Torah Reading: YITRO Exodus 18:1-20:23 Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6
How very appropriate that this week’s reading with describes the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is named after the father-in-law of Moses, Yitro (Jethro.) Yitro was a convert. In fact, the Sages note that all those who witnessed the Giving of the Torah were “converts”.
Sometimes we hear converts described as “Jews by Choice”. A Rabbi whom I greatly respect said once, “In truth, every Jew who loves Torah and works at living according to it is a Jew by Choice!” How very true. It’s good to keep this principle in mind, isn’t it?
Another aspect of being a convert that applies to all of us is this. The word in Hebrew for convert is “GERIM” which literally means ‘dwellers’. Before G-d, we are all converts — people who “dwell” in a land and on an earth that truly is not ours but G-d’s. We are all here only by the grace of G-d, utterly dependent upon His kindness and compassion.
Therefore there is no one who can rightly claim that the Torah belongs to him by right through ancestral or other merit. There is no room for pride, arrogance or the exploitation of the Torah for any personal, political or religious advantage. As Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum of Jerusalem has pointed out,The Torah is not the property of an exclusive group. It “belongs” only to one who keeps it.
The Torah was given in the Wilderness, in something of a no man’s land, on the lowest of all mountains. Mt. Sinai was G-d’s personal choice and is the eternal symbol of humility. Even the location of the giving of the Torah speaks to us, for only through humility can we “receive” and accept the Torah. Receiving the Torah means having the humility to accept it as it is, the way it has come down to us, as G-d’s personal and eternal message to us. We are warned against adding to it or taking away from it because the Torah is G-d’s book.
And when we are willing to accept and follow the Torah as it actually is — fulfilling NA’ASEH VE-NISHMAH, “we will (first) DO it and (then) HEAR (and understand) it” (Ex. 24:7) — then we can come to understand how the Torah lifts us out of our personal slavery to self, to materialism, to worldliness. Then we can hear the voice of redemption that calls to us every day: “I am HASHEM your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves” (Ex. 20:2).
Slavery to this world and/or to our own stubborness is arrogance and unacceptable. Yet the Torah regards with the greatest honor those who have the courage to leave selfishness and every false belief system behind and “go out into the wilderness” in search of G-d — like Jethro. According to what we have been taught, Jethro had investigated every conceivable world-view and “lifestyle” system of his day. Only when Jethro came to HaShem and His Torah did he know he had found the truth. His confession is preserved for us: “Now I KNOW that HaShem is great above all the gods” (Ex. 18:11). The Zohar comments: “When Jethro came and said, ‘Now I know that HaShem is great.’ then the Supreme Name was glorified and exalted” (Zohar, Yisro 69). In other words, the revelation of G-d’s light and power is at its greatest precisely when it emerges from the mouth of one who has departed from darkness. Only when we have seen evil and know its power can we understand the greatness of G-d’s saving hand. Only one who was a slave truly understands what it means to have been set free.
Thus Jethro the Convert was honored by having the parshah narrating the Giving of the Torah named after him. Thinking about Yitro, we are reminded of another humble convert who was accorded the greatest honor: Ruth the Moabitess, became the great grandmother of King David. And it is for the reasons we have just considered that Jewish tradition teaches that one must never ask a convert about their past life or remind them of it for in reality, when the convert embraces the Torah and service of Hashem he or she is truly like a newborn baby with no history.
In Tune with Torah this week = While it is true that ‘conversion’ in the classic sense happens at one chronological point in time, the truth of a spiritual journey is that throughout life, we ‘convert’ many times; i.e., each time Hashem sheds light on another area of our life in which He desires us to grow, embracing that change and applying ourselves to it is a ‘mini-conversion’ so to speak. As this Shabbat approaches, let us ask ourselves, “In what way do I need to ‘convert’ at present?”