A Bow and a Kiss
The start of this week's Torah portion sees Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, leaving his home in Midian to visit klal Yisrael at their desert encampment. When Yisro arrived,
Moshe went out to greet his father-in-law, and he bowed and kissed him, and each man asked after the welfare of his friend, and they came into the tent. (Shemos 18:7)
And he bowed and kissed him — we don’t know who bowed to whom. [But] once the verse says man, who is called man other than Moshe, as it is written, And the man Moshe (Bemidbar 12:3).
(Rashi loc. cit.)
This Rashi, which makes it clear that it was Moshe who bowed to Yisro, finds its source in Mechilta, which contains one slight variation:
We don’t know who bowed to whom, or who kissed whom... (Mechilta, Yisro (1)
Our Sages consider it important to identify from an oblique verse that it was Moshe who bowed to Yisro. Let us consider why this is significant.
Yisro and Moshe
My holy father noted an interesting point in the relationship between Moshe and Yisro. When Yisro was approaching the Jewish camp, he sent the following message to Moshe:
I, your father-in-law, am coming to you, and your wife and two sons with her. (Shemos 18:6)
I, your father-in-law — if you don’t come out [to meet me] on my behalf, come out on behalf of your wife. If you don’t come out because of your wife, come out on behalf of your two sons.
(Rashi loc. cit.)
This was not, as one might expect, a plea by Yisro to Moshe for honor. It was, instead, a deep request on Yisro’s part for Moshe to lower himself sufficiently for Yisro to be able to connect with him. Moshe lived on a level far above that of any ordinary man; his essence was unknowable, and his deeds and their qualities were concealed from humanity. This meant that Yisro felt incapable of relating to Moshe and thus unable to draw near him in a spiritual sense. If Moshe would be prepared to lower himself to greet Yisro, just for a while, this would allow Yisro to cleave to Moshe and to be elevated with him when Moshe returned to his usual level. Thus Yisro asked Moshe to come out to meet him — that is, to meet him on Yisro’s spiritual terms. And Moshe obliged his father-in-law: when he left the camp to greet him, he bowed before him. This symbolized that Moshe had lowered himself to the level of Yisro for the purposes of their encounter.
Moshe followed this prostration by immediately kissing his father-in-law. Kissing always represents a very close meeting of the parties concerned at a spiritual, as well as a physical, level. After Yisro and Moshe met and Moshe bowed to Yisro, they could join on equal terms; this was expressed by a kiss. But it is significant that Moshe kissed Yisro, for by so doing, Moshe drew his father-in-law to him and elevated him to his own exalted level.
Naomi and Her Daughters-in-Law
We find another example of this phenomenon at the start of the Book of Rus, when Naomi instructed her daughters-in-law, Rus and Orpah, to leave her and return to their families. Naomi blessed them as follows:
“May God grant you that you find rest, each woman in her husband’s house.” She kissed them, and they lifted their voices and cried. (Rus 1:9)
My holy father explained that Naomi’s intention in kissing them was to associate with them in a very profound manner, just as we saw with Moshe and Yisro. She hoped that by drawing Rus and Orpah to her and allowing her holy spirit to connect with their souls, they would be spiritually raised as a result. The reactions of the two women were very different:
...and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Rus clung to her. (Ibid., 14)
Orpah “returned,” as it were, the kiss to Naomi. This means that she did not want to be spiritually elevated with Naomi, so she kissed her, rejecting her mother-in-law’s influence, instead choosing to return to her family and its idols. Rus, on the other hand, was touched by Naomi’s spirit and was drawn to her.
This helps us to understand the rest of the Torah’s description of the encounter between Moshe and Yisro. We have seen that when Moshe kissed Yisro, Yisro was immediately drawn toward Moshe’s great level of spirituality. Directly following this, we see that “each man asked after the welfare of his friend.” The phraseology here is important: the word re’eihu, translated here as “friend,” always refers to someone Jewish. But this meeting ostensibly took place before Yisro converted! This conveys the message that Yisro was successfully elevated and even before his conversion to Judaism could legitimately be referred to as Moshe’s friend.
Again we can see the parallel to the story of Rus, for once Rus declared her intention to remain with Naomi, we learn:
And they went, the two of them, until they came to Be’er Sheva... (Ibid., 19)
Once Rus set her heart on converting, the verse considers her equal to Naomi. (Rashi loc. cit.)
Even before Rus’s conversion, the kiss bestowed upon her by her mother-in-law succeeding in raising her spiritual standing such that they were considered equals.
The Kiss at Matan Torah
Following from our analysis, we observe that our Sages describe the words of God spoken to klal Yisrael at Har Sinai to be similar to kisses. The ability of Moshe to receive the Torah directly from God is actually questioned by our Sages, and it is reasonable to assume that the average member of klal Yisrael was even less equipped to do so. We can appreciate why the words of God are described as kisses — for by “kissing” the Jewish people, God joined with them, raising them to a level, at least temporarily, at which they could receive the holy Torah.
See the essay on Parashas Beshallach, “The Hidden Trio.”
See Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:12–13, based on Shir HaShirim 1:2.
See Yevamos 105b.