Parashat Yitro begins with the story of the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, at the Israelite camp at Mount Sinai. The Torah relates that Moshe told his father-in-law about the miracles of the Exodus, and Yitro reacted with exuberance: “Va-yichad Yitro” – “Yitro rejoiced” (18:9).
Whereas the plain meaning of the word “va-yichad” is joy and elation, the Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (94a) cites two other interpretations of this word, both of which associate “va-yichad” with the Hebrew word for “sharp” (“chad”). According to one view, “va-yichad” means that Yitro “ran a sharp knife over his flesh,” that is, he underwent circumcision as part of his formal conversion process. The other interpretation is that Yitro’s flesh became “prickly,” a reference to the pain he experienced upon hearing of the suffering of the Egyptians, a people with whom he had previously been affiliated.
Interestingly, both these interpretations of “va-yichad” speak of an experience of pain and discomfort – the precise opposite of the plain meaning of the word. One view understands “va-yichad” as a description of physical pain, and the other as referring to emotional pain, but both explain that the Torah describes Yitro going through an uncomfortable experience during his reunion with Moshe.
The message that emerges, perhaps, is that joy does not necessitate the absence of discomfort, that one can experience true joy even while enduring a degree of physical or emotional pain. The Torah here clearly tells us that Yitro rejoiced – and Chazal want us to realize that Yitro experienced immense and sincere joy even as he endured the physical pain of circumcision and the emotional pain of hearing of the Egyptians’ suffering. Our joy must not be dependent on the absence of all pain and discomfort. Very often we are forced to endure “pain” of one kind or another, and many times we make the mistake of thinking that we cannot experience joy until the discomfort passes. The Gemara’s interpretations of “va-yichad” perhaps remind us that we can and must find joy even amid hardship, that we are capable of rejoicing over God’s blessings and goodness even when we find ourselves beset by difficult challenges.