"My Cow, My Cow!"
Summarized by Ronnie Ziegler
Yitro appears twice in this week's parasha. First, he undergoes a spiritual awakening, stating "Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh... Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods" (18:10-11). Second, he advises Moshe on practical matters, urging him to set up a hierarchy of judges rather than judge all cases himself.
It would appear that the first context, the spiritual one, is more significant. The Children of Israel had just experienced the Exodus and witnessed God's miracles. It is only natural that they would accept the Torah. Yitro, however, did not directly witness God's hand - yet nevertheless he accepts God and His Torah.
Today, we lack the overwhelming experience of God which led the Children of Israel to accept the Torah. It is Yitro who teaches us that this is not the only basis for the acceptance of the Torah. Kabbalat Ha-Torah does not depend on witnessing God's revelation with our eyes - we can also find it in our hearts.
Yitro's second appearance in our parasha, though it seems to deal with merely technical matters, is no less significant. In order to understand the meaning of this episode, let us first relate a beautiful Chassidic tale.
Reb Moshe of Kobrin used to travel to various rebbes in order to learn from them. Once he decided to spend Shabbat with Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta. On Friday afternoons, Reb Avraham used to come to shul early, long before the congregation arrived, in order to chant Shir Ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. One such Friday afternoon, as Reb Avraham began chanting, Reb Moshe of Kobrin slipped in unnoticed and sat in a corner of the shul. Reb Avraham's face was radiant under his shtreimel, and the sweet melody of the love song of God and His people filled the air. Reb Moshe sat transfixed, feeling as if he had entered the Holy of Holies.
Suddenly the door swung open and in walked a man, his face grimy, his clothes muddy, reeking of the smells of the barn. What important question can this man have, wondered Reb Moshe, that he comes to disturb the holy Reb Avraham at this moment?
The farmer approached Reb Avraham, wailing, "My cow, my cow! It is going to give birth and I'm afraid it will die!" Reb Moshe was taken aback by this outburst, but Reb Avraham answered him patiently, telling him where to go for help and who to speak to.
After the Shabbat evening meal, Reb Moshe could contain himself no longer. He asked Reb Avraham how he could have countenanced such rudeness.
"Did you hear what he asked me?" replied Reb Avraham.
"He asked about his cow," answered Reb Moshe.
"My dear Reb Moshe, you weren't listening carefully. The farmer wasn't crying 'My cow, my cow' - he was crying 'Rebbe, Rebbe! I am so small, so weak. I want a connection with God; please help me.' He simply wanted to speak to me, to establish a connection with me, and through me to connect to God. But how could he establish a connection with me? By discussing a passage of the Talmud or of the Zohar? No, he could only connect to me by discussing something he knew about - his cow."
Similarly, in our parasha, Yitro was taken aback when he saw Moshe Rabbenu besieged from morning to evening with people bringing their petty disputes before him. When he asked Moshe why he put up with this, Moshe replied (18:15), "Because the people come to me to seek God." And how do they seek God? Moshe continues (18:16), "When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God." In Moshe's eyes, the point was not the verdict he rendered in each particular case, but rather the fact that the people sought a connection with him, and through him to God.
Yitro appreciated Moshe's attitude, but felt that Moshe would wear himself out if he persisted in this path. He advised Moshe to continue teaching the people and judging difficult cases, but delegating all other cases to a series of lower courts. Moshe realized this was the only practical course of action and agreed to Yitro's suggestion.
(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5756.)