Some thoughts about Parashas Yisro

There is a difference in how Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons are named. Shemos 18:3-4:

And her two sons; that the name of one was “Geirshom” because he said “I was a geir (foreigner) in a strange land.” And the name of one was “Eliezer” because E-lokei Avi (the G-d of my father) was be’ezri (at my aid), and He saved me from the sword of Par’oh.

Notice that in the naming of Geirshom, there is mention of what Moshe said, however in the nammming of Eliezer, there is no such mention. But also notice that the “ki” comes before the “amar”, in other words, the reason for the naming is because of what Moshe said, not that Moshe gave the reason in his declaration.

There is a question addressed by rishonim: Why is the older one named for the exile, whereas the second son is named for something that happened earlier, before he was forced away from Mitzrayim? Shouldn’t they have been named in chronological order? One answer is that in those times (as we see in the naming of Yitchaq, Yaaqov and Yaaqov sons) naming normally fell to the mother. Tzipporah got the right of naming the firstborn, and she opened by thanking G-d for the events that brought Mosheh to her — his exile from Egypt. Then Moshe named Eliezer. (This is the origin of the custom in many Ashkenazic communities of alternating who names the children, started with the mother naming the firstborn.)

If I may use this idea to explain the distinction I made earlier… Tzipporah named Geirshom not because Mosheh was exiled, but because Mosheh said he was exiled. To her, it was not exile from Egypt but coming to Midan, finding his mate, teaching monotheism. However, Geirshom was named for the distress Mosheh felt at being separated from his people. He was named for what Mosheh said, his perception.

Why did Yisro decide to come to Mosheh and the Jews in the Midbar? The parashah opens “Vayishma Yisro” (and Yisro heard). The gemara (Zevachim 116a, quoted by Rashi) explains that Yisro heard about the crossing of the Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq.But when Yisro finally has a chance to talk to Mosheh, what does Mosheh tell him about? In Shemos 18:8 Moshe tells Yisro about “kol hatela’ah”, all the tribulations, that the Jews underwent. Which Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining refers to Yam Suf and Amaleiq?

Why did Moshe tell Yisro about the two things Yisro knew already?

There is critical value to repetition. We say in Shema “and you will know today, and you will answer onto your heart.” The Sefas Emes explains, you can know something with your mind, and yet not internalize it in your heart. To internalize it, you must place it on your heart, even though it doesn’t get in. Eventually, it will break through.

This repetition to produce a change of heart is central to Mussar. The means of changing a middah is first qibbush hayeitzer, conquering it. By repeatedly resisting a desire, one can reach tiqun hayeitzer, the point at which it’s repaired.

One of Mussar’s key tools is the idea of making a qabbalah, accepting upon yourself an activity that slowly, incrementally, whittles away at a problem or builds up a strength. Through repetition of the qabbalah one can change the emotions.

Another tool is hispa’alus, studying or davening with “lips aflame”. Each time one learns about a middah with hispa’alus it makes an emotional impression. However, it’s slow an incremental. It will take many days of work to actually change a middah.

The difference between Yisro’s initial hearing about Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq and Moshe’s repetition is in the words “kol hatela’ah“. Repeated, it took on emotional content. Yisro no longer heard stories, he heard about trevails.

“VeHar Sinai ashan kulo” (Shemos 19:18). Rashi points out that the word “ashan“, with two patachs for vowels, is a verb. The normal assumption is that the phrase means “And Har Sinai was entirely giving out smoke.” However, there was a heavy cloud on the mountain (v 16), what would be the point of smoke too above it?Perhaps, and I stress that “perhaps”, it should be rendered “and all of Har Sinai turned into smoke”? That the mountain lost its solidity when Hashem was upon it?

There are three prohibitions stressed in the laws of making a mizbei’ach given at the end of this week’s parashah. “Gods of silver and gods of gold do not make for yourself. A mizbei’ach of earth shall you make for Me…” (Shemos 20:19-20) “And if a mizbei’ach of stone you shall make for Me, do not them hewn; because your sword you placed upon it and profaned it.” (v. 21) “Do not go up steps onto my mizbei’ach, that you shall not reveal your nakedness on it.” (v. 22)Three prohibitions: (1) not making idols for the altar; (2) not using a sword, a tool of war, to make it; and (3) not using steps because of a lack of tzeni’us, that it calls ervah. These are the three sins that one must violate even at risk to one’s own life — idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality.

According to the Ramban, a message of the mizbei’ach is that the person sees the death of the animal and responds “That death should have been mine; it was I who forfeited my right to exist.” Therefore, in building the mizbei’ach, the means of re-earning the right to exist, the three prohibitions that override life are doubly inappropriate.

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