Yitro | Small Things and Big Events
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
People sometimes get carried away with big events: grand openings, inaugurations, celebrations, beginnings of new eras – these are all heralded with a lavish party, filled with great excitement, glitz and glamour. This happens in people’s private lives as well: brisses, bar mitzvahs, bat mizvahs, weddings – whatever it is, a lot of effort is put into the particular event. It’s part of the human psyche; we look forward to these big events throughout life and attribute much significance to them.
However, Judaism maintains that life is made up not only of the big events but actually the small events. It’s the day-to-day things that in some ways have greater potential for sanctity than the large-scale things.
In our parsha, Yitro, the most significant event in all of history takes place – the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People. It is a massive event at the foot of Mount Sinai, where G-d speaks to three million people and they hear Him say, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” There is no greater event than the handing over of G-d’s laws and principles to His people and to the world at large. The actual event was accompanied by no small measure of drama – the Torah describes how there was thunder and lightning, the sound of a shofar, and the people had to back away from the mountain.
This event is so important, and yet the parsha begins with relating Yitro’s personal story – in fact, the parsha bears his name. “And Yitro the priest of Median, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that had happened to the Jewish People and he came to join them in the desert.” Yitro heard about the great wonders and miracles – the plagues, the liberation of the Jewish People from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and everything that took place in the war with Amalek – and came to join Moses and the Jewish People in the desert. Moreover, according to tradition, he came to convert to Judaism.
If we were to record what took place at Mount Sinai, we would probably begin the whole portion with describing how the people came and camped next to the mountain, the drama, the thunder and lightning, all the details of this large event that changed the course of Jewish history – indeed, of world history; there has never been a more important event that has taken place either before or after. So why is this recounting of the greatest event in history preceded by the seemingly insignificant event of Yitro’s arrival? Why does the parsha begin with Yitro’s individual story, which pales in comparison to the large-scale event that took place at Mount Sinai?
It’s the small events that count
The message in this is that while the large events do indeed impact on the world and change the course of history, ultimately history is made up of the individuals within it. History is comprised of every single human being, every one of whom is precious in G-d’s eyes. It is the stories of individual human beings, their heroism, inspiration, challenges and striving for greatness that make up real history.
The Torah was given to the world so that we would listen to its messages and make it part of our day-to-day life. The big events are really just the means to living day-to-day life better.
Getting the individual message
As we know, every week together with the reading of the weekly portion we read the haftarah, a portion from the Prophets that links somehow to the portion of that week. The haftarah we read with the parsha of Yitro is from the book of Isaiah, chapter 6, where G-d says He needs someone to go preach to the Jewish People, and Isaiah agrees to fulfil this mission.
What is the link between our portion, Yitro, and this exchange between G-d and Isaiah? Yitro is primarily about the giving of the Ten Commandments and the revelation at Mount Sinai, all these “big things.” Why do we read about the appointment of Isaiah as a prophet?
The message seems to be that both relate these two people’s respective missions. In the same way the portion begins with one man’s journey – Yitro’s, to join the Jewish People – so, too, Isaiah has his mission to go out and preach to the people.
Each one of us has an individual mission from G-d. We need to draw the individualised message from the large-scale events that take place in the world and realise that what G-d is really interested in is not what takes place in the public eye, the “big things,” but in individual human beings that comprise history, and in the day-to-day events that make up their lives.
The big events are merely the kick-start to our personal mission in this world
This applies on every level. For example, a wedding is a big event, in the same way that the giving of the Torah was a big event (in fact, our Sages draw parallels between the two). But at the end of the day a marriage is not based on a wedding. The wedding is a nice kick-start, but it is the day-to-day life that really makes a marriage. People put a fortune of money, time, and effort into the celebration of a wedding, but ultimately the marriage relationship is built from the day-to-day life of growing together, respecting one another, and establishing a household on G-d-given values.
And so, too, all the big events are really a springboard for day-to-day things, where real life takes place, in our own individual way. G-d views each of us as an individual because each one of us is unique and has something unique to contribute to the world. G-d put us on this earth to make that contribution, and those individual contributions are so special in His eyes.
This is why the parsha starts with Yitro’s story, by way of introducing the big story of the Ten Commandments and the revelation at Mount Sinai. G-d is saying, I want to tell you the story of one person who heard the message and came forward. Yitro heard everything that had occurred and he listened to the message G-d was sending. This is the story of one man’s journey, a man who listened to G-d’s personalised message within history, and came to join the Jewish People.
Justice is judged by right and wrong, not big and small
This philosophy of appreciating the small things is evident in the exchange between Moses and his father-in-law. Yitro arrives and, as a good father-in-law, immediately starts giving advice to his son-in-law about what to do. Moses is judging the people from morning until night. According to Talmudic tradition, there were very long queues of people waiting to be judged. He is overworked and then comes along his father-in-law who says, look, you are working too hard, let me give you some advice: let us set up a system of judges whereby all the smaller matters can be dealt with at lower levels and only the bigger cases will come to you. That will ease your burden as well as the people’s burden because they will be served better and won’t have to wait in long queues.
Moses presents Yitro’s advice to G-d. G-d says it’s a good idea but gives Moshe the following instructions, which he relays to Yitro: we are going to set this up as you, Yitro, suggested, but the difficult matters will come to me. Notice that Yitro said, “let the big matters come to you,” and Moses said let the “difficult” matters come to me, because big and small, whether the case is for a large amount of money or a small amount of money, justice remains the same. Justice is not measured by quantity of money or the high profile or the case, but by right and wrong, by the difficulty and intricacy of the case. Yitro phrased it as all the “big things,” – for Moses’ honour, he must rule in the big cases. But Moses phrased it as the “difficult” things. The easier cases – even if they are “bigger” – let them be handled lower down; I am here to handle the difficult cases that nobody else can solve. Moshe Rabbeinu took on that responsibility, demonstrating that not all which is deemed “big” is important.
The frequent, day-to-day details take precedence
Judaism is about appreciating the small things, recognising that life happens in the day-to-day-ness of things. We see this concept in the Talmudic principle which states that the more frequently something occurs, the greater is its holiness and it therefore takes precedence over less-frequently occurring events. An example of this is the practice of putting on the tallis before tefillin because a tallis is worn every single day of the week, including Shabbos, whereas tefillin are not worn on Shabbos. Thus, the tallis takes precedence over the tefillin. This represents the essence of what Judaism is all about: sanctifying the day-to-day life.
Humility is a prerequisite to hearing the Torah’s message
There is another message in the recounting of Yitro’s arrival which is a fundamental principle of Judaism, and that is humility. There is a key word at the beginning of the parsha, vayishma, “and Yitro heard.” To really listen requires humility. Yitro had that humility and he listened. He heard about all of the grand events that had occurred and he was prepared to listen and change his entire life based on this message.
To properly acquire Torah necessitates the capacity to really listen to G-d’s word, to hear G-d’s voice and what He is teaching us through His Torah. And to really listen requires humility. Yitro’s joining the Jewish People is an important introduction to receiving the Torah, as humility is a prerequisite to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The Torah records one of the finest examples of humility in our portion, how Moses is prepared to listen to his father-in-law. Consider Moses’ position: here he is, having just brought about the ten plagues and taken the Jewish People out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. He has seen them through the battle with Amalek. They are now standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, about to receive the Torah. He is at the pinnacle of his career, so to speak, in the sense of having achieved all of the goals that G-d had set out for him, culminating in his being the transmitter and teacher of the Torah to the Jewish People. He has achieved all of these things and along comes his father-in-law and says, you know, you are making a mistake. The way you’ve set up these courts is not good, not for you and not for the people.
The natural, human reaction to this kind of advice would be, thank you very much, I’ve seen the ten plagues, I’ve been at the splitting of the sea, I am in constant contact with G-d, believe me there is nothing you can teach me. That would be the normal human reaction; but not Moses – he listens. In Chapter 18 verse 24, it says “and Moses heard the voice of his father-in-law.” Note the word, vayishma, “and Moses heard,” the same word that appears at the beginning of the portion, vayishma Yitro, “and Yitro heard.” To really listen to what somebody else is saying requires the utmost humility.
This humility was the defining characteristic of Moshe, as we find Moshe is described as anav mikol adam, the most humble of all people. In fact, Moshe’s only praise mentioned specifically in the Torah is his humility because that was his key qualification to lead the people and be the conduit through which Torah would flow into the world.
This description of Moses’ humility in accepting Yitro’s advice comes just before we read about the grand occasion of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This reminds us that the glory and glamour of the event are not what is important. Ultimately, the most important and valuable thing in the whole process is humility, because only with humility can we hear the messages G-d is sending us and act upon them. Without humility, we can’t really listen to what others are telling us. Without humility, we can’t really hear what the Torah has to say.
The importance of listening
A person of greatness is a person who is able to listen. One of the famous verses in Judaism, a verse we say at least twice a day, is “Hear o Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” This verse articulates one of the fundamental pillars of faith, and it is introduced with the words, Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel. Listen, listen. In order to hear the real messages that G-d is conveying to us we have to be good listeners. We have to hear what He is saying. We have to imbibe it, and that requires humility. That is why the portion begins vayishma Yitro, “and Yitro heard.” Moshe, too, heard – vayishma Moshe. We too are instructed to listen, as we say “Hear O Israel.”
Observance of the Torah is carried out through listening. In order to hear G-d’s messages we need to humbly set aside our own preconceived notions and really listen. We find this concept of “listening” in our portion, in chapter 19, where G-d says ve’ata im shamoa tishme’u bekoli, which means “if you observe My commandments.” Notice that the language used is shamoa tishme’u, literally, “if you will listen.” Listening is required for Torah observance.
Suspending our ability to see enables us to hear
It is interesting to note that when people listen they actually close their eyes, because it is easier to concentrate. This is why we have the custom of closing our eyes when we say the verse Shema Yisrael. By blocking out sight we are able to concentrate better on hearing the words we are saying.
There is an expression that “seeing is believing,” and there is certainly something to that. But seeing can be deceptive in that you see part of the picture but not the full picture. In Judaism, the greatest things often go unseen. G-d Himself is intangible. This is why, when we recite the Shema, a verse signifying our faith, we suspend our capacity for sight momentarily and rely solely on hearing, demonstrating that we do not rely on sight alone, because even when we do “see,” we do not have a full picture.
Often when the Talmud is quoting a passage from the early authorities, the Tanna’im, the language to introduce the passage is ta shema, “come and listen”; listening is a fundamental component of learning. Come and learn, by listening to the message that is being taught. This is what Yitro and Moshe teach us: the power of being a good listener, which we can emulate in our personal lives, in our listening to the Torah and in our interactions with other people. Are we really listening to what other people are saying? We must be interested in what other people are saying, and to be a good listener is as much a skill as it is to be a good speaker (in fact, it’s often harder).
Listening to the words of the Torah requires humility
But in the context here we are talking specifically about listening to the messages of the Torah, and that requires great humility because we come with our own baggage and preconceived ideas. We don’t like to learn new things and listen to rules, and that is part of the challenge G-d presents to us. He says, here is a new way of looking at the world, a new way of doing things; this is what you should do, and this is what you shouldn’t do. Listening to all of this requires the utmost humility. The same way Moshe demonstrated the utmost humility when his father-in-law pointed out to him that he was making a mistake, so, too, when we hear the messages from G-d we have to really listen and implement them in our day-to-day life.
But what we really need to listen out for is our own individual message. G-d is interested in us as individuals and how we lead our lives. We have to listen to what He teaches us in His Torah and we have to listen to our individualised message, because there is something special that each one of us has to contribute to the world, something that no other person can contribute.
No two Torah scrolls are alike, and no two people are alike
The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos, page 105b, says that when somebody dies it is as if a Torah scroll has been burned. Why are people likened to a Torah scroll? Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains this analogy as follows: There are many intricate laws about how to write a Torah scroll. For example, it has to be written with black ink and a quill; there are certain laws about what the ink and quill must be made of; as well as laws regarding the form of the letters. Writing a Torah scroll is a very difficult skill and requires specific training.
Tosafos, one of our commentators on the Talmud from the Middle Ages, maintains that if one scribe were to write in red ink, and another were to write over it with black ink, the Torah scroll is not valid. Based on this Tosafos, Rav Soloveitchik explains that a superimposed script invalidates the Torah scroll because every Torah scroll has to have the distinct handwriting of the scribe who wrote it; hence, every Torah scroll is unique. (Note that this is not a halachic discussion for practical purposes, rather the upshot of Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of the Tosafos is that each Torah must be written with that particular scribe’s unique handwriting).
The point that Rav Soloveitchik makes is that all Torah scrolls have the same letters, the same content, but each has the unique handwriting of the scribe who wrote it. There are very specific laws regarding how the Torah is to be written, but nevertheless within those prescriptions there is a unique handwriting. This is why, says Rav Soloveitchik, the death of a person is compared to the burning of a Torah scroll; every single human being is unique, has a unique handwriting, a unique fingerprint, and each is special in G-d’s eyes.
We all keep the same Torah, the same words. Each Torah has the same letters, the same rules, the same commandments and principles. But we have to write our own unique story. Within all of those guidelines there is something unique that each of us has to offer – that’s why G-d created us. We each have something unique to teach the world and do for the world in our own lives, in our day-to-day living, with the people with whom we come in contact. All of these things that in our eyes might seem small are in fact great in G-d’s eyes.