Friday, February 17, 2006

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - The Perils of Yisro's Path

This week's parsha begins with the statement that Yisro heard all that had occurred to the Jewish people - which caused him to travel all the way to the desert, where the Jews were. The commentators further explain that he heard about the incredible exodus, the heavenly manna, the miraculous well of water, and the victory in battle against Amalek. Yet, a few verses later we are told that upon greeting Yisro, Moshe tells him (Shemos 18:8) "everything that G-d had done to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel's sake - all the trouble that had befallen them along the way - and that G-d had rescued them."

So, if Yisro already heard these things, why did Moshe need to recount the entire episode?

Rashi answers this question saying that Moshe did so "in order to draw Yisro's interest and bring him close to Torah (Mechilta)." Meaning that it was not merely to repeat what Yisro had already had heard, but that there was an additional message that Moshe was trying to convey by retelling the miracles that G-d had performed that would "bring [Yisro] close to Torah."

Before we can answer the question of what additional message Moshe sought to convey, and to understand why Yisro would need to be brought additionally close to Torah, we first must understand the worldview of Yisro.

In Sefer Shoftim there is a discussion about a priest of idolatry, who the commentators identify as Moshe's son Gershom. They explain that one of the conditions to Moshe's marriage to Yisro's daughter was that Moshe had to agree to have his eldest son trained in the ways of idolatry - to which Moshe agreed. Yisro made this condition because he believed that one had to first see the falsehood of all other paths before one could truly recognize the truth of G-d and Judaism.

Yisro believed that if one is raised as a Jew without knowledge of any other path, than he cannot truly know that he is on the right path; he is merely doing what he was taught. If a Jew just does what he was taught to do, how is he different than any idolater was is simply doing what he was taught?

Yisro insisted that his grandson Gershom be trained in the ways of the world, so that he could truly recognize G-d, just as he had done. Unfortunately, Yisro's logic was flawed and Chazal related the sad result of Yisro's experiment in Sefer Shoftim.

The risk of Yisro's path is that one may never reach the truth, and may spend an entire life on the false path of idolatry, never reaching the ultimate goal. Perhaps this is what Moshe was telling Yisro in recounting the miracles that G-d had performed even though Yisro had heard it all before.

I think that these two worldviews can also be seen and better understood, in the book of the Kuzari. In this book, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi summed up Judaism for the king of the Khazars:

"We believe in the G-d of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, Who took the Jews out of Egypt with great wonders and miracles, Who sustained them in the desert, Who gave them the Land of Israel, Who split the Red Sea and the Jordan river with great miracles. This G-d sent Moshe to give His Torah, and later thousands of prophets who exhorted the populace to follow the Torah."

The king responded disdainfully, using a logical approach similar to that of Yisro:

"I see that the Jews have no depth of wisdom. You, Jew, should have said that you believe in a Creator, Who organizes and oversees the universe, and Who created you and sustains you, and other such ideas that are universal to all religions. Those ideas are the real reasons to pursue truth and emulate righteousness and wisdom - and not specific miracles that you mention that happened in isolated periods."

But Rabbi Yehuda clarified the depth of his words:

"You are referring to a religion arrived at through logic and analysis - and as such it is subject to much ambiguity - I on the other hand speak of tangible, indisputable events that are the basis of our religion."

[The king responded, "Your words make more sense now; I would like to continue this conversation."]

Perhaps this is precisely what Moshe was telling Yisro: While it once was important to come to recognize G-d though search and analysis, there is no need to reinvent the wheel and search for Him, after He has already been revealed - especially with the inherent risks of the pre-Sinai approach of seeking G-d while in darkness. Instead, the optimal approach for our time is to begin post-discovery. We have already established the truth, now we need to devote ourselves to the study of it.


At February 17, 2006 at 1:58:00 PM EST, Blogger yaak said...

Very nice.

One minor correction:
It was not Gershom, but his son Yehonatan who was a priest for Avodah Zara.

See here.

At February 20, 2006 at 11:08:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At February 22, 2006 at 9:04:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"cuz he had 7 daughters after each wedding he had to change his name."


At February 23, 2006 at 6:44:00 AM EST, Blogger wennejunk said...

Interesting article. Says alot about the essence of faith, regardless of the particular religion.

It's the same challenge for us all. Do we continue to try and dissect the fundamentals of what we believe, trying to establish exactly why and what we believe, trying to establish a defensible bedrock?

Or do we simply accept what is told as revealed and true, regardless of the questions and ridicule of others who do not understand?

In many ways, the second is easist. Capitulate to the beliefs, accept them as true and spend one's spare time trying to live them and on other areas of life.

I think, though, that everyone has a responsibility that extends beyond simple acceptance. The responsibility is to those others who question our beliefs.

We need to accept, but also seek to be able to explain, to the extent that we can. Ultimately, however, it is the way we live our beliefs that says the most about them to others.

Nobody respects the man who can fully explain his faith but fails to live it.

At February 23, 2006 at 11:23:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you.

I also think that understanding one's religion is essential, and if one is missing that understanding than his ability to observe his religion is lacking - but this is a case of study in order to practice, rather than study in order to find the path that suits one best.

Which would mean that it is not productive for us to devote ourselves to the study of comparative religion, trying them all out first...but we definitly must understand our religion better every day.

At February 6, 2007 at 1:04:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yaak: Commenting on Shemos 18:2, the Ohr HaChaim suggests that it was indeed Gershom - the first born son of Moshe.


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