Torah Reading: YISRO Exodus 18:1-20:23
WE ARE ALL CONVERTS
It is fitting that the parashah which tells of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is named after Yisro (Jethro), Moses’ father-in-law — a convert. Indeed, all those who witnessed the Giving of the Torah were “converts”. Thus (as noted in the commentary on Parshas SHEMOS) the Covenant at Sinai was accompanied by the three components of conversion: circumcision (Rashi on Ex.12:6), ritual immersion in the waters of the Mikveh (Ex. 19:10) and burned offerings (Ex. 24:5). For before G-d, we are all converts — GERIM, “dwellers” in a land and on an earth that is not ours but G-d’s. We are all here only by the grace of G-d, utterly dependent upon His kindness and compassion.
Thus no one can claim that the Torah belongs to him by right through ancestral or other merits. There is no room for pride, arrogance or the exploitation of the Torah for worldly advantage. The Torah is not the property of an exclusive caste. It “belongs” only to one who keeps it. The Torah was given in the Wilderness, no man’s land, on the lowest of all mountains — Sinai, the eternal symbol of humility. For only through humility can we “receive” and accept the Torah, which belongs to G-d alone. Receiving the Torah means having the humility to accept it as it is, the way it has come down to us, without trying to “modify” it according to our own ideas and wishes.
And when we are willing to accept and follow the Torah as it actually is — fulfilling NA’ASEH VE-NISHMAH, “we will (first) DO it and (then) HEAR (and understand) it” (Ex. 24:7) — then we can come to understand how the Torah lifts us out of our slavery to this-worldliness, with its many false gods. Then we can hear the voice of redemption that calls to us every day: “I am HASHEM your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Ex. 20:2).
Slavery to the idols of the mundane world is ignominious. Yet the Torah accords the greatest honor to those who have the courage to leave this servitude behind and “go out into the wilderness” in search of G-d — like Jethro. According to tradition, Jethro had investigated every conceivable way of interpreting and living in this world, every world-view and “lifestyle”. Only when Jethro came to HaShem and His Torah did he know he had found the truth. “Now I KNOW that HaShem is great above all the gods” (Ex. 18:11). The Zohar comments: “When Jethro came and said, ‘Now I know that HaShem is great.’ then the Supreme Name was glorified and exalted” (Zohar, Yisro 69). In other words, the revelation of G-d’s light and power is greatest precisely when it comes out of darkness and concealment. Only when we have seen evil and know its power can we understand the greatness of G-d’s saving hand. The only one who was a slave truly understands what it means to have been freed. This is “the superiority of the light that comes out of darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
Thus, Jethro, the Convert was accorded the honor of having the parashah narrating the Giving of the Torah named after him, and of contributing the hierarchical system of “captains of thousands, captains of hundreds, captains of fifties and captains of tens” through which the Children of Israel are governed. Jethro’s name also contains and alludes to the name of another humble convert who was accorded the greatest honor: Ruth the Moabitess, who was the great grandmother of King David, MELECH HAMASHIACH.
* * *
TWO MILLION PROPHETS
Rambam (Maimonides) in “Foundations of the Torah”, the opening section of his comprehensive Code of Law, explains the significance of the revelation at Sinai, which was witnessed by at least two million people:
“The people of Israel did not believe in Moses our Teacher because of the signs he wrought. For one who believes on account of signs always has some residual doubt in his heart that maybe the sign was brought about through magic and witchcraft. All the signs that Moses performed in the wilderness were performed to meet specific needs, not to bring proof of his prophecy.
“Then how did they come to believe in him? The answer is: At Mount Sinai, where we ourselves (not a stranger) saw with our own eyes and where we ourselves (not someone else) heard with our own ears the thunderous sounds and flashing lights and how Moses approached and entered the thick cloud. We heard The Voice speak with him as we listened: ‘Moses, Moses, go and say to them.’ From where do we learn that the Assembly at Mount Sinai and that alone is the final proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy — proof that leaves no room for further doubt? As it says, ‘Behold I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and also they will believe in you forever’ (Ex. 19:9).
“It follows that the very ones to whom he was sent were the witnesses to the truth of his prophecy, and he had no need to perform any further sign since he and they were both witnesses to the matter. It is like two witnesses who both saw the same thing. Each one is a witness that his friend is telling the truth. Neither witness needs further proof of what his friend is saying. Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to the truth of Moses’ prophecy and he had no need to perform any sign. For one who believes on account of signs still entertains doubts in his heart.
“Accordingly if a prophet arises and works great miracles and wonders and seeks to deny the prophecy of Moses our Teacher, we do not listen to him and we know clearly that those signs were brought about through magic and witchcraft. For the prophecy of Moses does not depend upon signs, such that we should compare the signs of one prophet to the signs of another. We ourselves saw it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears. The prophets who deny the truth of Moses’ prophesy are like witnesses who tell a person who saw something with his own eyes that it was not as he saw it. The person simply does not listen to them, for he knows for certain that they are false witnesses.” (Rambam, Yesodey HaTorah 8:1-3).
* * *
“AND ISRAEL ENCAMPED”
“And Israel encamped there, facing the mount” (Ex. 19:2) — the Hebrew verb VAYICHAN (“encamped”) is in the singular. They encamped “as one man with one heart” (Rashi ad loc.) — united. Observing today’s rainbow variety of jostling Israelites — ever-critical, argumentative, obstinate and apparently incapable of agreeing about anything — it is hard to imagine how all the Children of Israel actually did unite at Sinai to receive the Torah.
This is particularly difficult to imagine for those who have delved into the intricacies of Talmudic law and reasoning, and who knows how the Torah repeatedly seems to fly completely in the face of reason and good common sense. How could those two million Israelites collectively agree to accept this elaborate, complex, reason-defying code in all its minute details? What brought them to do so? And the fact is that today’s observant descendants of those Israelites, despite the fact of having come from communities spread out all over the world, still all fundamentally agree to accept this code without changing a letter!
The very faith of Jews in the Torah for thousands of years in the face of almost constant adversity and persecution is itself proof of the uniqueness of the Assembly at Sinai when we all collectively witnessed the same one truth of G-d and agreed to accept the Torah. Only a completely unique divine revelation could have been powerful enough to instill in two million people a faith that has lasted for thousands of years, a faith for which, over the generations, many millions laid down their very lives.
It is ironic that many people today question the historicity of the revelation at Sinai. We live in an age that prides itself on instantly recording its own daily history in the form of incessant news in the press, on TV, radio, and Internet. And we are witnesses to the way in which the media have become manufacturers of endless streams of idolatrous images that totally distort the meaning of the world they supposedly reflect.
If we are to begin to internalize the magnitude of the Giving of the Torah, which took place without media coverage, we must try to think ourselves out of our own noisy, sophisticated world. We must try to project ourselves back into the stark, awesome, silent grandeur of the “wilderness”, the MIDBAR, where man’s existential reality as a GER, a wanderer and a stranger in this world, is writ large. Out of the silence of the MIDBAR spoke a voice: MEDABER. And the voice was forever inscribed in the hearts of those who heard it and taught it to their children from generation to generation.
* * *
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PERSON AND A STATUE
In the above-quoted passage from Rambam about the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy, he states that “the prophets who deny the truth of Moses’ prophecy are like witnesses who tell a person who saw something with his own eyes that it was not as he saw it.”
The prophets to whom he is referring include those who founded the two major world religions which are rooted in and yet deviate from the Torah: Christianity and Islam. Both drew the bulk of their teachings from the Torah. Yet both implicitly and explicitly deny the finality of Moses’ prophecy, seeking to “undo” the laws of the Torah (such as circumcision, the dietary laws, complete Sabbath observance and many others).
The relaxation of the stringencies of Torah law by these man-made religions made them more acceptable to the non-Israelite nations. As Rambam states at the very end of his Code of Law (Hilchos Melachim 11:4 uncensored version): “Man does not have the power to grasp the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe. For our ways are not His ways, nor are our thoughts His. All that happened in the wake of Yeshu of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him came only to straighten the way for Melech HaMashiach and to rectify the entire world to serve HaShem together. Thus it is written: ‘And then I will turn to all the nations a pure language so that all of them will call upon the name of HaShem and serve Him with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9). The whole world has thus become filled with the knowledge of the Torah and the commandments. This knowledge has spread to the farthest islands. And when the true MELECH HAMASHIACH arises and succeeds, they will all immediately know that ‘their fathers inherited falsehood’ and that their prophets and their fathers deceived them.”
Despite the attraction of the two new religions for non-Israelites, neither one of them ever made serious inroads among the Jews. Indeed it was precisely because the founders could not attract the Jews that they turned to the non-Jews for recruits.
In Rambam’s IGERET TEIMAN (letter to the Jews of Yemen written in 1172 C.E. encouraging them to reject the forced conversion to Islam to which they were being subjected), he explains why the two new religions held no attractions for those who understood the intricate depths of the Torah:
“Their only wish was to compare their lies to the Law of HaShem. But the work of G-d bears no comparison to the work of man except in the eyes of a little child who has no understanding of either. The difference between our religion and the other religions that seek to compare themselves to it is like the difference between a living, conscious man and a statue. The statue is carved out of a piece of wood overlaid with gold or silver or chiseled out of a piece of marble and made to look like a man. An ignorant fool does not know the difference between G-dly wisdom and this artifact made in the form of a man. The statue looks like a man in its structure and outward appearance. But it only seems like a man because the ignorant onlooker doesn’t know what is inside either a man or a statue. However, the wise man knows the difference between what is inside the two. The wise man knows that inside the statue is nothing, while the inside of the living man, ADAM, is filled with truly amazing wonders and works that testify to the wisdom of the Creator — the nerves, the flesh, the bones, the bodily limbs and their all their interconnections.”
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum