25 Shevat 5781/5 February 2021
Parashat Yitro is only one of two parashiot named for someone who is not a member of Bene Yisrael. The parasha is divided into two literary, thematic sections which are significantly related, the establishment of a system of courts, and the revelation at Sinai. The parasha opens with the reunion of Moshe and his Midianite father-in-law, Yitro. Moshe recounts all God had done for Bene Yisrael. Yitro is overwhelmed with awe and gratitude. Yitro’s heart opened in response to the miraculous survival of the people and to God’s manifest presence in human events:
Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how God had delivered them. And Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that God had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be God,” Yitro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.” (Shemot 18:8-10)
What motivated Yitro to seek his son-in-law at this moment? The entire narrative of Yitro meeting Moshe and facilitating the establishment of a Jewish judiciary is the subject of a classic hermeneutic controversy about how to read the Torah. The Talmud Zevachim 116a-b raises the question of when the meeting between Moshe and Yitro took place, before or after the encounter at Mt. Sinai. Accordingly, some commentators assert that the encounter between Moshe and Yitro did not occur chronologically, but took place after the revelation. Those commentators offer a variety of reasons to justify placing the episode out of chronological order. The literary theory underlying such a position is called, ‘ain mukdam o’me’uchar batorah, that the Torah need not be read as a chronological narrative. Those commentators contend that what motivated Yitro was the epiphany at Sinai. Yitro was drawn to the encounter between Bene Yisrael and God. Sinai transformed Yitro, compelling him, possibly, to convert. Alternatively, there are rabbis who asserted that this event did occur chronologically, prior to the encounter at Mt. Sinai. Yitro was not motivated by the revelation at Sinai. Instead, Yitro was motivated by God’s miraculous intervention in history and the salvation of the Jewish people. (For a detailed account of these various readings, see, Rav Avi Baumol, “Yitro, the Pious Gentile” | vbm haretzion)
This radical plasticity of sacred text reflects a unique principle of Jewish spirituality. Instead of idols, statues, or icons, Jews capture and evoke the relationship between the human and the divine with language. Access to the sacred must be as flexible and immutable as the human heart, and as limited or as limitless as our imagination. Wondering if the encounter between Moshe and Yitro occurred before or after Sinai points to the deeper interest in Yitro himself. What moved him? What did he hold in his heart and imagination? What was his temperament? His beliefs? His sensibilities? How can we understand the nature of his relationship to Moshe and Bene Yisrael?
The verse, And Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that God had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians speaks to these questions about Yitro himself. Specifically, commentators wondered about the word, rejoiced. The Hebrew is, vayichad. Rashi takes the word to imply, chidudim, “prickles.” Rashi explained that upon learning of Egypt’s demise, Yitro’s “skin crawled.” In other words, as pagan priest of Midian, Yitro was deeply horrified by the destruction of Egypt, despite his reunion with Moshe. Seforno adapts this explanation, and offers a slightly more nuanced understanding of Yitro. He criticized Yitro for mourning the destruction of the Egyptians, yet recognized that Yitro rejoiced over the salvation of Israel from a sense of compassion and empathy.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, 18th century Morocco, understands Yitro’s goosebumps differently:
His skin crawled out of great joy for Israel. It is well known that when a person experiences great joy unexpectedly, beyond what one normally experiences as happiness, there are many [seemingly anomalous] physiological responses. Sometimes people faint, or even experience life-threatening reactions. (Or haChaim)
According to Ibn Attar, God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of Israel became an embodied experience for Yitro. Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, 16th century Tzefat, acknowledged that the word, vayichad denotes a physical response, and that response can be symptomatic either of horror or joy. However, he went on to write that the word might also be related to the root, y-ch-d meaning, “to unify. He wrote:
According to the rabbis in the Midrash Tanchuma, the phrase means that in that moment, Yitro unified God’s name in the world. In other words, Yitro recognized the uniqueness of the Creator. This relates to the consistent terminology that God saved Israel, not merely taking them out from Egypt. God saved Israel from Egypt’s power. The motif, yad mitzrayim, and yad Hashem repeats throughout the narrative.
Rabbi Alsheich emphasized God’s pervasive interest in human affairs, God’s active intervention in those affairs, and God’s absolute and ultimate power permeating history.
This reading of vayichad as “unify” shifts our understanding of Yitro, providing a more internal perspective on his spiritual development. The reading that understands Yitro to have undergone an inner, transformative experience has roots in the mystical traditions. When Yitro declared, Now I know that God is greater than all gods (18:11) ancient rabbis understand that previously, Yitro had full knowledge of every idol in the world, for he had worshipped them all, and then came to understand that all of creation shares a single, unified source. (Mechilta; Rashi) The Zohar, the foundational medieval source of subsequent mystical teachings, states that the Torah could not be given to Israel until Yitro, the great and supreme priest of the all pagan world, and confessed his faith in the Holy One, saying, “Now I know that God is greater than all the gods.”
Rabbi Chaim Tyrer of Chernowitz (1760-1816), developed this mystical understanding of Yitro’s inner transformation in Lurianic detail in terms of divine energies. He wrote that each person is a reflection of the divine insofar as we have the same energies inside of us, flowing through our bodies, minds, and neshamot, our souls, that were used to create the world. I have translated his comments on Yitro, and added phrases that I think capture and convey his theological perspective in a contemporary idiom.
The Torah says, “vayechad Yitro.” The rabbis explain this in many different ways. Take particular note, though, of the reading that this was a moment of the unification of God’s name. You should know that God’s name is unified only through the unification of a person’s heart, through the complete integration of feelings, thoughts, speech and action, such that all of these senses and capacities are employed to make God’s will manifest on earth. This integration creates a perfect unity between God and the human. For when a person [thinks, speaks, feels or] does anything that is not aligned with the divine will, the person has entered the “other side.” For although humanity lives on earth, it is with the awareness that humans were created in the divine image. The human being is a [microcosmic spiritual isotope] of divine energy in the universe. The head flows with the energy of [the middot of] wisdom, understanding and knowledge (chochmah, binah, da’at); one’s hands, arms and torso flow with the energy of compassion (chesed), discipline (gevurah) and balance (tiferet). This concept applies to all limbs and extremities. When the human being aligns all of these energies in the service of God, then the universe becomes balanced by the divine integration of all of these energies flowing in their source….So when the Torah says that Yitro arrived at a complete integration and balance of all his divinely endowed energies, it means that Yitro rejected an idolatrous [perspective on the world] and realized that all of creation comes from one source….Yitro was able to unify the two dimensions of his ego (“shenei levavot”), [his drive for his own power and his willingness to nullify his ego for humility and service], and form a single, unified heart. (Be’er Mayim Chaim 18:9:1)
R.Chaim wanted to see Yitro’s interiority, and he accomplished that by describing what I call a spiritual ecology of energy. According to R. Chaim, the world becomes balanced one person at a time. If a person is able to exercise a balance between compassion and justice, between perseverance and risk, between knowledge and intuition, between continuity and innovation, then the divine source of these energies becomes more integrated and balanced. Yitro provided a paradigm for that type of inner balance. Just as Yitro came to reject a fractious view of reality once he realized the blessing of oneness that permeates the entire world, he also understood that every person in the world was created as an image of God, whose purpose is to align oneself through thought, feeling, word and deed with the same purpose God had at creation. *(in order to gain a feeling for R Chaim’s writing, I have brought part of this citation below in the original.)
I think that the power of R Chaim’s mystical reading of Yitro lies precisely in the fact that he never claims that Yitro became a Jew. Quite the contrary. Yitro’s spiritual transformation enabled him to bless the Jews as a Midianite. He recognized the shared source of all humanity. This recognition was all the more authentic precisely because of the cultural diversity implicit in Yitro’s relationship to Moshe and to Bene Yisrael. He did not “convert.” He did not remain with Israel. He returned home. Yitro, from this point of view, is a model of cultural diversity nourished by an appreciation of our common source for all blessings and goodness. What does God want of us? What does the world require? Balance. Discipline and justice balanced by kindness and compassion. Stability balanced by innovation. Knowledge tempered by wisdom. These are the energies that Yitro felt surging within him, balanced and open and flowing and giving. That balance enabled him to look at Moshe’s people and reconfigure Moshe’s entire way of thinking. Moshe did not bring this sense of balance to the world; the Torah tells us that Yitro did, the Priest of Midian.
Not only did Yitro instruct Moshe to establish a judicial system for adjudicating disputes. Not only did this system imply the foundation of the oral Torah which is the most unique feature of the Jewish concept of revelation, unfolding from one generation to the next. Not only did Yitro appear immediately before the revelation at Sinai itself. But R Chaim of Chernowitz is suggesting that Yitro is a narrative incarnation of primordial humanity. In the tradition of the Zohar, he is saying that Yitro represents shiur koma, the primordial human, before humans were created. Yitro is the human being who represents God’s hope for all of humanity. We have the potential, each through our own culture and language and tradition, to perceive and realize the bounty of blessings endowed upon the world. We have the potential to keep those blessings flowing, uninterrupted, through the balance of energies that preserve and protect and nourish us. Yitro taught us that God does hope that the entire world becomes Jewish. Quite the contrary. The world needs diversities, precisely so that we can learn from each other. Humanity’s shared task is to learn how to protect and nourish the ecologies of the natural, social, and political worlds we inhabit. Imagine such a world today. Imagine a humanity humbled by recognizing a common source, and feeling responsible to love each other and the natural world with the balances necessary to sustain life.
*….וְיַחַד יִתְרוֹ וְגֵו’ שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה מְיֻחָד וְהִתְיַחֵד עַצְמוֹ וְכָל אֲבָרָיו לְשֵׁם ה’, וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ כִּי אִם לֵב אֶחָד לְאָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׂמִים, וְעָשָׂה מִשְּׁנֵי הַלְּבָבוֹת לֵב אֶחָד שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה גַּם עִם הַיֵּצֶר רַע רְצוֹן הַבּוֹרֵא, כִּי אַחֵר שֶׁהִכִּיר בְּטוֹב יִחוּדוֹ וְאַחְדוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, הֵבִין שֶׁגַּם הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֶץ שֶׁהוּא דְּיוֹקָן יֻצְּרוּ, צָרִיךְ לְהִתְיַחֵד עַצְמוֹ לִהְיוֹת כָּל אֲבָרָיו יִחוּדִים וּמְיֻחָדִים לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ, וְעַל יְדֵי זֶה יִתְיַחֵד שָׁמֶיהָ דְּקוּדְשָׁא בָּרֶיךָ הוּא וּשְׁכִינְתֵּהּ בְּכָל הָעֶשֶׂר סְפִירוֹת הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וְכָל שִׁעוּר קוֹמָה שֶׁל יוֹצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית, לְהַמְשִׁיךְ עַל יְדֵי זֶה שֶׁפַע רַב וּבְרָכָה וְחַיִּים טוֹבִים לְכָל הָעוֹלָמוֹת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְהַתַּחְתּוֹנִים וְעַל כָּל עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמֵן כֵּן יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁיִּהְיֶה ה’ אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד בַּעֲגָלָא, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה אֶחָד מְסֻפָּק בָּאַחְדוּת שְׁמוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, וְכָל אֲשֶׁר יִרְאֶה בְּעֵינָיו לֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי אִם שָׁם ה’ וְאוֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר בַּדָּבָר הַהוּא וְלֹא יִפְנֶה וְלֹא יַבִּיט וְלֹא יִתְאָוָהּ וְלֹא יַחֲשֹׁק עַל שׁוּם בְּחִינָה אַחֶרֶת רַק אֶל אוֹר ה’ אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל דָּבָר וְדָבָר שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם מִדּוֹמֵם צוֹמֵחַ חַי מְדַבֵּר וְאֵשׁ רוּחַ מַיִם עָפָר שֶׁכָּל אֵלֶּה נִמְשָׁכִים מֵאַרְבַּע אוֹתִיּוֹת הוי”ה וְהַמֵּחֵד מְיֻחָד שֵׁם הוי”ה הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהַנּוֹרָא וְדַי בָּזֶה לַמֵּבִין וּלְמִי שֶׁחָשְׁקָה נַפְשׁוֹ וְלִבּוֹ לְהִתְקָרֵב לְמֶלֶךְ חֵי עוֹלָמִים בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְלַעֲשׂוֹת נַחַת רוּחַ לְפָנָיו כְּפִי יְכָלְתּוֹ וּמַאֲמַצֵּי כּוֹחוֹ.