We know what he heard. The verse identifies it, up front: “Hashem took
Yisrael out of Egypt.” Not much room there for any question.
On the other hand, the appropriate response to such news might have been
for Yisro to feel great joy upon hearing it. When the Mechilta asks, “What
did Yisro hear, that he came?” it is asking an entirely different
question: Why did Yisro go well beyond that response, and find it
necessary to pick himself up and travel to the wilderness to join the
The Mechilta’s answer is that he heard about the splitting of the Sea and
about Amalek’s attack upon them. Yisro contemplated the effects of the
events at the Sea upon all who heard, effects not attributed to the Exodus
alone. He considered the fear and trembling that gripped the nations, and
was filled with optimism about the future.
Soon after, he heard about the vicious, unprovoked attack by an Amalek
that scorned belief, and found this news depressing. If word of the
splitting of the Sea left such an ephemeral impression upon those who
heard about it, there was no choice but to bolster his own belief by
physically joining Klal Yisrael. Nothing else could insure that his
belief in the truth would remain intact; clearly, there were no
guarantees. There was no choice but to become a Jew himself.
Moshe recaps recent events in his own words to his father-in-law, who sums
up his reaction. “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all gods.”2 Rashi, citing the Mechilta, picks up on
the inference. “I recognized Him previously, but now, more so.” Yisro,
the medrash3 tells us, was no newcomer
to belief. Previously a priest in the service of other deities, he began
entertaining doubts. He resigned his role, claiming that his advancing
years forced him to retire. The ruse did not work. His neighbors
determined to shun him and his family. This is why his daughters were
treated so shoddily at the well. This mesiras nefesh was all part
of his “previous” belief. What changed with the “more so” step?
Some people come to believe through their investigation and recognition.
This is not the belief that is appropriate to a Jew. A firm conclusion one
day can turn into a firm conclusion in an opposing direction the next
day. Reasoned, investigated belief is appropriate to the finer people of
the nations of the world. It is not the emunah shelemah, the
completed belief that a Jew declares.
The passage through the split Sea catapulted Klal Yisrael to wonderful
clarity of belief. Nonetheless, the first of the Ten Dibros
thundered a demand to them: Know that I am Hashem your G-d who took you
out of Egypt. It is not enough that you have heard and understood. Those
reasons are insufficient. You must believe because the Torah says you
must believe! Yisro articulated this to Moshe. Previously, I also
believed, but that belief was incomplete. It has now matured to the full
belief of a Jew, who believes not because of his own internal compass, but
because of the mitzvah of emunah.
We find a similar distinction in regard to the core belief in the
resurrection of the dead. Amongst those who forfeit their share in the
world to come, the Mishnah4 lists one
who says that there is no mention of the resurrection in the Torah
itself. According to Rashi, this means someone who disputes the midrashic
sources of resurrection, even if he believes that the dead will indeed
come to life. “Since he uproots the Scriptural basis for resurrection, of
what value is his belief? How could he know that it is true; he is
therefore a full kofer.” The explanation is as above: a belief born
of rational inquiry simply does not compare to one based on Torah.
Rational inquiry is changeable, and can turn into the polar opposite of
what one first maintained; we cannot regard this as true emunah!
The emunah of a Jew is an uncomplicated one, predicated on the full
confidence in what the Torah says. This kind of emunah has staying power.
This distinction underlies the Rambam’s description5 of the pious of the nations of the world. To both
earn a place in the world to come and be considered among the pious, a non-
Jew must not only accept the Seven Noachide Laws, but believe that their
authority derives from a revelation at Sinai – but not because of their
rational necessity alone.
We understand somewhat better what motivated Yisro. The lowly servant-
woman saw more of a demonstration of Hashem’s Divinity at the Sea than the
prophet Yechezkel. G-d had made His existence and His nature abundantly
clear. Within days, Amalek – waging what we understand to be an assault
upon emunah itself – threw himself upon them. Yisro understood the
precariousness of any belief predicated upon rational “demonstration,” how
quickly it could be perverted and dissipated. He knew that he needed a
different basis for belief – the pure, unmediated belief of the Jew, not
conditioned upon any argument or factor. He sought the emunah of
the Jew through becoming part of the Jewish people.
Purity of belief extends to the arena of mitzvos as well. We need to
observe even the logically-compelling mitzvos because the Torah commands
them, not because we feel that we understand them. It is often claimed
that the Torah bothers to make the rational commandments explicit because
of the special circumstances that are not so rationally compelling. In
other words, the Torah tells us to avoid murder because of the situations
in which even rational and good people might otherwise convince themselves
that murder is a virtue and not a vice, as in some mercy killing. The
Torah makes the prohibition against theft explicit because of situations
in which it is morally acceptable to people to steal for some noble
purpose. While this explanation may be true, we now have another
explanation to offer as well. The Torah targets even the murder and theft
that all rational and ethical people would avoid. It wishes us to eschew
them because the Torah said so. It wishes that we follow its authority,
not the dictates of our conscience.
There is another key difference between heeding the call within and
heeding the call of the Torah. The honor a non-Jew accords his parent is
laudable, because the principle upon which he acts is positive and
commendable. He deserves credit for it. The Jew who honors his parents
because the Torah demands it achieves something beyond that. The bracha
that we make before performing a mitzvah mentions that Hashem sanctifies
us with His mitzvos. Beyond any commendable reason for a mitzvah, each
one carries with it some special kedushah that is connected to it.
This is true of all mitzvos, without exception. Each mitzvah has a root
in some transcendent element of the Torah. This element is accessed in
the performance of the mitzvah, and some of its kedushah is made
available to us. (The nature of this kedushah is far from obvious
or predictable. While the “rational” approach to honoring parents sees no
distinction between a mother or father, they have separate sources in
their Heavenly roots. In the “map” of sefiros (and its basic division
between midos of hispashtus and tzimtzum, of
chesed and gevurah), honoring a father is source on the
Right; honoring a mother comes from the Left. Both forms of honor,
however, allow us to draw down kedushah from its upper source,
beyond whatever ethical value we detect in the mitzvah.
The exceptional window into the Divine that opened at the crossing of the
Sea was followed by the exceptionally harsh challenge of Amalek. This is
to be expected. There will always be parity. Great emunah will
bring in its wake great rejection. Some will fall prey to it.
Emunah dependant upon human understanding is fragile and plastic.
Only one kind of emunah has bedrock strength – that which is
predicated upon nothing but the word of the Torah itself.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 135-137 2 Shemos 18:11 3 Shemos Rabbah 1:32 4 Sanhedrin 90A 5 Melachim 8:11