Yitro, Yithro, or Yisro (יתרו — Hebrew for “Jethro,” the second word and first distinctive word in the parshah) is the seventeenth weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the fifth in the book of Exodus. It constitutes Shemot / Exodus 18:1–20:23. Jews in the Diaspora read it the seventeenth Sabbath after Simchat Torah, generally in late January or February. Jews also read part of the parshah, Exodus 19:1–20:23, as a Torah reading on the first day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Jewish unity began at Sinai. When each individual Jew agreed to accept the Torah, he put aside his own desires and embraced the agenda set down by God. In so doing, every Jew focused on the same exact thing, the will of God. This unified state created a new entity called Kol Yisrael, the collective of Israel. This single entity means that each Jew is part of the other and that it is impossible to separate or walk away from the Kol. The Kol, in turn, is part of an unbreakable triangle: The Holy one, Blessed be He, the Torah and the Jewish people are one.
Arguably, never again in history did we all agree on anything! Yet Sinai was the moment in history that mattered, the one that turned the Jewish people into an inseparable and indestructible entity. As it forged into a single collective, as it united with God and His Torah, the Jewish nation turned into an eternal one.
Notwithstanding this remarkable moment in Jewish history, it wasn’t until the Jewish nation crossed the Jordan River that the principle of "Kol Yisrael arevin zeh lezeh", – "All Jews are responsible for one another," went into effect. Although Kol Yisrael was formed at Sinai, the deepest level of Jewish unity only began to operate in the Land of Israel (this is why been in Galut / Exile is a curse, and why we should choose to settle the land of Israel now).
The process that began at Sinai was only completed in Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel).
As the Israelites encamp at the foot of Mount Sinai, they prepare to receive the Torah. First, however, HaShem speaks to Moshe: And Moshe went up to God, and HaShem called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov and tell the Children of Israel: "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. And now, if you will indeed hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, then you will be a treasure for Me from among all the nations; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation for Me." These are words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel" (19:3-6).
We would like to focus on HaShem’s introductory and closing words to Moshe, and Rashi’s comments (based on Mechilta Hachodesh chapter 2): Thus shall you say - In this language and according to this order (v.3). These are the words - No less and no more (v.6) It is puzzling that HaShem needs to be so insistent. Would we ever suspect Moshe of not transmitting HaShem’s words verbatim?
Most of Rashi’s super-commentaries try to solve this problem by focusing on his intervening comments: to the House of Yaakov - These are the women; you shall say to them with gentle language (v.3). and tell the House of Israel - Spell out punishments and specifics to the males, matters that are as harsh as wormwood (v.3).
It is these elements which must not be altered. But, then why conclude with the additional caveat, These are the words - no less and no more - which you shall speak to the children of Israel. - Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891- 1986) in Emet Le Yaakov (first edition), on the other hand, sees Rashi’s words as a precedent-setting command to Moshe always to repeat His words exactly as HaShem has said. This is because the people of Israel were not only presented with the Torah; they were required to accept it. And two modes of acceptance were required: ahava / love and yirah / feaRabbi
This is seen in the famous incident related in Shabbat 88a: Before the Israelites received the Torah, HaShem inverted the mountain over them like a tub. He said, "If you accept the Torah, it is well. But if not, here will be your burial place." But, Tosafot ask, – They had already said, "We will do and we will listen" (Naaseh V’nishma, Shemot 24:7), thus demonstrating their willingness to accept the Torah unconditionally; why did they need the further coercion of the inverted mountain?
Tosafot answer that when the Israelites would see the great fire that could destroy them they might change their minds. The great fire represents the fear of punishment: From the heavens He made His voice audible to you, in order to chastise you; and on the earth He showed you His great fire; and His words you heard from the midst of the fire (Devarim 4:36).
Saying Naaseh V’nishma expressed their acceptance of the Torah out of love, but that was insufficient; they needed to combine that love with feaRabbi On the other hand, when HaShem asked Esav and Yishmael if they were prepared to receive the Torah, they might have done so on the basis of fear alone, as they would later claim:
"If You had inverted the mountain over us, would we not have accepted it"? (Avodah Zarah 2b). Those nations however had never declared, Naaseh V’nishma.
HaShem wanted Israel first to proclaim their love, and then to affirm their acceptance in awe.
This becomes the mode for serving HaShem for all time: Rabbi Antigonus of Socho used to say: "Do not be as servants who serve their master in order to receive reward; rather, be as servants who serve their master in order not to receive reward." This is love; nonetheless, Antigonus adds: "And let the awe of Heaven be upon you" (Avot 1:3).
The Children of Israel needed to direct their love and fear towards HaShem exclusively, without prompting or convincing by Moshe. This, says Rabbi Kamenetsky, is why HaShem commanded Moshe before the Revelation to add or change nothing:
He was concerned lest [Moshe] influence them, and they would accept [the Torah] as the result of some reaction to our teacher Moshe’s influence, rather than as the result of inner recognition.
This served too as a challenge to Moshe, who certainly would have wanted his people to accept the Torah.
Accordingly, Moshe would have used his powers of persuasion to sway them, had HaShem not commanded him, "Thus shall you say – These are the words which you shall speak to the Children of Israel."
Why indeed does HaShem not want Moshe to try to add some words of persuasion? Because, says Rabbi Kamenetsky, then he would not have been a suitable messenger to transmit the Torah. If Moshe had made the slightest alteration - even for the purpose of persuasion – this first time, then subsequently the people could never be sure which parts of what Moshe would say are from HaShem and which are his own words.
After all, how many derashot [exegetical rulings] are derived from extra letters!?
Consequently, God’s insistence on not changing His words is a test to see whether Moshe would be able to restrict himself not to persuade them. As a result he would prove his reliability, for indeed he does not alter the words of the Holy One, blessed be He, at all.
Once Moshe is established as the faithful conduit of HaShem’s every word, the Children of Israel would always know that everything Moshe would teach them is from HaShem.
Moshe serves as a role model to all those who teach Torah: Let the truth of HaShem’s words speak for themselves; taught faithfully, they will be the most persuasive.
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