The nature of receiving Torah, the written revelation of God’s desire for mankind, is a central theme of this week’s Parsha. This week, the Jews underwent the history-altering experience of Matan Torah.
The cycle of Torah-reading is deeper than a repetitious review regimen. The reading of the Torah creates realities. As we go through the yearly progression, the words and stories of each Parsha infuse the world with the unique energies and forces of vigor that constantly keep the universe fresh. So when we read about the Jewish journey to Mount Sinai we aren’t merely scanning a history book, we are reliving and re-enlivening an experience that is very real – If we choose to tap into it. That means that right now we are being given an opportunity to encounter a personal Kabalas HaTorah.
Our question revolves around a famous Midrash about how God ‘shopped-around’ the Torah before giving it to the Jews. He offered to the Children of Eisav. They replied, “What’s in it?” Hashem answers, “Don’t kill.” Astonished, they exclaim, “But it says in that very Torah, the one that You want to give us right now that we are the offspring of a murderer. It’s written right in there that we are a vicious homicidal people! No thanks.”
So Hashem offers the Torah to the children of Yishmael. “What’s in it?” “Don’t steal.” They answer with the same response as Eisav’s descendants, “But it says in Your book that our forefather is a thief. It’s written black on white that our whole core is to plunder. We have deception and deceit rooted down to our bones! Not interested.”
Hashem moves onto the nation of Moav. “What’s in it?” “No adultury.” And in familiar form, they reply, “But You Yourself have it written down as saying that our whole nation’s inception was incestuous! That’s who we are, and it’s not changing anytime soon.”
But we need to work out the following difficulty: Hashem knows what was written in the Torah before He offered it. Surely He could have anticipated such questions! He created the world, and He created these nations with the various ingrained traits that they posses. So why offer it to them in the first place? What good would it do?
Our answer stems from learning more about what is the true meaning of Kabalas HaTorah. And to do this there us another topic that we need to address.
If this Parsha is all about the Jews special relationship with Hashem, as defined by our receiving the Torah, then why name the Parsha, and start it off by reintroducing us to a convert named Yisro. Sure, he’s a great guy, but it would seem out little of place for him to take the spotlight! Things would be less confusing if the Parsha was called ‘Moshe’ or ‘Har Sinai.’ But the Torah teaches us about Yisro as a means of an introduction to Matan Torah. Why?
If this week is a small re-experiencing of Matan Torah then the Parsha is deeply intertwined with the holiday of Shavuos where we celebrate our receiving of the Torah.
If this is so, then our question stems out from our Parsha and into Shavuos. Every holiday has a theme song. The anthem of any given holiday on our calendar is its Megila. Succos has Koheles. Pesach goes with Shir HaShirim. Shavuos is paired up with Rus.
Megilas Rus is the story of another convert. We are told of a princess from the Moabite nation who left everything behind when she realized that Judaism holds the truth. Being in the public eye, wealth, admiration and political sway were all meaningless in contrast to the intrinsic goodness of closeness with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. And it wasn’t easy. She worked in fields and slept on floors. But in her eyes, it was all worth it. The honor of being a Jew was worth everything in the world.
Our story by Yisro is not different. In his native land of Midyan he was a star. He was a political leader, the head of a religious following as well a thriving businessman. But when he chose to follow the path of holiness and deep, internal self-improvement that comes with Jewish-conversion all his comfort was taken and instead he and his family were excommunicated. But he stuck to it. Because intimacy with Hashem, a connection to the diving – it’s more precious than all of that.
Am Yisrael accepts the Torah every week. We are commanded to read the Shnayim Mikra V’Echad Targum, to repetitions of the classic Hebrew text with one read of a translation or commentary. The goal is that every week, the entire Jewsh people walks away with a clear understanding of that week’s Parsha. The original style was done with the Aramaic rendering of the Torah, as translated by a man named Unkolus.
Who was this man? He fits the description of our two previous characters. As a descendant of the powerful and vicious Roman King Titus, he was born into Roman nobility - not an uncomfortable place to be. He was endowed with political influence, fleets and brigades of top army forces at his disposal, physical indulgences of royal class, and all of that aside from his ability to revive the dead with magic. He was really living it up. But he was a thinker. And his ponderings and musings led him to Judaism – which proved to be a difficult decision. He fled to houses of Torah study where he locked himself day and night, studying. All the while keeping a low cover as to avoid being detected by the myriads of Roman troops who were searching the whole world for him. But like we explained, if the upshot is getting to be close to the Creator, if there is a possibility of experiencing a relationship with the Source of all life – then leaving behind the life of Roman royalty is really no big deal.
But why? Why is it that every time the Jews experience some form of Matan Torah, be it Parshas Yisro, Chag HaShevuous or even the weekly Shnayim Mikra V’Echad Targum, does Hashem deem the party incomplete without the presence of some very dramatic convert?
It must be that these holy converts are teaching us an intrinsic lesson about the personal Kabbalas HaTorah that happens in our lives.
What is Kabbalas HaTorah? Kabbalas HaTorah is a pledge of allegiance to Hashem.
Yisro, Rus and Unkolus are teaching us that if closeness to Hashem is really that important to me, then nothing is going to hold me back. If I really want it, if this really means something, if this really means everything to me, then I will be divinely empowered to do whatever it takes achieve Diveikus - a sense of clinging to Hashem. These holy converts are teaching me that no lifestyle is so engrossing, so full of temptation that it cannot be escaped for the sake of greater meaning, purpose and happiness in my being. No matter what it is, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a bad habit or character trait; the situation isn’t changed by the intensity of my social complications – If I choose spirituality then I can overcome anything.
This explains why throughout the entirety of the laws of conversion, all the scriptural allusions are drawn from the path of purity undertaken by the Jewish people as they made their way to Sinai. One example is reason as to why a convert must go to Mikveh. He needs to because before Matan Torah Moshe told Am Yisrael to immerse as well. We see from here that aside from the story of Yisro himself, the entirety of the Jewish people also experienced a qualitative change of life as a result of Matan Torah. Every convert needs to undergo a mini-Matan Torah.
And now we can finally understand the offer that Hashem is making to the nations by suggesting that perhaps they are interested in the Torah. Even though you are so convinced that this is your way of life, even though it seems that there is no way of breaking the cycle – if the nations take upon themselves the Torah then Eisav won’t kill, Yishmael won’t steal and Moav will make a clean break from immorality.
We are often so caught up in the status quo that to change, to grow, to improve, and to add holiness into our lives seems simply out of reach. The person who I am right now is incapable of transforming into the person I want to be. But now we see that it isn’t true. If I want the Torah, if I want Kedusha and Taharah then Hashem will help me get it. I can cause a revolution in my entire life if I need to. I can do it. If I put my mind to it, If I decide that this is what I really want, then Kabalas HaTorah that happens anytime I want it to. That is the message of Unkolus, the message of Rus and the message of Yisro.
If we can find within ourselves the wellsprings of inspiration that lay waiting to be tapped into and push ourselves to live by such lofty standards, there is no doubt that we will live lives of happiness and Shleimus, mocing closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!