Parshas Yisro: The Prelude to Matan Torah

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, the Bnei Yisrael achieve spiritual freedom with the giving, and receiving, of the Torah at Har Sinai.  The fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Moshe at the sneh (burning bush), has come to fruition: בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-האלקים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה – And Hashem said to Moshe, I will be with you, and this will be the sign that I sent you: when you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d on this mountain (Shemos 3:12). 

Rashi (ibid) notes: שֶׁאֲנִי מַבְטִיחֲךָ שֶׁכְּשֶׁתּוֹצִיאֵם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אוֹתִי עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה, שֶׁתְּקַבְּלוּ הַתּוֹרָה עָלָיו, וְהִיא הַזְּכוּת הָעוֹמֶדֶת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל – That I promise you that when you will take them out of Egypt, you will worship Me on this mountain, that you will receive the Torah upon it, and it is the zechus (merit) that stands for (i.e.: which is an advocate for) Israel

And in Parshas Yisro, we witness – and every year, relearn about – the great event of Matan Torah, which is detailed in Chapters 19 and 20. 

However, Parshas Yisro does not begin with the giving of the Torah.  It begins in Chapter 18, with the story of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to the Israelite camp in the desert, whereupon he witnesses Moshe sitting all day and judging the people: וַיְהִי, מִמָּחֳרָת, וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב – and it was on the next day, and Moshe sat to judge the nation, and the nation stood upon Moshe, from the morning to the evening (18:13). 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l questions, “Why were there so many litigants that Moshe had to stand the whole day sitting in judgment?  The Jews in the desert were provided with food, clothes, and all other necessities; there was no need for them to win their daily bread by the sweat of their brows.  He fed you the manna… Your raiment grew not old upon you, nor did your foot swell (Devarim 8:4).’  There was no commerce, no manufacturing of goods, no competition.  There was no place for commercial feuds, for economic conflicts.  If somebody tried to hoard the manna, he was punished at once.  The manna bred worms and rotted.  If one attempted to grab more than the ration allotted to him, by the time he came home from picking the manna, the additional measure disappeared.  In short, cheating, grabbing, and stealing were impossibilities.  The whole sentence, ‘וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם… מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב – and Moshe sat lishpot the people… from morning till evening’ is mystifying.

“However, the puzzle is cleared up with a change in the semantics of שפט, shafot.  If shafot denotes the total spectrum of human relations, beginning with leadership but concluding with love, concern, and unqualified friendship, then we understand what Moshe did.  There was not much need for judicial action because litigation was minimal.  However, there was a great and awesome need for leadership, for teaching, and, particularly, for giving friendship.  There were many human tragedies which confronted Moshe and demanded his attention.  People had been in slavery for hundreds of years, ridiculed, humiliated, tortured; their wives had been dishonored not just once, their children snatched from motherly arms and brutally murdered.  Suddenly they were liberated, and many did not know how to live in freedom.  Nightmares pursued them; memories played havoc with them; each knock on the door at night reminded them of the blood-chilling scenes of a few years before. 

“The people were completely dislocated mentally, displaced physically, confused and frightened.  They needed somebody to lead and teach them, somebody in whom they could confide.  They clung to Moshe and wanted to be in his company.  His mere presence was inspiring for them, his ways were reassuring and calming, his words of wisdom enlightening, driving away all the ghost of the past.  His words of comfort and solace placated their pent-up perplexed emotions, healed their schism and fused them with hope and faith: וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב – the people stood around Moshe from the morning to evening.  They stood about him because they loved him and were fascinated by him; they could not be separated from him. The standing was not of a ceremonial nature at all; it was natural, almost instinctual. 

“Yisro misunderstood all this.  He could not imagine a person who was capable of being a justice, teacher and friend all at the same time… Of course, Yisro was wrong.  Moshe certainly did not make light of the respect due to Israel.  Moshe loved the people; he breathed and died for them.  The people’s standing (about him) was not commanded but spontaneous; they stood in order to be close to their great teacher and friend…” (Vision and Leadership, p.121-122).

Why does Matan Torah (Ch.19 & 20) – the greatest event in our national history – begin with the story of Yisro coming to the Israelite camp, whereupon he witnesses Moshe “judging” the people from morn till eve (Ch.18)?  Many reasons are given for the seemingly strange introduction to the Revelation at Sinai.  But perhaps, in the teaching of R’ Soloveitchik, another answers lies: The prelude to Matan Torah and Kabbalas HaTorah are one and the same: In order to accept the Torah, the law book of the RS”O that guides our every move, and in order to live by Torah, we must know what it means – each and every one of us – לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם.  To be a leader, a teacher, a friend.  To confide in others and allow others to confide in us.  To cling to our fellow Jew with genuine interest and concern for his wellbeing.  To inspire, reassure and calm each other.  To provide comfort and solace when needed, to infuse each other with hope and faith.  In a word: to be a friend. 

As the Sages teach: עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר – make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend (Avos 1:6). 

The prelude to Matan Torah is: וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם, And Moshe sat in friendship, love, care and concern with the people.  To know Torah is gadlus; to apply Torah to every facet of our lives – especially in our dealings and sensitivities with fellow man – is the mark of a true leader, and should be the mark and measure of every Jew.   

Once someone came over to Rav Yaakov Edelstein zt’l, and said to him, “I want to be great in Torah just like you.  What advice can you give me so that I may achieve this?”  R’ Edelstein answered, “To be great in Torah, first you have to love each and every single Jew!” (Reaching for Heaven, Artscroll, p.112).

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ – and you shall love for your fellow what you love for yourself; אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה  Says R’ Akiva, this is a great principle of the Torah (Vayikra 19:18 with Rashi).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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