Yitro and the Receiving of the Torah
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Leon Brum for the Refua Sheleima of
Dana Petrover (Batsheva bat Gittel Aidel Leba)
and Marvin Rosenberg (Meir Chaim ben Tzipporah Miriam)
When God reveals Himself to Moshe for the first time, He tells him:
When you bring the nation out of Egypt, you will serve God upon this mountain. (Shemot 3:12)
After we read, in last week's parasha, about the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea, we would have expected this week's parasha to start with a description of the Revelation at Sinai and the receiving of the Torah. It is surprising, then, that this account is preceded by the story of Yitro. What does Yitro have to do with the unfolding of the great redemption that is being recounted in this series of parashot? Our surprise grows in light of Chazal's assertion that "[The visit of] Yitro took place after the giving of the Torah" (Zevachim 116a). If this visit did not occur prior to the Revelation at Sinai, why does the Torah go out of its way to change the chronological order of events so as to describe the visit specifically here?
A further question, noted by the Rebbe of Kotzk, is why a parasha in the Torah is named after Yitro, the "priest of Midian," while the forefathers of the Jewish nation themselves do not merit such an honor.
It seems that both questions can be answered in light of a sugya in Kiddushin (70b):
There is an added advantage that converts enjoy over and above born Jews. Concerning born Jews it is written: "I shall be their God, and they shall be My nation" (Yechezkel 37:27), while concerning converts it is written: "Who is he that has pledged his heart to come close to Me, says God? You shall be My nation, and I shall be your God" (Yirmiyahu 30:21-22).
At first, the Gemara seems puzzling: what difference does it make whether God first asserts His rule over you, or whether you first coronate God as your King? Why do converts, who first coronate God as King over themselves, have an advantage over born Jews, over whom God first asserts His rule?
There are two possible ways of arriving at faith in God. One type of faith finds expression in the generation that left Egypt, who with their own eyes saw God strike the Egyptians in the plague of the firstborn, and who witnessed great miracles performed for them at the sea. A generation like this had no choice but to believe. After seeing such great miracles, how could they possibly deny God's existence? This would appear to be what the aggada means by its depiction of God, at the time of the giving of the Torah, as "holding the mountain over them like a cask" (Shabbat 88a). After all they had seen, they had no choice but to believe in God and to accept His Torah.
Yitro, on the other hand, arrives at faith in God via an altogether different route. Rashi learns from the verse, "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods" (18:11), that before coming to join Am Yisrael, Yitro had tried out every existing form of idolatry. Yitro is a man who deliberates. After hearing about the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the war against Amalek, he decides to serve God – but even at this stage he is not altogether reconciled to his decision. Therefore Rashi writes that when Yitro heard about the downfall of the Egyptians, "his skin became prickly, as he regretted the death of the Egyptians" (18:9). Yitro arrives at faith after hearing reports and thinking about them, rather than through seeing for himself. For this reason, he is full of questions and doubts.
Hence, we may explain that the Torah tells us about Yitro specifically prior to the Revelation at Sinai, in order to teach us that Yitro's path to faith, too, is legitimate. Since the Revelation at Sinai will never be repeated, from that time until today we have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of Yitro and to arrive at faith not as eye-witnesses who can proclaim "This is my God and I shall praise Him," but rather accompanied by incessant questioning and doubts. Yitro teaches us that there is nothing wrong with this, and that a believer of this sort is even worthy of having an entire parasha of the Torah named after him!
However, it appears that there is a further point to having the story of Yitro precede the giving of the Torah. As noted, Chazal assert that Yitro came to join Am Yisrael after trying out every existing form of idolatry. Therefore, Yitro is uniquely able to testify that the Torah is the greatest good and preferable to all other options. When Yitro, who has tried everything, acknowledges: "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods," it is significant proof of the exclusivity and superiority of the Torah.
A third reason for the story of Yitro appearing prior to the giving of the Torah is to teach us that the Torah was not given only to Am Yisrael. It has an educational role to play vis-à-vis the nations of the world, too. Yitro – a representative of the nations of the world – comes to Am Yisrael in order to receive the Torah together with them. From Yitro we learn that there is great value to recognition of God's Kingship on the part of gentiles.
Rambam takes this idea much further, and in an excerpt which, in the past, was censored (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4), he argues that there is a positive aspect to the establishment of Judaism's daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. Owing to the spread of these religions, many non-Jews are no longer pagans; rather, they recognize God and acknowledge concepts such as the messiah (even if their perception is misguided in some respects). Yitro's arrival teaches us that the ultimate destiny of Am Yisrael is to influence all the nations of the world:
And it shall be, in the end of days, that the mountain of God's House will be established at the top of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and nations shall stream to it. And many nations will go and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, and to the House of the God of Yaakov, that He may teach us about His ways, and we shall walk in His paths, for Torah shall emerge from Tzion, and God's word from Yerushalayim. (Mikha 4:1-2)
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Yitro 5753 .)