Five Rashis a Week, Parshat Yitro: Hearing, Seeing, and Listening

For this week, Rashis that bring up issues of what we see, how we see, what we are able to hear, and how we react to that which we see or hear.

What Moves Us to Move

The first verse in the parsha says that Yitro heard all Hashem had done for Moshe and the Jews, having taken them out of Egypt. Rashi comments on the words וישמע יתרו, Yitro heard, that he heard of the Splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek.  This combines the views we find in Yerushalmi Megillah 1;11, where Hizkiyah and R. Yehoshua say Yitro heard about the Splitting of the Sea and R. Levi says Amalek. (Rashi omits the view of Yehudah of the house of Rebbe, that he heard of the giving of the Torah, presumably because Rashi wants to preserve the possibility that Yitro arrived at the Israelite camp before that happened).

They seem to be saying that if Yitro came now, it does not make so much sense that it was the whole of the Exodus that impressed him. Something made him come at this point, with two prime candidates.

To guess at what it was in each of those events that would have spurred Yitro to come would probably say more about me than the topic, since the Yerushalmi gives no indication of how each rabbi came to his opinion. Instead, let’s turn to the Rashi in verse seven, on the words ויצא משה, which assumes that if Moshe went out to greet his father in law, certainly Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu went, and if those four were headed somewhere, who wouldn’t join them?

The two Rashis together pose a question to ask ourselves. Seeing Yitro and the Jews’ actions, we should wonder what events would lead us to say, yes, I have to join that, I have to drop everything to go be near the people who experienced that? Who are leaders who, if we saw them engaged in a certain activity, we would say to ourselves, I, too, have to be involved in that?

Qualifications for Leadership

When Yitro tells Moshe he needs to appoint leaders of smaller groups to ease his burden, he lists several prerequisite characteristics of these leaders. Rashi doesn’t explain יראי אלוקים, God-fearing, I guess because he assumed we knew what that meant.

In 18;21, he does explain אנשי חיל, אנשי אמת, and שנאי בצע, which translate along the lines of capable men, trustworthy, and haters of improper gain.  Rashi says אנשי חיל actually means wealthy people, because they will not need to flatter others or give them special recognition.

It’s a commentary on society and wealth. The point of wealth, for Rashi, is the immunity it provides to the temptation to miscarry justice for personal benefit. A person whose wealth has not granted that kind of independence is not an איש חיל for Rashi, at least not in terms of this selection process. Today, many wealthy people are still in the game, as it were, still trying to rise, and for them connections and reciprocal relationships are still vital. They might be tempted to curry favor with someone who is either wealthier than they and/or has access to something they want or need. For Rashi, they would not be considered אנשי חיל, and not fit to fill these jobs.

Rashi’s definition of hating wrongful gain is being more interested in being on the right side than in winning. Anyone who is on the losing side of a monetary case cannot be a judge, Rashi says. Not because a judge is not allowed to be in the wrong in some financial transactions, but because he never should have let the case go to completion—a שונא בצע is a person devoted to taking only money that’s clearly and obviously due him, so much so that he would concede or settle any other case. To have taken a losing case to verdict meant that this person was too attached to his money to see that he was enough in the wrong for the court to rule against him. To be a שונא בעצ, he would have conceded or settled long before that happened.

Commandedness

On 19;3, there is a well-known Rashi that notices the doubled adjuration by Hashem to say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel; Rashi says one is to the women, to be said softly and the other to the men, forthrightly informing them of the punishments and intricacies of the law.

There is a linguistic element to the comment, noting the difference between תאמר and תגיד, the latter connoting a harshness that wasn’t in the former. There’s also an awareness of the different approaches to be used for different populations (I think everyone likes this in general; some see differentiating men and women along these lines as patronizing).

That aside, I link these comments to 20;1, where the Torah describes Hashem as וידבר when He tells us what we call the Ten Commandments (there aren’t only ten commandments, but no one likes calling them the Ten Pronouncements). וידבר, according to Rashi, implies the words of a judge, letting us know that while there are some sections of the Torah that are a choice—we get reward for taking it on, with no consequences for leaving it to others—these are not that way. These are commanded by Elokim, a Name that indicates a Judge, Who will judge us for our success or failure.

It is an element of Jewish religiosity often lost today, that we are, at rock bottom, responding to the commandments of our Creator, Who took us out of Egypt, and Who judges us on how well we do. There’s much more to mitzvot than that; there’s succor, and comfort, and insight, and aids to personal growth in many ways. But it starts with remembering the Judge, Who requires this all of us.

Mentioning Hashem’s Name

20; 21 promises us that בכל המקום אשר אזכיר את שמי, אבוא אליך וברכתיך, in any place that I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come and bless you. The phrase “I cause My Name to be mentioned” could be translated as “I mention My Name,” but the verse is generally understood to mean that there are things we can do to bring Hashem’s positive involvement.

Rashi ignores the Mishnaic use of this verse, Avot 3;6’s quote of R. Chalafta of Kfar Chananya’s claim that Hashem joins various sizes of groups learning Torah. The smallest such group is one person, and the prooftext is this verse, using it to mean, “any place that even one person mentions My Name, I will come and bless you.”

He instead records the comment of Sotah 38a, that the Priestly Blessing used Hashem’s special Name only in the Beit haMikdash itself, reading our verse to mean, “any place I come to bless you, mention My Name.” That takes the verse almost the opposite from what we see in Avot, here restricting Hashem’s fullest Presence—the Presence that allows for invoking the Divine Name—to the Temple itself. We can experience Hashem anywhere in the world, with learning one example of how. But for the full experience, with Hashem’s Name pronounced in its fullest form, we need the Beit haMikdash (one of the many ways that the Temple involved so much more than sacrifices).

Seeing and Hearing

We see and hear all the time, with varying impact on our lives. The Rashis I noticed this week bring us to think about how we do or don’t react to what we see and hear.

When we hear of remarkable events, are we moved to go join in them, as Yitro was? When we see remarkable people going somewhere, do we feel the need to join them?

When we hear a court case, do we see those who might do us a favor in the future the same way as the other litigant, or are we still on the alert of ways to move up in the world?

Do we hear Hashem’s commands as a) emanating from the Creator Who took us out of Egypt and b) as commands, necessities, obligations, not choices or nice additions to our lives?

Finally, do we remember to miss the place where, all else aside, we could hear the priests use Hashem’s Special Name in administering us with the blessings?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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