Yitro: Phases of Spiritual Development
In Ecclesiastes it says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). However, when it comes to Torah, there is the ability to experience Torah in a new way. Ideally, we all ought to become better every day; that pathway of change enables us to become a new person. Every year when we re-read the Parasha, we learn something new from it because we are not the same person we were the year before.
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz talks about three themes that we see throughout the book of Shemot: The Exodus from Egypt, The Giving of the Torah, and the building of the Mishkan. He quotes the Sefat Emet saying that three themes parallel the stages of spiritual development that all of us face. We first go through our own Mitzrayim (Egypt) which refers to inner constriction, blockages, egotism, selfishness, and laziness that we must overcome. Next, we work through our Mitzrayim and achieve freedom, but that freedom must be developed towards something positive, towards a purpose. The Ba’al Hatanya writes that when G-d took the Jews out of Mitzrayim it gave us a liberating Koach (strength) that G-d put into the world. We took the negative, the slavery in Egypt and turned it into something positive, receiving the Torah. Freedom comes with responsibility and freedom without responsibility is destructive. We were given freedom within the confines of serving G-d via the Torah, we don’t have free rein to do anything we want. The third theme is building the Mishkan which was the sanctuary for G-d. When we cultivate what is inside us, our Neshama (soul), we also cultivate the spiritual relationship with G-d. Our purpose is to learn Torah and do the Mitzvot (commandments) in order to develop our relationship with G-d.
Parashat Yitro, interestingly enough, is named after Yitro (Moshe’s father-in-law). The Parasha begins with the words “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the L-RD had brought Israel out from Egypt (Shemot 18:1).
וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
He heard about what Hashem did for B’nai Yisrael, gathered Moshe's wife, Zipporah, and their sons Gershom and Eliezer. According to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Yitro heard about the miracles, he was inspired to act, and travelled to join B’nai Yisrael. This Parasha introduces the concept of delegation. Also, we are able to see the uniqueness of Judaism by highlighting G-d's appearance to the entire nation, making a covenant with them, and giving them the Torah and Ten Commandments.
Yitro visited Moshe and noticed that he was leading alone. He encouraged Moshe to delegate tasks. He told Moshe to find men who are able, G-d fearing, trustworthy, and who could not be bought. He proposed a system of leadership with men being officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. The job of the officials would be to oversee everyday cases, but the more difficult cases would go to Moshe. He recognized that if Moshe did not delegate these tasks, he would eventually burn out and not be the leader he needed to be. Moshe needed to help B’nai Yisrael prepare for receiving the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us that G-d wants us to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Once B’nai Yisrael agreed to accept the Torah (other nations declined the offer), they had to prepare themselves. They were required to prepare for three days, guaranteeing that they were in their holiest state. It was imperative that they avoid becoming spiritually contaminated. They were prohibited from touching Har Sinai.
Every single man, woman, and child gathered around to hear the Ten Commandments. G‑d then spoke the Ten Commandment. They are: 1) Belief in G‑d. 2) Not to worship idols. 3) Not to take G‑d’s name in vain. 4) To keep the Shabbat. 5) To honor parents. 6) Not to murder. 7) Not to commit adultery. 8) Not to steal. 9) Not to bear false witness. 10) Not to covet another’s property.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that the Commandments consist of three groups of three followed by the tenth commandment which is separate from the rest. The first three: belief in only one G-d, no idols, and not using G-d’s name in vain united B’nai Yisrael as a people who only serve G-d, the ultimate sovereign. He says “These three commandments established the single most important principle of a free society, namely the moral limits of power. Without this, the danger even in democracy is the tyranny of the majority, against which the best defence is the sovereignty of God.” The second three: Shabbat, honoring parents, and prohibition to murder are all about the creation of life. Six days during the week, we work, we create, we build, but on the seventh day, we’re all free. By honoring our parents, we recognize their role in our lives. The prohibition to murder shows us to respect the sanctity of life. The last three: no adultery, theft, and not bearing false witness build the foundation for society. The institution of marriage creates a family. The covenant built between husband a wife parallels that of the covenant between us and G-d. The prohibition against theft created the concept of personal property. The prohibition against bearing false witness builds a just society. The last commandment to not covet another’s property is to be content with what we have. As it says in Pirkei Avot “Who is rich? He, who rejoices in his lot (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Each of us has been given special blessings from G-d, unique to us, it is crucial to use them wisely.
I’m currently reading Thou Shall Prosper by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Throughout his book he discusses the challenges entrepreneurs face. The overall theme of his book is to point out the morality of business. He notes that we are all in business in some capacity because at some point, we have had to “sell ourselves” to others. Our society today tends to denigrate business. The truth is that anyone who builds a successful business does so because he/she finds a need and/or a service that other people want, in order to support his/her family and, a third reason may be to leave a legacy, something that they can pass down to their children. Swindlers and cheats are soon discovered. He also notes the lack of leaders. As I mentioned in the D’var Torah last week, Moshe was an incredible leader. The first step to becoming a leader is to be a good follower, Moshe followed G-d. Then, Moshe cast the vision for B’nai Yisrael and explained to them the steps necessary to become a nation whose sole purpose was to serve G-d. Lastly, Moshe developed other leaders: there were leaders of the other tribes, and Joshua, Moshe’s successor. We live in a world where leadership is truly lacking. Many of our “leaders” have been bought and sold themselves to the powers that be. It has become very hard to know what to believe and who to trust. The only thing constant is G-d, his Torah, and building our relationship with G-d. True leaders balance faith and facts and step up when duty calls. G-d gave us the foundation with the Ten Commandments to ground us with purpose and is a guide for us to live with integrity. May I suggest we look at ourselves and become the people G-d intended for us to be by working on our character traits. We must also look at our leaders honestly and ask ourselves whether we see them living a life of integrity. If they are not, we must hold them accountable. Leaders are meant to serve and if they are not serving, they don’t deserve to be a leader.