Yitro: A Joint Project

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
What kind of book is the Torah and who is it meant for? Rashi begins his commentary to the Torah, with the supposition that the Torah is primarily a legal book instructing the Jewish people how to lead their lives. This is the premise of his query as to why the Torah starts with the story of Creation and not with the first mitzva given to the Jewish people. In answering his question Rashi fundamentally changes our understanding of the goal of the Torah. He explains that the creation story is meant to teach the world that G-d is the creator of the heaven and the earth. He can thus apportion the earth to whatever nation He desires, for example, giving the land of Israel to the Jewish people. This message of the supremacy of G-d is a message, not only for Jews but for mankind as a whole. It will take 20 generations for the first Jew to appear. 
 
Unlike many other religions Judaism teaches that all of mankind can reach the level of the righteous, even if they do not embrace the Jewish religion, provided they acknowledge the existence of one G-d and live by a basic moral code. It is easier for the non-Jew who has only seven categories of mitzvoth to follow, to attain such a level. The fact that the Torah was given in a desert, a barren place belonging to no one and everyone, indicates that Torah has a message for all people. 
 
None of this should be novel. The entire concept of Jewish peoplehood rests on the notion that we are a model nation, one that must be part and parcel of the world around us, influencing it for the better. Our historic experience forced us into a ghetto, both physically and mentally, casuing us to focus on our survival and abandon our universal mission. That was a distortion of the role of the Jewish people, the punishment of exile where the Torah itself was unable to be fully implemented.
 
Our ability to influence others is directly linked to our being a strong people who can earn the respect and admiration of those around us. It was the awesome power of the Jewish people; escaping Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the defeat of Amalek that motivated Yitro the heathen priest to join the Jewish people. Our Rabbis claim that Yitro had been one of Pharaoh's advisors; even cruel idolaters can, under the right circumstances, be influenced for good.
 
Rav Soloveitchik often noted that our ability to influence others is directly linked to our honesty, integrity and ethical sensitivity. It is not stricter observance of Shabbat and kashrut that will impact and influence others. Those mitzvot are a reflection of our special relationship with G-d and has little meaning for others. It is by emulating G-d, by following His attributes of kindness, mercy, patience and forgiveness that we can inspire others. 
 
This dual role of the Jewish people - to develop a special relationship with G-d and to be a light unto the nations - is reflected in a most interesting comment by the Kli Yakar, Rav Ephraim Lunschitz (16th century, Prague). He notes (Shemot 20:8) ten differences between the aseret hadibrot in parshat Yitro and Moshe's repetition of them forty years later in parshat Vaetchanan. He explains these differences by noting that the first set was said not just to the Jewish people but to mankind as a whole - hence the famous Midrash that G-d offered the Torah to the nations of the world. It is for this reason the first set of dibrot, but not the second, were given with much fanfare; “thunder, lightning, sounds of the shofar, and the smoking mountain” (20:15) so that the entire world would hear and listen. 

The second recording of the dibrot, however, was specifically meant for the Jewish people and was given quietly. In parshat Yitro the reason for Shabbat is to acknowledge G-d as the creator of the world, a notion of crucial importance for all of humanity. All must remember (zachor) the Shabbat. In Va’etchananthe reason given, that we should remember our slavery in Egypt, is one specific to the Jewish nation. Only we are to observe (shamor) the Shabbat; there is actually a prohibition against non-Jews observing the many details of Shabbat.
 
To cite another example: The last of the dibrot, lo tachmod is usually translated as don't be jealous. In parshat Va’ethchanthe Torah adds the phrase lo titaveh, do not desire. The Kli Yakar explains that lo tachmod is only violated when one acts on their jealousy by devising a scheme (even if legal) to get that which they desire. The desiring itself is not sinful. This standard of not trying to manipulate a situation to take something from someone is a standard expected of all human beings. However lo titaveh adds an additional component, the prohibition of the desire itself, one violated not in the hand but in the heart. Such a level of self-control can come about only by observing the many mitzvoth of the Torah meant to teach us to be happy with our lot, mitzvot that are not incumbent on non-Jews.  
 
By living up to these high standards and with the Jewish people sovereign in the land of Israel we have an opportunity we have not had for 2,000 years, of setting up a model society that will enable all to reach their potential. " Zion will be redeemed through justice and her converts by righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27) Shabbat Shalom!