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Weekly Parsha

Parsha Yitro

The central event of parsha Yitro is the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  All the events recorded in the Torah, beginning with the creation of the world, have been leading up to this point.  Through giving the Torah, G-d is about to fulfil the purpose for which He created the world: to make it into His home.

Yet, before G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish people, one more event must occur – and according to the Zohar, had it not occurred G-d could not have given the Torah:  Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, prince and high priest of Midian, must convert and join the Jewish people.

What was so special about Jethro, and what was so significant about his conversion that it served as the final, critical prerequisite for the giving of the Torah.

In this parsha, Jethro tells Moses that “now I know that G-d is greater than all other deities.”  The sages tell us that this means that Jethro was acquainted with all forms of idolatry (for otherwise he could not have made such a statement.)  Idolatry arose out of the erroneous belief that since G-d chose to delegate some of His powers to the forces of nature, it is proper to revere these forces.  Eventually, people came to worship these intermediary forces themselves and, in most cases, forgot about G-d.  Thus, Jethro’s acquaintance with all forms of idolatry was the result of having studied all the forces of creation – from the physical forces of nature up to and including the most abstract and subtle spiritual powers and energies.  He had worshipped all of these as intermediaries between G-d and creation.

If Jethro was so smart, why didn’t he realise on his own that all these intermediaries have no power of their own but are rather just tools in G-d’s hand.

In fact, the nature of reality in Jethro’s time was more conducive to the pagan outlook than to the truth.  Ever since the primordial sin in the Garden of Eden, the world had become increasingly hostile to holiness and G-d’s presence had been further and further banished from the world; it seemed that G-d really had given His powers over to the forces of nature.

Abraham and his successors reversed this trend, and their work was now about to be consummated.  The breach that had developed between Divinity and worldly reality was about to be healed, enabling G-dliness to permeate all reality and enabling all reality to sense Divinity.

This was why the ten plagues and their culmination, the Splitting of the Sea, were a necessary precursor to the Giving of the Torah.  When the sea split, the hidden, spiritual dimension of reality (evinced by the sea, which hides all forms of life within it became revealed; Divinity became temporarily obvious and self-evident throughout all creation.

But the Splitting of the Sea was not enough.  True, the power of evil – the denial of G-d’s omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence – was temporarily neutralised.  But it was not uprooted entirely, since the philosophical underpinnings of idolatry still existed.  As soon as the sea reverted to its natural state, it was once again possible to live under the delusion that G-d’s power extends only throughout the realms of holiness, but that nature is somehow beyond His control.

This is why Amalek could attack Israel even after the Splitting of the Sea, when “all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away (from fear).”  The nation of Amalek is the personification of doubt and its resulting apathy.  As long as there is room to think that G-d and life are two separate compartments of reality, we can entertain the notion that we can live life without G-d’s full involvement. 

This undermines our natural enthusiasm for Judaism; the Torah and its commandments become a burden to be discharged so that we can get on with the business of living.  Certainly, there is no point in giving the Torah to the Jewish people in this kind of climate.

Only when Jethro – the embodiment of anti-Torah philosophy and spiritualism – concedes that “G-d is greater than all other gods,” thereby crowning Him king over all aspects of life down to the most mundane and seemingly natural details, is the stage set for the Torah to descend from heaven.

This is also why Jethro waited to join the Jewish people until the sea had been split and Amalek had been deterred.  The Splitting of the Sea demonstrated that the time had come for the breach between Divinity and worldly reality to be healed.  But the only partially-successful battle with Amalek showed that the world was still not completely ready, that reality retained lingering doubts about the extent to which this would be possible,  Jethro therefore realised that now was the time for him to do what only he could do.

Being the arch-idolater he was, Jethro was in a unique position to negate the belief that any natural force or process, physical or spiritual, is independent of G-d.  By acknowledging that G-d’s providence pervades all corners of creation, that there is no aspect of life that can possibly be construed to be void of Him, Jethro readied the world for the consciousness of G-d’s omnipresence that was achieved by the Giving of the Torah.

It is therefore fitting that the parsha that describes the giving of the Torah be named after Jethro, the idolatrous priest, for it is his conversion that expresses most eloquently the power of the Torah to permeate and transform all reality into G-d’s chosen home.