This week’s Torah portion recounts one of the most dramatic and transformative events in the history of mankind: God’s revelation on Mount Sinai and His proclamation of the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel, amidst thunder, lightning, and shofar blasts.
And yet, it is called Parshat Yitro — referring to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. The Torah portion opens with the words “vayishma Yitro” — “And Jethro heard” (Exodus 18:1). What, exactly, did he hear? According to Rashi, Yitro heard about the crossing of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek, described in last week’s Torah portion.
He heard about a people that transformed from downtrodden slaves into a free nation in mere moments. He heard about Am Yisrael, who after generations of slavery and persecution were suddenly free and faithful enough to march head-on into the raging waters, trusting that everything would be okay.
Change is so hard. As much as each and every one of us deeply wants to grow – to leave behind damaging beliefs, to rid ourselves of unhealthy habits – implementing real and lasting change demands so much from us. Rav Shlomo Carlebach used to say that the world is made up of two types of people: those who are moved by their experiences, and those who remain stuck in their ways, regardless of what they see and hear.
Yitro did not just hear about the inspiring transformation of the Children of Israel — he also heard about Amalek. In Moses’ retelling of the story of the war with Amalek at the end of his life, he says:
“זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ…”
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you came out of Egypt; how he happened upon you on the way…” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)
Rashi suggests that the word “korcha” comes from the word “kor” — meaning cold. Amalek were a cold people, frozen in their ways, unwilling to change in the face of new revelations. Regardless of the miracles unfolding before their eyes, they would continue to inject doubt and cynicism into anything and everything they encountered.
Yitro, the Priest of the Midianite nation, the Pope of the ancient world, heard about two types of people, and he needed to make a choice. What kind of a person do I want to be? Who do I want to join? A nation that is closed, cold, and untouchable, or those that have shown the world what it means to be the masters of change?
“וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֲנִי חֹתֶנְךָ יִתְרוֹ, בָּא אֵלֶיךָ”
“And he said unto Moses: ‘I, your father-in-law, Jethro, am coming to you” (Exodus 18:6)
To Yitro, the answer was clear. But what about all of the Yitros of today? When the people of the world look at the modern-day Children of Israel, do they see a people living in a symbiotic relationship with the world around them? When they listen to the news or scroll through social media, do they hear about a nation vulnerable enough to change their behavior in response to the signs and wonders of their times? If Yitro were around today, would he still choose to join our people?
This week’s Torah portion, the one in which we hear about the greatest Divine revelation in human history, is named after Yitro — someone who was willing to change and valued that trait in others. We are not defined by what happens to us in life, but by how we choose to respond to it. May we all learn to allow the things we experience in our daily lives – both big and small – to help us become the people we yearn to be, as individuals and as a nation.