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Yitro 5765

By: Rav David Milston

"I believe with a complete belief"

“And Yitro, the priest of Midyan and father in-law of Moshe, heard all that the L-rd had done for Moshe and for Israel….” (Shemot 18:1)

Rashi asks the question, what was it exactly that inspired Yitro to leave his home and join the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai? And he answers that the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek were the decisive events that convinced Yitro to leave the comforts of his village and journey to the wilderness.

Yet we are left perplexed by Rashi’s comments. What of the ten plagues, the revelation of the Almighty in Egypt, did this have no effect on Yitro? And even if one were to accept that the splitting of the sea was a deciding factor, why would Yitro be persuaded to journey to Har Sinai as a result of the war with Amalek?

In answering this question, Netivot Shalom quotes another comment of Rashi in the name of Mechilta, that when Yitro met up with Moshe he exclaimed: “’Now I know…’ (ibid, ibid, 11), I recognized G-d in the past, but now I understand even more”.

We know from the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah (1:32), that Yitro in his earlier years had been a high priest in Midyan, but when he consequently understood that there was no truth in idolatry, he turned to monotheism, even before having met Moshe. He then resigned his post and was driven out of the community. This is what he means when he says ‘I recognized G-d in the past’, but what does he mean when he says ‘but now I understand even more’?

The Rebbe from Slonim explains that there are two types of Emunah; there is the emunah that is based on research, analysis, and intellectual conclusion; and there is emunah that is absolute. that is beyond questioning.

The former, is initially acceptable, it is the way that Avraham began, but it cannot be seen as the optimum form of faith, because its foundations lie in human research. Hence there is always the danger that just as at present belief has been proven; at some stage in the future it could be equally disproved. There is also something inherently unhealthy in ones belief being based entirely on ones comprehension; are we saying that if we understand it is, but if we cannot understand it cannot be? If a human cannot prove G-d’s existence in absolute terms then should we no longer believe? Surely such a statement is itself a contradiction in itself? Isn’t the essence of the Holy One exactly that, that He is G-d, that there is an eternal par between the Creator and the created? We will never fully comprehend the Almighty, His ways, and a fortiori, His being. To expect to be able to fully understand G-d, His ways, and His being is almost as if to demand to be placed by His side.

The second form of emunah, absolute emunah, Avraham at the Akeidah, is our objective. This form of faith is total, it is clear, lacking no research. This is what we mean when we say that we believe with a complete faith. Avraham Avinu, who at first found G-d through rational thought, ended his days on a much higher level of faith. The Akeidah was humanely irrational, impossible to comprehend, full of contradictions from whatever angle approached. The Avraham Avinu who succeeds in the test of the Akeidah is not the rational believer, he is the absolute believer; the believer who does whatever the Almighty asks even when it diametrically opposes all that he thinks to be true. Avraham at the Akeidah has true belief.

Yitro, at first came to monotheism through his intellect. He left the emptiness of idol worship in much the same way that Avraham had done so many years beforehand. In fact until the splitting of the sea, Yitro remained within that very same category of belief. The ten plagues more than anything else, surely showed to one and all that Hashem was in total control of the entire universe, and similarly the splitting of the sea, was revelation to such a degree that ‘a maid servant at the sea saw more than the Prophet Yehezkel saw in his loftiest of visions’. There could be no greater proofs of G-d’s existence than the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. Yet immediately after the miracles of Yam Tzuf, juxtaposed to the songs of joy of Am Yisrael, is the consequent rebellion of the people. There was no water, their belief fails and that incident is followed directly by the war with Amalek, this is no coincidence.

Chassidic thought understands Amalek to represent doubt (infact the Hebrew word Amalek shares the exact same numerical value as the Hebrew word for doubt – safek). Despite the great revelations that took place at the splitting of the sea, as soon as there was no water, doubt set in and the war with Amalek had begun.

Yitro saw that even though the people had lived through one of the greatest miracles of all time, a miracle that would seemingly, rationally, bring one to absolute belief in the Almighty, despite that experience, the splitting of the sea was followed by Amalek, by doubt. Yitro saw that whenever belief is solely based on our own rational conclusions, however solid they may initially appear to be, that belief will inevitably be followed by Amalek, by doubt. Thus Yitro packs his bags, leaves Midyan and makes his way to Moshe at Har Sinai. When he meets with Moshe Rabbeinu he says to him: ‘I recognized G-d in the past, but now I understand even more’ – until now rational belief had been enough for me, but having seen that even the splitting of the sea can be followed by doubt, I now understand that Judaism demands of its people a much greater belief, a belief that is beyond intellectual understanding, a complete belief, one that is based on ‘Naase VeNishma’.

It is, to my mind this total belief and not the initial rational belief that has ensured the existence of the Jewish people against all possible odds. When one thinks of the history of our people from the exodus of Egypt until this very day, on a rational basis there is no reason whatsoever why we should believe; we have spent the vast majority of our years as a people in exile. We have suffered thousands of pogroms; we have been thrown out of countries, and we have been massacred, yet every day all over the world Jews proclaim their belief in G-d. It is unbelievable but it is true. The level that Yitro aspired to reach when he joined our people at Mt.Sinai, the level that Avraham Avinu surely reached at the Akeidah, is a level that as a people we have sustained for generations. Our belief is not a rational one it is emunah sheleimah.

This week two very different occasions were ‘celebrated’ on the same evening. In New York, in an unprecedented fashion, the United Nations commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on that very same night and during the following day we celebrated Tu Bishvat - the new-year for trees. Tu Bishvat for me represents that exact emunah sheleimah that we have described above. The winter is cold, wet, overcast, the leaves have gone from the trees, everything outside seems to be dead or dying; and then slowly but surely, in the middle of ‘desolation’, the tree begins to blossom, seemingly despite, but actually because of, the harsh winter, the tree once again comes to life climaxing in the beauty of spring, and the harvest of the summer. Tu Bishvat comes in the middle of winter; when despair has set in, when the cold and damp have begun to affect our morale – we are reminded do not despair, the blossoms are signs of the spring, and the spring will inevitably be followed by summer.

There can surely be no greater darkness than Auschwitz, it represents an evil that is so great, so terrible, that one shudders at the thought that a place such as that could exist. Yet on the very same night that we remember Auschwitz, we celebrated Tu Bishvat; the Jewish people have somehow always managed to see the blossom even in the darkest days of our winter. We have survived because of our emunah sheleimah, and we shall continue to survive because of it. That very same faith that led the children of Israel into the stormy seas is with us to this very day.

Even today, when the current climate in Israel is worrying to say the least, when for so many, despair has begun to set in, we must remember that despair is not the way of our people, survival is our way, and that survival is based on our emunah sheleimah. From that very day at Har Sinai when we proclaimed that we will do, without even knowing what would be asked of us, we continue to proclaim that same phrase, we will do! Our belief in the Master of the Universe is absolute, there is no rationale and thus there is no room for Amalek. And for those who are overcome with pessimism at our current predicament, who cannot be uplifted by the theme of Tu Bishvat, let me remind you where we were sixty years ago today, look around you and see where we are today, and rejoice at the miracle that we call the State of Israel!

Shabbat Shalom


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