09 Feb 2023 Parshas Yisro: Know Thine Place
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, Yisro, the priest of Midyan and father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu arrives at the Israelite encampment in the desert. After hearing about all the great miracles that Hashem did for Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael, Yisro is moved to come join the nation in the desert. Along with him, he brings Tziporah, Moshe’s wife, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. When Yisro sees Moshe single-handedly judging the people from morning till evening, with the nation standing around him to hear the word of G-d, Yisro realizes the situation is unsustainable. He instructs Moshe to appoint lower courts who will hear lesser claims, and the weightier matters should be brought to Moshe for judgment. In this way, Yisro says, you (Moshe) and the nation will be able to be sustained. Ever the humble servant of G-d (cf. Num.12:3), Moshe Rabbeinu takes Yisro’s advice.
It’s extremely curious to note that the opening verses of the sedra repeatedly stress that Yisro is Moshe’s father-in-law. In a Torah where every single word is measured, and not one word is superfluous, why does the Torah repeat (almost in every pasuk!) that Yisro is Moshe’s father-in-law? To appreciate the degree of repetition, it is worthy to look at the opening verses of the sedra:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה – and Yisro, the priest of Midyan, the father-in-law of Moshe heard all that G-d did for Moshe and Israel (Shemos 18:1);
וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה – and Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took Tzipporah the wife of Moshe (18:2);
וַיָּבֹ֞א יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה וּבָנָ֥יו וְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֗ר – And Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe came, and the sons and the wife of Moshe, to the desert (v.5);
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲנִ֛י חֹתֶנְךָ֥ יִתְר֖וֹ בָּ֣א אֵלֶ֑יךָ – and he said to Moshe, I am your father-in-law Yisro, coming to you (v.6);
וַיֵּצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִקְרַ֣את חֹֽתְנ֗וֹ – and Moshe went out to greet his father-in-law (v.7);
וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ לְחֹ֣תְנ֔וֹ אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה ה֙’ לְפַרְעֹ֣ה – and Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem did to Pharaoh (v.8);
וַיִּקַּ֞ח יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה עֹלָ֥ה וּזְבָחִ֖ים – and Yisro the father-in-law of Moshe took sacrificial offerings (v.12);
וַיַּרְא֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵ֛ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֑ם – and the father-in-law of Moshe saw all that he was doing for the nation (v.14);
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה לְחֹתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם – and Moshe said to his father-in-law, because the nation will come to me to seek out (the word of) G-d (v.15).
The repetition is astonishing! In a Torah where every single word is measured, and not one word is extra or wasted, what is the message the Torah is teaching us in repeating over and over again that Yisro is Moshe’s father-in-law? It cannot simply be telling us the relationship between the two men, because that is already abundantly clear.
When I posed this question, my father-in-law (how apropos! and no pun intended), Mr. Norman (Naftali) Horowitz amu”sh, suggested a beautiful answer.
He pointed out that in the opening section of the sedra, whenever Yisro’s name is mentioned vis-a-vis Moshe, or their interaction, he is listed as the father-in-law of Moshe. But when a verse mentions his name NOT in connection to Moshe, it only says Yisro – because there is no direct relationship in those verses to Moshe (see 18:9,10).
What’s the lesson? A person must always know their place and position when interacting with, and in the presence of, a great person and one greater than them. The Torah is teaching us a lesson in kavod, respect, honor and dignity for our elders, teachers, rabbonim, leaders, and parents. One can never get too comfortable with a great person – our awe must always remain intact and in place – so we show them the proper respect.
Every time Yisro interacted with, or spoke to, Moshe, the Torah reminds us that he was the father-in-law of Moshe. The respect Yisro had remained, and did not diminish over time. He did not become complacent or so “used to” Moshe that he forgot before whom he stood. As my father-in-law suggested, “Yisro never got ‘too comfortable’ to not give Moshe the kavod.” No matter how great Yisro was, he always remembered that Moshe was greater, and acted humbly and with reverence before him.
As much as Rav Dovid Feinstein zt’l (1929-2020) knew and as fluently as he knew it… he completely nullified his own opinion to that of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l (1910-2012). He had a designated seforim shelf for Rav Elyashiv’s teshuvos and he would give personal funds to the Rav’s grandson to help print the Torah of R’ Elyashiv.
Once, when he was unable to find a single proof in all of Shas to pasken a shailoh, he recommended the questioners go ask Rav Elyashiv. One of the men spoke up, “With all due respect to R’ Elyashiv, if the Rosh Yeshiva (Rav Dovid) cannot find a proof, is it likely that R’ Elyashiv will find one?” “No,” answered Rav Dovid, “he probably will not find a proof either. But when there are no raayos (proofs), no sources in Chazal to direct us, then the practical decisions have to come from a gadol baTorah, and he is a real gadol!” (Reb Dovid, Artscroll, p.166).
Yisro always knew his position and gave Moshe the kavod he deserved, never becoming accustomed (or dulled) to the greatness of Moshe. From here we further learn a lesson vis-a-vis the pachad and yirah one must strive to feel towards the RS”O. If such is the respect we must give our teachers, elders and gedolim, how much more so – kal v’chomer ben beno shel kal v’chomer – to the Melech Malchei Ha’melachim, HKB”H, the Source of all blessings and all good.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,