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Yitro(Exodus 18-20)

Just the Straightforward Facts

After having experienced the miracles of the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the sea, the Jewish People now come to the purpose of the whole redemption process: "And now, if you will surely listen to My voice and you will guard My covenant, and you shall be for Me a precious treasure from all the nations…and you shall be for Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation (Shmos 19:5-6)." It is at this point that Hashem reveals Himself, as it were, on Har Sinai to give the Torah to the Jewish People.

This is where we learn one of the most basic principles of Torah and Judaism - a tenet upon which rests the acceptance of the entire Torah: "And Hashem said to Moshe, behold I will come to you in the thick of a cloud in order that the nation should hear when I speak to you, and also in you will they believe forever (Shmos 19:9)."

At that singularly monumental event that took place on Har Sinai, the entire Jewish People experienced Hashem speaking to them, and the singling out of Moshe Rabbeinu as the unique individual who would stood with Hashem, as it were, on top of the mountain; thus establishing Moshe as His navi for all time. From that point on, anytime Moshe told them something in the name of Hashem, they knew with absolute certainty that he was telling the truth with perfect accuracy.

Herein lies the absolute uniqueness of the statement of Torah and Judaism: God spoke in the presence of the entire nation.(1) Moshe did not come to us and say, "I have received a prophecy from on High of the true religion! Believe me! Open your heart to receive the truth that I speak!"

Oh, no! Even if one could somehow convince himself that such an approach is possibly workable for certain people, it would still never work for a nation that the Torah itself refers to as "stiff-necked" (2) and that has proven itself over the sands of time to be a people possessed of a remarkably sharp, analytical, and even quite argumentative mind. There would have been no way that the Jewish People would have accepted the Torah unless they heard God Himself as He speaks to them and clearly singles out Moshe as His unique and trusted spokesman for the rest of time. Only through their first-hand, experiential knowledge are they prepared to accept the validity of the prophecy of Moshe that is called Torah.

Regarding this concept, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg related an amusing anecdote (most likely a legend): There was once a leader of a Chassidic dynasty who passed away before appointing his successor. This man had two sons, both of whom were quite qualified for the job. There developed a rift in the community as to who should take over the mantle of leadership for their congregation; and, for weeks, the matter was left without a solution.

That is, until one day the older son called a special, urgent meeting of all the elders of the town.

"Gentleman, I have something of utmost importance to relay to you. Last night, my deceased father, of blessed memory, came to me in my dream. He told me as follows: 'My wish is that you, my son, should succeed me as the next leader of our dynasty. Go and tell all the elders of the congregation that this is my final request and that it would grant my soul great pleasure to see them carry out my desire.' That, gentleman, is what my illustrious father communicated to me in my dream, and that is why I have called you here today in such an urgent manner."

A great silence reigned in the town hall, and the elders of the community sat in quiet awe as they absorbed the decree of their revered, deceased leader. Suddenly, the silence was broken: "Pardon me gentleman for speaking out of turn," said one of the older members of the gathering, "but I believe that I have something to say that is quite pertinent to the issue at hand." "Please, continue, our esteemed colleague," said the other elders of the assembly. The man turned to the older son who had just made the stirring revelation, and said for all to hear, "If your father, our holy, deceased leader, had wanted to communicate to all of us that we should appoint you as the next leader, shouldn't he have come to us in our dreams, and not to you in yours?!"

There are a lot of people out there who manage to make a nice amount of money by claiming to possess the true religion. There are also people out there that have genuine psychological problems and fantasize things that normal individuals would not imagine in their wildest dreams. There also exist a lot of people who have chronic addictions to drugs, alcohol, or who knows what else. And, finally, there are a lot of people out there who derive great satisfaction from the position of spiritual leader of masses and will do just about anything to obtain and maintain it.

If Paul, or Mohammad, or John Smith, or Mary Baker Eddy, or anyone else for that matter approaches you and says, "I have received a prophecy from God Almighty of the true religion! Believe me!! Open your heart to the truth of my words!", why should you believe him?! Maybe he's a liar and a thief.(3) Maybe he is hallucinating? How could any intelligent, thinking person possibly credit any validity whatsoever to such a claim?! Anyone could fabricate the wildest stories and claim that he got them straight from God. Just because he says it, one should believe him?! Preposterous would be a gross understatement.

And yet, there are millions upon millions of people who devote themselves to all types of religions that rest entirely upon such baseless claims. Many otherwise highly-intelligent people fully believe in these nonsensical claims. What could possibly be the explanation of this confounding phenomenon?

The answer is really quite simple.

You know, there are a lot of intelligent people that still smoke. There are also a lot of intelligent people that are dangerously overweight, and they continue to regularly indulge in foods that are hazardous to their health. There are people that drive way over the speed limit on a regular basis. So many people engage in myriad activities that are proven and known to be hazardous, and/or destructive behaviors that are obviously so. And we're not talking about simpletons here; rather, amongst these categories are included countless individuals whose intelligence is not lacking in any way.

The human being is a wonder of complexity, and the central factor of that composition is the blending of the mind and the heart; the intellect and the emotions. The mind - the intellect - is rational and logical. It deals with straightforward facts, reasonable hypotheses, and plausible ideas. Emotions, however, are entirely different. Emotion lives for the moment; it is swept up in the excitement and rush of the current feeling, urge, or wish. It is irrational, and it wants to indulge in what happens to feel good at the present moment, even if it really is not good.

That is not to say, though, that emotion is just some annoying obstacle that merely serves as a problem causer. On the contrary, the emotions are a very positive facet of the human being and a vital necessity to his overall functioning.

If you build a car with the most state-of-the-art steering mechanism and structure, it will still get you nowhere without a healthy engine. Emotion is what provides the drive for people to do, go forward, aspire, and accomplish. In order, though, that this powerful engine should not smash one into a brick wall, it has to be securely affixed to the steering mechanism of the intellect. When emotion is subject to and follows the direction of the intellect, one achieves greatness; but, if emotion is allowed to run free, absolute disaster results.

People who engage and indulge in fantastical, baseless ideas are really no different than those who indulge in dangerous activities. Both are convincing themselves of what they want to believe. Both are allowing their emotions to disconnect from their rational intellect, and as such, they indulge in what just feels nice in the moment.

When a Paul comes and offers Heaven on a silver platter and says, "Just believe and you will be saved," it's a hard offer to resist. Indeed, the temptation of eternal bliss for the cost of simply saying "I believe" is quite hard to overcome. Thus, people allow that powerful emotion to break loose of their rational intellect, and they accept claims that are in fact utterly ridiculous.

It is striking, indeed, to observe the enormous difference that separates between the aforementioned inanities and the Torah of the Jewish People. What does the prophecy of Moshe offer us, eternal bliss if we say "I believe"? Oh, no! Not at all. Judaism is not a Sunday religion, nor is it even a Shabbos religion. Someone who is under the impression that attending services once a week constitutes Jewish observance is sadly mistaken. The 613 mitzvos of the Torah encompass the entire gamut of life - literally - from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, and even while we are sleeping! Each mitzvah is a category that contains many, many details. Torah is not merely a nice, social infrastructure; it is not simply the "religious part of life", it is the totality of life!

Torah is a covenant with the Almighty, an actual relationship with the Creator of the Universe. It directs every aspect and detail of life; it guides the Jew through each and every moment of the day to constantly bring one closer and closer to Hashem. The acceptance of Torah, then, is an acceptance of total dedication and devotion of one's life to the ultimate purpose of creation. This is quite a heavy investment, indeed. This is our whole life! Literally! From kashrus to Shabbos, from praying three times a day to giving tzedakah, from the laws of permitted and forbidden speech to hilchos taharas ha'mishpacha, and so on and so forth. Torah encompasses all of life.

Talk about time-consuming and costly!

Indeed, nobody would possibly even think of accepting such a tremendous, all-encompassing obligation if they were not one hundred percent certain that it is completely true.

As such, Hashem did exactly what it would take for the Jewish People to accept the Torah with absolute steadfastness - He spoke to Moshe in front of the entire nation. Then, and only then, did we become completely knowledgeable of the fact and truth that Moshe is indeed God's prophet and that his teachings from Hashem are authentic Torah.

There is yet another amazing aspect to this fundamental idea. Let us remember that the Jews had already seen Moshe prophesize and take a very active role in the ten plagues. Certainly, the Jews were still feeling the excitement of having passed through the Red Sea on dry Land, surrounded by wondrous walls of water! What we observe from here is truly amazing: despite the fact that the Jewish People witnessed tremendous miracles done at Moshe's hands, nevertheless, even that would not suffice! Even the grandest miracle was not enough to be one hundred percent convincing.

The only thing that is of absolute certainty is firsthand, experiential knowledge: we heard God speak! Period.

This is our straightforward, clearly documented, national history. We teach it in our schools, we read about it on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim, we mention it in our numerous prayers and brachos, we have Yamim Tovim that commemorate and relive it; and, most of all, we live it in the myriad details of our lives! Simple, straightforward, historical fact; experienced by the whole nation, transmitted from one generation to the next, and lived by the nation every day.

The Hebrew word "emuna" is generally translated as belief or faith. The fact of the matter, though, is that this translation is very incomplete. When Amalek attacked the Jews in the desert, Yehoshua went to lead the people in battle while Moshe stood atop a hill with his arms outstretched in prayer. The Torah says that Moshe's hands were "emuna" (Shmos 7:12). It is clear that the simple understanding of the word emuna in this context is in relation to the word ne'emanus, which means faithfulness. To be faithful means that one can count on you; or, in other words, something that is firm and steadfast. Belief can imply something that one happens to believe without any particular reason for believing it. Faith has an implication of blind acceptance. When we speak of emuna in Torah and Judaism, such implications have no place. There is no blind acceptance, and there are no leaps of faith. Rather, emuna is steadfastness and conviction - solid dedication and devotion to the Torah; complete affirmation and validation of the truth of God as the sole Master of the universe and that we are His chosen people.

We know this truth as the simple fact of our national history and existential continuity, and we stick to it with absolute firmness, steadfastness, and loyalty.

NOTES

1. Consisting of at least 600,000 men above the age of twenty; as such the nation as a whole must have numbered in the millions, after all the Leviyim, women, men below the age of twenty, as well as the children are taken into account. See Shmos 12:37, 38:26, Bamidbar 1:2, 46-47.

2. Shmos 32:9.

3. By the way, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg mentioned that he once read the text that serves as the official history of the development of the Catholic Church, and he saw that they write there that Paul was known to be a thief and charlatan; just that he repented and developed their religion. This is what they have written as their own dogma!

February 1, 2015

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