A Matter of Priorities
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
It is quite a merit to have the giving of the Ten Commandments in a parsha
to do with you. Yisro was a non-Jew who had tried every kind of idol
worship known to man at that time, and yet, it is the account of his
arrival to meet up with Moshe, his son-in-law, that heads of this parsha.
There are a few explanations given by the commentators for this, but one
that I'd like to suggest is the following: to undermine the myth of "frum
from birth" (religious from birth).
What I mean by this is the following. No one is really born "religious,"
though they may be born to religious parents. This is certainly a
tremendous advantage, for it means that they will have Bris Milah at the
proper time, not have to go before the Bais Din to convert, and, most
important of all, be raised in a holy environment and with a familiarity of
many of the most important Jewish concepts.
However, Judaism is a "spirit," a thing of the soul, and that is something
every Jew, be he born to a religious family or not, has to choose for
himself at the right time and in the right way. To assume otherwise is to
make one's children vulnerable to the negative outside influences that are
contrary to a Torah lifestyle. After all, from a population of about
12,000,000 (bli ayin hara), a small fraction is Torah-observant
today-something has not gone altogether right!
Perhaps this is why Yisro is juxtaposed with the giving of Torah, to tell
us that everyone has to be a Yisro in his or her own way. In a sense, we
are all "coverts" to Judaism, when at a point of maturity we make a
free-will decision to commit ourselves to G-d and His Torah. And, we have
to teach our children to act this way, to be willing to uproot themselves
from their previous carefree lifestyles to go in search of the Ultimate
Truth-Torah and mitzvos.
We have to teach them to be willing to go out into the "desert," if need
be, to meet up with G-d, to listen for the truth even over the "noise" of
the world that dictates otherwise. We have to help them appreciate how to
arrange their priorities.
That's on one level-as always, there is a deeper one.
It is relatively well known that Moshe was a gilgul (reincarnation) of
Hevel (Abel), having received the "good" from Hevel's soul. However, what
may not be so well known is that Yisro received the good part from Kayin's
(Cain) soul (Seder HaDoros), which would make him more than just Moshe's
father-in-law; it would also make him his "soul-brother" in the real sense
of the term!
In fact, the Arizal points out a hint to this in the following verse:
Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe came to Moshe, who was camped at the
mountain of G-d, and to the desert, with his [Moshe's] wife and sons. He
[Yisro] said to Moshe, "I am your father-in-law Yisro (ani chosen'chah
Yisro) ..." (Shemos 18:5)
The first letter of each of the above three Hebrew words (in parentheses)
when combined in order spell the word "achi" (aleph, ches, yud), which
means, "my brother." Embedded in Yisro's words was a message: If you don't
accept me because I am now your father-in-law, accept me because I was once
your brother, so that we can make amends for what I once did wrong. Perhaps
this is one of the reasons why Moshe went to such an extent to honor Yisro,
as if to show his forgiveness for what once happened.
Like with everything in Torah, there is the plot, and then there is the
sub-plot. The above just helps us to understand that what we live through
on the surface often belies what is taking place below the surface, all of
which is working towards G-d's ultimate plan for creation.
Since this is the week that we read about the acceptance of Torah at Mt.
Sinai, it seems only fitting that we discuss Torah itself.
What is Torah?
There are many ways to describe G-d's greatest gift to mankind, but the
simplest way is in terms of the mitzvos and stories found within. It is
called Toras Chaim-Instructions for Living-and Aitz Chaim-Tree of Life. In
any case, Torah is the manual written by the Creator for the created, to
help us understand ourselves and the world we find ourselves within, in
order to maximize our potential, and the world's. Ultimately, it is our
"passport" to the World-to-Come.
However, that is like saying, "What is man?" and then describing him as a
body with tremendous potential to accomplish all kinds of physical and
spiritual things, which is true. However, man is a physical being with a
soul, the former being finite and the latter being infinite, which raises
the question: How do you get an infinite soul into a finite body?
The same question arises regarding Torah: How do you get the infinite light
of Torah into the finite black-ink letters found in the Torah scroll? After
all, as the Ramban points out, the entire Sefer Torah is comprised of names
of G-d (which is amazing considering that they make up logical sentences
and paragraphs). And, in the words of one Kabballist, "the entire Torah is
the light of His will literally, His Holy Light itself." This is why "Torah
is the source of life" and why she is called the "inner soul of all the
Hence, just as there are different levels of souls (Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama,
etc.), there are different levels of Torah, and the Kabballists are quick
to point out that the Torah we have in our possession now looks different
than it will in the World-to-Come. Our version of Torah is a "veil" for the
true light it contains, and that veil will gradually lift as we move closer
and closer to the World-to-Come, beginning with the days of Moshiach.
(The truth is, the "veil" has already begun to lift. Between what was
revealed by the Arizal in the 1500s, and what has been disseminated with
the help of technology over the last 200 years, it is clear that something
dramatic is in the works. Witness the explosion of accessibility to Torah
over the Internet, which improves exponentially every day!)
Therefore, the actual letters of the Sefer Torah are considered "clothing"
for the light they represent, or more accurately, channel to us. However,
actual names of G-d are less of a veil for that light, and therefore have
an added degree of holiness. When we learn Torah and do mitzvos, we may not
be able to sense just what we're accessing and causing to emanate; but we
must never forget that, just like the clothing we wear belies the holy soul
that is within us, so too does the physical parchment and ink letters
conceal the true holiness of the Torah itself.
The actual two tablets on which G-d engraved the Ten Commandments contained
620 letters, to allude to the "620 pillars of light in the Crown" (whatever
that means!), which is why there are 613 Torah-based commandments, and
seven rabbinical commandments (e.g. Chanukah, Purim, etc.; these are not to
be confused with the many rabbinical decrees and enactments to safeguard
the Torah mitzvos). "When the time came to emanate down the light of Torah,
G-d caused the Upper Root to spark from the Hidden Light of Creation
"What is all this Kabballistic terminology supposed to mean to us?" you may
It is supposed to mean that we are expected to contemplate on just what we
were given at Mt. Sinai, and what we still have in our possession. Our
written Torah and what we possess of the Oral Law today may only be a
"shred" of what Torah really has to offer, but it is still phenomenally
holy and esoteric. Tampering with Torah and her mitzvos, for us, is like a
child trying to perform a triple by-pass-for the first time. It is bound to
do more harm than good, if not set creation back light years in the end.
As a side note, this is why Orthodox Jewry has fought tooth-and-nail to
preserve Torah, even giving up the lives of its adherents to uphold Torah.
It is not a question of "monopolies" or of "religious manipulation." It is
an issue of humbly recognizing from whence Torah has come, and for what
purpose Torah has been entrusted to us. The truth is often painful and
inconvenient, and certainly uncomfortable, but it is falsehood that lays
waste to mankind and the world, if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
After all, as the Talmud warns, Torah can be either an elixir for life, or
for death (Yoma 72b); it all depends upon who is "consuming" it, and why,
and how much Torah is a priority in one's life.
The Talmud records a fascinating account from Moshe's sojourn on Har Sinai:
When Moshe ascended to heaven, the Ministering Angels said to The Holy One,
Blessed is He, "Master of the Universe! what is one born of a woman doing
He told them, "He has come to receive Torah."
"What?!" they exclaimed. "Are You about to give that cherished treasure
that was with You for 974 generations before the world was created?!" ...
G-d told Moshe to answer them. Moshe told Him,
"I am afraid that I will burn up from the breath of their mouths!"
"Take hold of My Throne of Glory (for protection) and answer them," G-d
told him ...
[He took hold of the Throne and] said before Him, "Master of the Universe!
What is written in Torah, 'I am the L-rd Your G-d Who took you out of Egypt
...' (Shemos 20:2)." He asked them, "Did you go down to Egypt and serve
Paroah? Of what use, then, can Torah be to you? What else is written
inside, 'You shall have no other gods besides Me' (Shemos 20:3). Are you
living among nations who worship idols [that you need this mitzvah]?
Furthermore, what else is written? 'Remember the Shabbos and keep it holy
...' (Shemos 20:8). Do you do work from which you must abstain? ... And, is
it not written, 'Honor your father and mother" (Shemos 20:12)-do you have
fathers and mothers?" and so on. The angels at once confessed that The Holy
One, Blessed is He, was right!
There are, of course, many questions to ask on this midrash. But the
questions we will ask now are, why did G-d have Moshe answer on His behalf,
and, why didn't the angels figure out Moshe's answer for themselves?
First of all, the problem with a gift is that it is just that, a gift. Just
about everyone spends $100 faster if it is was given to them as a gift than
if it was earned through effort and fought for. In the words of the Talmud,
you have to "die" for Torah before it will stay with you (Brochos 63b).
Elsewhere, we are told that one must "blacken his face" for Torah (Eiruvin
22a), which means being willing to suffer some kind of discomfort, when
necessary, to learn Torah.
The answer to the second question alludes to a very deep idea. The truth
is, the angels could have answered Moshe, "That's all very well and fine,
except that Torah on its higher levels doesn't contain such mitzvos, as you
will discover in the time of Moshiach and certainly in the World-to-Come!"
So why didn't the angels seize their golden opportunity and rebut Moshe's
argument? Because Moshe was really telling them that the whole point of
Torah "up there" was to give rise to Torah "down here." Angels may be
holier than man, but it was for man that G-d made creation. Angels may
never make mistakes, but it was for free-will beings who could make
mistakes that G-d brought into being the entire universe, including the
angels. This too was a message that Moshe was to come to understand on Har
Sinai, before returning to the mundane life of the world below to bestow
Torah on G-d's "treasured nation."
Knowing all of this helps to make Torah the top priority in our lives.
Rav Hamnuna said, "Jerusalem would not have been destroyed except for the
sin that they ceased to teach small children." (Shabbos 119b)
It is hard to imagine that a people such as ours would ever forsake the
important mitzvah of providing a child with a Torah education. However, a
friend of mine told me a story that reminded me that there is educating
your child, and then there is educating your child.
What's the difference?
Like many today, the man in the story had assumed that sending his children
to cheder was a sufficient fulfillment of the mitzvah to "teach your
children." Yes, he always asked his children how cheder was, and on Shabbos
night he was careful to review a little of their weekly material. However,
when it came to Shabbos afternoon, it was a tug o' war between his own
learning goals, and the educational (and emotional needs) of his children.
Yes, Torah was a priority in the house, but it was unclear as to whose
learning should be the priority and when. And, as long as the teachers
seemed more-or-less happy with his sons' efforts, was it not a sign that
the status quo situation was fine in heaven and on earth? However, a major
reason why we learn Torah is to figure out how to prioritize our needs and
concerns, so that we can correctly fulfill our responsibility to ourselves,
our families, our societies, and the world around us.
Of course, the "note" eventually came. The rebi requested that the parents
come in for a meeting to discuss a child's negative progress in cheder. The
rebi had seen the son do much better, and was concerned about the direction
of the child. In the rebi's office, as the rebi spoke with concern, the
mother looked at the father, and the father looked at the mother. First
there was anger towards the child for not reviewing his studies on Shabbos
instead of playing games. But then the father felt a different emotion
altogether; a sense of letting his children down.
Later that day, rather than berating his son, the father told him, "That's
it! Shabbos afternoon is yours! You and I are going to the Bais Medrash to
learn, and if you learn well, and I hear positive feedback from your rebi,
then you will get your own seforim (books) to begin building your own Torah
The son's eyes lit up, as a big smile reached from cheek to cheek. Within
days there was much improvement. More importantly, the son's attitude
turned around 180 degrees, as he bubbled with the thought of having his own
Torah library, to the point that he wanted to invent his own money (which
previously had been slated as a "nosh-fund") in new seforim as well.
The new found relationship with his father and his learning carried over
from the house to the cheder, and from the cheder to the house, and from
Shabbos to Shabbos. It was a happy ending to what had started off as a sad
story. The son was happy, the rebi was happy, and the father was happy. But
most important of all, heaven was happy. And who knows just how far that
goes to keep the world afloat!
Have a great Shabbos, filled with the light of Torah.