Divrei Torah

PARSHAS YISRO 5780

The Torah teaches us, “And Yisro the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe heard all that G-d did for Moshe and the Jewish people His nation . . . Now I know that G-d is greater than all other gods”.

Who was Yisro? We know that he was the father-in-law of Moshe. But what was his background? Yisro was one of the important pagan priests in Midian. According to the Midrash, he was so important, that he even served as an advisor to the Pharaoh. However, he had a good sense of right and wrong. When Pharaoh devised plans to afflict and torture the Jewish people, Yisro fled and dropped his idolatrous practices.

Now, Yisro had a major decision to make. He had investigated every form of idolatry. He also studied the service of G-d. He had to decide between G-d and other forms of worship. He chose G-d. Why? When he heard all that G-d did for Moshe and the Jewish people – the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the manna that fell from the sky and the defeat of Amalek – he decided to convert and join the Jewish people - make G-d and the Jewish people his priority. 

The Torah emphasizes that Yisro heard all that G-d did for Moshe and the Jewish people. Yisro was not the only person who heard about the Exodus, the splitting of the sea and the defeat of Amalek. I would be willing to wager that most of the known world heard about those events – certainly in the Middle East. How could one not hear about the defeat of the most powerful empire of that era or the defeat of Amalek – also a powerful nation? However, the Torah is telling us that Yisro is the only person who heard about these events and took them to heart, He realized that G-d performed all these miracles for the sake of the Jewish people – they were special. Yisro now had to choose between his important status in Midian, his wealth and life of luxury or the Jewish people. He decided to make it his priority to learn about G-d and the Jewish people and become a part of them.

Perhaps that is a reason that the story of Yisro is the lead into the description of G-d giving us the Torah. We have the same choices as Yisro. We must regularly make decisions as to the proper path to follow. Do we commit ourselves to G-d and the Jewish people or do we let society dictate what our priorities should be? And it makes no difference whether a person comes from a religious background or not. That decision is just as challenging. Just because a person is born into a religious family does not mean that the person has easy decisions in life regarding religious practice. Today, we see many people – especially young people – who have been raised in families that the papers would call ultra-Orthodox yet they have little connection to the Jewish people. They had a decision to make and for whatever reason – many times victims of circumstance – they opted out. But that is not new. The Jewish people have always had defectors – even in ancient times.

In the Tanach we find great Jews who strayed far from the path of the Torah. Towards the end of the life of King Solomon, there was a man named Yeravam ben Nevat who was the greatest Torah scholar of his era. However, after he became the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, he led the Jews of his kingdom into a life of idolatry.

On the other hand, there are thousands of people who have made Judaism a priority – many of whom did not come from religious backgrounds, yet, they somehow made a decision to change their lifestyle. They made and have had a most positive effect.

The great Rabbi Akiva originally hated Torah scholars. Then, he witnessed an event that gave him pause. He turned his life around and became the great teacher of the Jewish people. Almost all of the Mishna is teachings of his students.

This week’s parsha is named in Yisro’s honor because he made a priority to act on behalf of G-d and the Jewish people, Yisro was a priest to idolatry, yet the Torah honors him because G-d judges people not by their origins but by the content of their character.

We can all define our legacies by our actions and deeds. Will my life be defined by positive deeds and service to G-d? We, like Yisro, can align our deeds and actions with the ultimate truth of God’s existence, The Rambam states the following in the beginning of the first chapter of the Mishna Torah: “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to experience that there is one Creator,” We must experience G-d in our lives - saying “I do” to G-d and the Torah.