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Parshat Yitro: The worth of the human being

It is well known that there is a difference of opinion as to whether Yitro’s arrival in the camp of Israel in the desert occurred before or after the revelation and granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

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Religion

RABBI BEREL WEIN

Parshat Yitro

Rabbi Berel Wein of The Destiny Foundation

 

The worth of the human being

 

It is well known that there is a difference of opinion as to whether Yitro’s arrival in the camp of Israel in the desert occurred before or after the revelation and granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Even if we say that Yitro arrived before the momentous event of Mount Sinai and that the Torah is recording events in a chronological manner, it still is difficult for us to understand.

 

Why is this most important event in Jewish history as outlined for us in the Torah, preceded by a rather mundane description of Yitro’s arrival and reception in the camp of Israel?

 

Would it not be more effective to highlight the revelation at Sinai immediately at the beginning of the parsha? And this appears to be especially true since the parsha goes into great detail and some length in describing the circumstances and experience of the revelation at Sinai.

 

Why is there such an apparent emphasis on Yitro and his arrival? And this question certainly is even more difficult if we adopt the opinion that the revelation at Sinai occurred before the arrival of Yitro.

 

Parshat Yitro.gifIt almost seems that by recording for us the entire story of the arrival of Yitro the Torah somehow diminishes in emphasis and focus the narrative regarding the revelation at Sinai itself.

 

If there ever was a stand-alone event in Jewish and in world history it certainly would be the moment of the revelation and granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So what is the story of Yitro doing being involved in the immortal narrative of the most seminal event in human history?

 

We are all aware of the great dictum of the Talmud that proper worldly behaviour precedes the Torah itself. The order of the subjects in this week’s parsha reinforces this idea clearly and cogently. The Torah records for us the politeness, courtesy, respect and sensitivity extended to Yitro by Moshe and Aaron and the Elders of Israel and all of the Jewish people when he arrived in their midst.

 

The Torah indulges in great detail in describing the reception that Yitro received. Simple courtesy extended to a stranger is the basis of the Jewish value system. It is what separated Abraham from Sodom. The Ten Commandments and in fact the entire Torah itself cannot be understood or appreciated without a grounding in this basic idea of the worth of the human being and of the necessity to honour, welcome and help of one another.

 

That is why we are not to be murderers, robbers, adulterers, lying witnesses or people of greed and avarice. The Talmud places great emphasis on the small things in life that make for a wholesome society. It records for us in great solemnity that one of the great virtues of the leading scholars of Torah of its day was that they greeted everyone, no matter who that person was, in pleasantness.

 

This value is emphasized over and over again in the writings of the great men of Israel, throughout the generations. Therefore the welcome to Yitro must perforce precede the law of the Torah itself for it is the value upon which the Torah itself is based.

 

Shabat Shalom.

 

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Religion

True kindness

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Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?

The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.

Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.

This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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