True Greatness

Vayishma Yisro (Shemos 18:1)

Rashi writes that Yisro was known by seven different names, each of which has a different meaning. One of the names is Yeser, which connotes the fact that he merited having a section added to the Torah as a result of his suggestion to Moshe in our parashah to appoint judges.

However, he is universally called by the name Yisro, which refers to the fact that by converting to Judaism and accepting the mitzvos upon himself, an additional letter was added to his name. Of all of the seven names, why is this one specifically the most important? Shouldn’t Yeser, the name which represents the fact that an entire section of the Torah was added as a result of his advice, be considered the most significant?

Harav Shlomo Margolis suggests that the selection of the name Yisro hints that as important as Torah study is — and all the more so, to add an entire portion to the Torah itself — nevertheless, a person’s ultimate purpose in this world is to perfect himself and his character traits. This is reflected by Yisro’s desire to convert and ascend the spiritual ladder.

Rabbeinu Bachyei similarly notes (18:21) that in enumerating the desirable traits that Moshe should seek in judicial candidates, Yisro astoundingly made not a single mention of the importance of wisdom. Rather, he emphasized the importance of honesty and proper character, just as the Torah itself primarily praises Noach, Avraham Avinu and Yaakov Avinu for their righteous character traits.

The following story depicts a contemporary application of this principle. Harav Eliyahu Chaim Meisels was a great Torah scholar who served as the Rav of Lodz in Poland. He was famous and renowned for his concern for the poor and downtrodden, and stories of his compassion on their behalf abound. He was once asked by his good friend Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the Rav of Vilna and leading Sage of the generation, why he never published a work of his Talmudic novellae as was common for scholars of his ilk.

Harav Meisels took out an old, tattered notebook and explained that this book, containing a detailed list of all the charity and interest-free loans he had distributed throughout his lifetime, was the most important book he could take with him to the next world. Shortly before Rav Chaim Ozer’s death, he commented that although his classic work Achiezer was indeed a masterpiece and worthy of the utmost respect, he now realized that Rav Meisels had been correct. The primary work he looked forward to taking with him to the World to Come wasn’t the book he authored with his pen, but the book he wrote with his deeds of chessed for others.

Applying this lesson to ourselves, we realize that the Torah is teaching us something valuable and profound. In our pursuit of personal greatness and maximizing our individual potentials, we certainly recognize the need to study and develop our minds. However, it is important to understand and remember that doing so is only part of a much larger quest to perfect our souls and inner characters.

 Q: Rashi writes (18:1) that upon hearing of the splitting of the Yam Suf and the battle against Amalek, Yisro came to join Moshe and the Jewish people in the wilderness. Why did he wait to hear about the war with Amalek instead of coming immediately after the miracles at the Yam Suf, and why did a war impress him more than all of the miracles at the Yam Suf?

 Q: The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) teaches that when the Jews were encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, Hashem lifted the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they don’t accept the Torah, “sham tehei kevuraschem — there will be your burial place.” Wouldn’t it be more grammatically correct to say “poh — here” you will be buried?

A:  The Manchester Rosh Yeshivah explains that when Yisro heard about the splitting of the Yam Suf, he was certainly moved. However, he believed that there was no need to do anything about it, as he assumed that he would retain his spark of inspiration. Regarding the war against Amalek, the Torah records (17:11) that whenever Moshe raised his hands, the Jewish army prevailed, and when he lowered them, Amalek became stronger. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (3:8) questions how Moshe’s hands could magically fight the war, and it explains that whenever they were raised up, the Jews looked at them and focused their thoughts toward the Heavens, which enabled them to win, but when he lowered his hands, they forgot about Hashem and fell militarily.

Yisro was shocked to hear that in a battle which took place all on one day, it was possible for the people to be inspired through Moshe’s raised hands, yet a short while later, when he lowered them, their inspiration was gone and they lost everything. This recognition taught Yisro that it wasn’t sufficient that he felt uplifted by the miracles of the Yam Suf, as those feelings wouldn’t stay with him unless he did something concrete to make it permanent, which he did by joining the Jews and converting.

A: Harav Aharon Bakst explains that it wasn’t necessary to threaten that generation to force them to accept the Torah, as they had already declared na’aseh v’nishma — we will do, and we will listen. Rather, Hashem was threatening all Jews in future generations, informing them that the Torah must be their lifeblood, and if they choose to abandon it, “sham — there, wherever you may be” will be your burial place.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email