Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Towards Nationhood

By HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El

1. Three Eras
2. The World Thrives on Chesed
3. Seeds of a Nation
4. What Prompted Yitro to Come?
5. Overcoming Amalek


The sages have divided the history of the world into three eras: Two thousand years of "Chaos," two thousand years of "Torah," and two thousand years of "Redemption." The Torah portion of Yitro represents a transitional segment coming between the two thousand years of "Chaos" and the era of "Torah." Our sages teach that the Torah preceded the world by a thousand years. And yet, the Torah did not actually appear in the world until the two thousand years of "Chaos" had ended. This must mean that the world had to undergo a major period of development in order for it to be ready for the 2,000 years of Torah. It is may thus be instructive to examine the period of "chaos" - and to understand how it paved the way for the next era - the 2,000 years of Torah.

"Olam Chesed Yibaneh" - "Acts of kindness are the building blocks of the World." The world is built upon every individual correcting and perfecting his or her personality traits - in keeping with the principle of "Derech Eretz Kadma L'Torah." - that is: ethical behavior precedes the learning of Torah. The foundation of all ethical development involves nurturing the attribute of showing kindness to others. In fact, the Torah records how the world was indeed built by figures who held a deep appreciation of this value. The world, on its continuous path towards perfection, produced an Avraham Avinu; his whole essence consisted of kindness, a desire to indiscriminately help others. It was an approach that stemmed from his recognition of the Creator of the Universe and his zeal to convey this message to others...

After much effort, Avraham and Sarah give birth to their son, Yitzchak. During his lifetime, Yitzchak manages to perfect his own "Avodat Hashem" - personal service of God; the pinnacle of this dedication comes with his willingness at the "Akeida" to literally sacrifice himself and to negate his own personal interests in favor of God's will. Yitzchak, too, fathers a son, Ya'akov, who channels all of his energies into self-perfection, and in turn, "Tikkun Olam" - the rectification of the world.

Ya’akov's accomplishments go beyond what his father and grandfather achieved; whereas Yitzchak also fathered the wicked Esav, and Avraham -Yishmael, all of Ya'akov's children are Tzaddikim, righteous individuals. The twelve tribes of Israel maintained and cultivated the spiritual treasure bequeathed them by their father...


The family of Ya'akov Avinu was destined from the outset to be the seeds of a nation. To that end, at the conclusion of the Book of Bereishit, the family arrives in Egypt, and eventually settles into Egyptian society. This is the framework in which the people will eventually be "purified" in the "blast furnace" known as Egypt. Just as metal exposed to intense heat ultimately becomes more solid as a result, so too, the nation of Israel was subsequently able to resist the various pressures that sought to weaken and even destroy it: "As they [the Egyptians] oppressed [the nation of Israel] [the nation] grew in numbers and expanded".

Israel was bidden by God to recognize its connection to the Creator of the World, and to understand the extent of Hashem's absolute providence over the world. To foster this awareness, Hashem strikes Egypt with the ten plagues. This was a process that revealed to the Children of Israel and to the entire world that reality is governed by "Hashgacha Pratit" - Divine Providence. It was this very force that was instrumental in freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage.

At the opening of this week's portion, the Torah tells us: "And Yitro heard..." As a result of the report that reaches Yitro - father-in-law of Moshe Rabeinu and former Midianite High Priest - Yitro decides to convert,to link his fate to that of the redeemed Jewish nation.

"What specific details of the redemption did Yitro hear that prompted him to come?" ask our sages. Their answer: "He heard of the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek." With the splitting of the sea, Hashem's oneness in the world becomes obvious to all; the entirety of reality, it was learned, is geared towards the sanctification of God's name and the revelation of His dominion over the world. The splitting of the sea had a huge impact on Yitro, filling him with the joy of the redemption, trepidation of the manifestation of God's majesty over the world, and with a complete recognition of His unity. All of these emotions are, say our sages, hinted at in the words, "And Yitro rejoiced..." The Hebrew term used in the verse has a double meaning, indicating that he both rejoiced and that he experienced a severe case of "goosebumps" upon hearing the story of the exodus.

In order for Israel to fully grasp that their God will, even in the future, rescue them from any misfortune - and they must therefore place their complete trust in Him at all times, the nation had to undergo various and sundry hardships: a lengthy enslavement in Egypt, a war with Amalek, lack of water and food, moments of nearly complete resignation, etc. In the desert, as a final step before the giving of the Torah, God feeds the nation a new food called manna, a divine, spiritual food, that purifies the body and feeds all 248 of the body's limbs, without producing human waste. Its color is a compound of many different colors, and its taste - comprised of many different tastes. Manna was given to purify the souls of the people, to lay the groundwork for the crucial moment of "Matan Torah".

Our sages explain that in a place called "Refidim" the Children of Israel's hands "slipped away from Torah." (Refidim is understood as containing a compound word - "Rafu Yedehem" - literally: "their hands slipped away.") In order to receive the Torah, they had to extricate themselves from this weakened spiritual state of "Refidim"... Thus, before they reach Mt. Sinai, the Jews must "depart from Refidim.

The Torah was given in the desert. As a place not subject much to human intervention and manipulation, the desert is the most fitting place for man to humble himself before the greatness of Hashem - a mindset essential for the full acceptance of the Torah. With this worldview guiding them, the Jews reach the ideal state referred to by the verse: "And Israel encamped next to the mountain" - "As one man with one heart. (Rashi)

As mentioned above, the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek are the events that inspire Yitro to accept the God of Israel as his God, too. What aspects of these events contributed to Yitro's decision?

The Zohar teaches that what makes the splitting of the sea so extraordinary relative to the other plagues is that, when the sea split, two opposite goals were achieved: the redemption of the Jewish people, and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army. Aside from the mighty vision of Hashem’s Hand overtaking nature and subjegating it - Yitro understands that, at the very same moment, God can accomplish two opposite results: the destruction of the wicked and the salvation of the righteous. The event also serves as a model for God's interaction with the world as a whole, in which both good and evil are crucial elements in the Divine plan. Yitro's rejoicing and trepidation are a product of his appreciation of the Divine unity revealed by the splitting of the sea.

Regarding the verse: "And Amalek came and warred with Israel at Refidim," the rabbis explain: (as mentioned above) that the hands of the Jewish people slipped away from the Torah at Refidim. This opened the door for the Amalek-initiated attack. One may ask: How could it be that Israel, a nation that had merited such a high level of prophecy a short time before (The sages said that a maidservant saw more at the splitting of the sea that Ezekiel saw in his vision of the chariot) could plummet from this peak so quickly?

One approach to this question lies in the fact that, even within the "fall" represented by the crisis represented by their battle with Amalek, the Children of Israel were in fact progressing! Amalek is the source of evil in the world. There is no doubt that Hashem would have not permitted this war to develop had He not been certain that the nation could overcome Amalek. If so, the war itself, and the eventual victory over Amalek represents Israel's ability to now truly battle. to eradicate the source of evil in the world.

Thus, Yitro comes to a belief in the God of Israel in response to two events: The splitting of the sea, and the war with Amalek. From the latter, Yitro learns that there is not, and never will be any force that can block the path on which the nation of Israel is headed. With the defeat of Amalek - the nation that most represents forces antagonistic to the redemption of Israel - Yitro comes to the desert, and converts, filled with a renewed confidence in Israel's mission and destiny...

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