Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Name “Yisro”

Shvat 5758 / 1998
Dovid Sears

The Midrash states that Yisro (also pronounced “Yitro,” or “Jethro”) had seven names. He was called “Yisro” because he “added (she-yiter)” a section (parshah) to the Torah” (Rashi citing Mekhilta, Yisro 1:1). 

What parshah did he add to the Torah?

The most prominent event recorded in the Torah portion that bears Yisro’s name is the Giving of the Torah, and in particular the Aseres ha-Dibros, the Ten Commandments. One surely can’t say that this is what Yisro added to the Torah! Moreover, Yisro was not even present at this event.

Rather, the “parshah” to which the Mekhilta refers is the advice that Yisro gave his son-in-law, Moshe Rabbenu, to set up a hierarchy of judges: “lords of thousands, lords of hundreds, lords of fifties, lords of tens.” The Ohr ha-Chaim Ha-kadosh (Exodus 18:21) comments that this teaches us that the nations of the world also have great thinkers. The Jewish people were not chosen for their intellectual ability but because of Hashem’s love, and because of His promise to the Patriarchs.

However, this itself needs to be understood. Ultimately all wisdom comes from the Torah, which the Midrash describes as the “blueprint of creation” (Bereishis Rabbah 1:2). And it is one of the RaMBaM’s foundations of faith that Moshe Rabbenu was the highest of the prophets, who personified the wisdom of the Torah (Mishneh Torah, Yesodey ha-Torah 7:6; Hil. Teshuvah 9:2). How could Moshe need advice from anyone else? And how could the Torah have a “parshah” added to itself? “Toras Hashem temimah … the Torah of Hashem is perfect” (Psalms 19:8). It is axiomatic that the Torah is intrinsically complete.

The answer to all this is bound up with the mystery of geirim, or converts.  Moshe is the epitome of tov, goodness (hence one of his ten names was “Tuvya,” as mentioned in Vayikra Rabbah 1:3). He embodies the goodness and holiness of the entire Jewish people. Yisro, by contrast, was the “priest of Midian” and the world’s foremost authority on avodah zarah (idolatry) (see Zohar II, 69a). Conceptually, what could Yisro add to the Torah?

Perhaps Yisro’s addition to the Torah was the transformation of that which exists outside the bounds of holiness. In knowing and then renouncing every form of avodah zarah, Yisro “negated the negative” (to use a favorite phrase of my teacher and friend Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Gottlieb). And this is related to his advice for Moshe to establish a hierarchy, as we shall see.

According to a rather amazing Midrash, when Moshe asked Yisro for his daughter Tziporah’s hand in marriage, his future father-in-law agreed on one condition: that Moshe’s firstborn son would be dedicated to idolatry, while the rest of the children would be dedicated to Hashem (Mekhilta, Yisro 1:1). And Moshe agreed! Indeed, for this reason, Gershom was not circumcised (Targum Yonasan on Exodus 6:25).

The truth is that Yisro wanted all of his descendants to serve Hashem. But he felt that the highest purpose is attained only when one has fallen into error and then comes to the truth. This is the “negation of the negative.”

Spiritually, the root of all error is avodah zarah. The RaMBaM describes the origin of avodah zarah as the honor accorded by the early generations to the angels that preside over the heavenly constellations, whom the ancients recognized as Hashem’s agents in determining all that transpires here on earth (Mishneh Torah, Avodas Kokhavim 1:1). These angels are emtza’im—intermediaries between the Creator and creation. They also constitute a hierarchy. Therefore, the root of avodah zarah is taking an intermediary (or hierarchy of power) to be an autonomous entity, a power unto itself, that demands one’s submission.

This was the underlying assumption of Yisro’s previous erroneous path. However, he felt that only through falling into error and then seeing through it could one truly declare, “Atah yaditi ki gadol Hashem mi-kol ha-elohim … Now I see that Hashem is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:1). This is the reason for the creation of time and the spiritual goal that stands at the end of the process of history. It is also the reason why teshuvah is said to “precede” creation—for teshuvah is the underlying divine intent in creation.

Therefore, Yisro advised Moshe to set up a hierarchy of judges and thus introduce the potential for error. Although this would be a great nisayon, a spiritual test, only in this way would Klal Yisrael come to appreciate the uniqueness of Moshe Rabbenu and to accept upon themselves the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” in truth. (This too is why Chazal said that Klal Yisrael should have disregarded Yisro’s advice and insisted on relating to Moshe directly. The entire suggestion was a test.)

This is what constitutes “adding a parshah to the Torah”—not because the Torah was in any way lacking without it, but because it represents the ultimate tikkun of everything contrary to the Torah. This was the unique contribution of Yisro that even Moshe could not make. As Chazal state, “In the place that penitents stand, perfect tzaddikim cannot stand” (Berakhos 34b). And to this, Moshe readily agreed.

The Torah is not only a body of laws and religious doctrines, but a living path. As Chazal state, “The tzaddikim will walk in them….” Perhaps it is within the implications of the phrase “he added a parshah to the Torah” to say that Yisro not only contributed his advice, but paved a path for those who would have no choice but to follow in his footsteps, gerim and baaley teshuvah in particular. This is supported by the fact that he did not remain with Moshe and the Children of Israel, but “returned to his people.” Yisro remained a teacher for those who were chutz la-machaneh, “beyond the pale.” He added a parshah to the Torah in the sense that now others too would be able to “negate the negative.”

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