt on His Providence.
The numerological value of the word Amalek is 240, which has the same gematria as the Hebrew word safek, which means “doubt” or “uncertainty." When Israel was attacked by Amalek, the verse states that they, “happened upon you on the way” (Deuteronomy 25:18). The implication of happenstance or randomness in the verse expresses the nature of Amalek itself, a nation whose worldview is that there is no meaning, reason or purpose in anything, and hence, no objective value to uphold.
Between Mitzrayim and Amalek, we were confronted by the full complement of the forces of the Other Side. While one could not be expected to survive them, we were nevertheless redeemed from the clutches of Pharaoh and granted victory in the war with Amalek.
Yisro heard this, and understood that the common element in both was the One God. Through all of the barriers to spiritual perception caused by these nations, through all of the multiplicity and chaos that they claimed was reality, Yisro, who had worshiped every manner of idol (Rashi, Exodus 18:11) realized that “the Lord is greater than all other gods” (ibid.).
The Torah says that when Yisro contemplated all of the good God had done for Israel, he “rejoiced.” The word “rejoiced” is spelled יחד , which are the exact same root letters as the verb “to unify” or “to bring together.” When we are able to realize all of the goodness that God provides us with, even through the challenges we face, the we experience His Oneness, we understand that everything is One, and this is the ultimate source of joy. And Yisro expressed himself in the way that many of us would when faced with this type of knowing: “Baruch
Hashem!” (ibid., verse 10).
Yisro’s sage advice to Moshe Rabbenu was to create a structure whereby the burden of rendering judgments for the entire nation of Israel would be shared. Instead of Moshe adjudicating for three million people alone, there would be a system of “leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of units of fifty, and leaders of tens” (ibid., verse 21). This was a measure to preserve and refresh the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu himself. But there was a value beyond this aim, which was, “and they shall bear the burden with you” (ibid., verse 22).
Moshe Rabbenu would always remain at the pinnacle, but Klal Yisrael would function in an interdependent way, through mutual support. Moshe Rabbenu did not look at this idea as a threat to his own role, but as a way of unifying the people under God’s kingship and creating peace. Once the system was implemented, we see, as a preface to our receiving the Holy Torah, that “the nation encamped by the mountain”, to which Rashi adds, “like one man with one heart” (ibid., 19:2, Rashi, loc. cit.). Complete unity.
May we all be blessed to pray for and experience the unification of the Jewish people, and the proliferation of real peace in the world, when “on that day shall the Lord be One and His Name One” (Zechariah 14:9).