Yisro and Kabbalas HaTorah

Vayesaper Moshe l’chosno es kol asher asa Hashem l’Faroh ule’Mitzrayim (Shemos 18:8).

Parashas Yisro contains the narrative of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which cemented our relationship as Hashem’s chosen nation. Although we would expect the parashah containing such a lofty and seminal event in Jewish history to open on an inspirational note, it instead begins by discussing the arrival of Yisro to join the Jewish people in the wilderness. Why was this seemingly mundane episode chosen to serve as the introduction to the giving of the Torah?

Further, the Torah records that when Moshe encountered Yisro, he related to him the miracles that Hashem had performed on behalf of the Jewish people. Rashi explains that Moshe’s intention in doing so was to draw Yisro’s heart close to Torah. Specifically, Rashi writes that Moshe informed Yisro about Hashem smiting the Egyptians at the Yam Suf and about the victory over Amalek.

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh points out that this is difficult to understand. What was Moshe’s purpose in selecting these two episodes to discuss when Rashi writes (18:1) that Yisro had already heard about these incidents, and they were precisely what inspired him to come convert? If Moshe’s goal was to open Yisro’s eyes to the greatness of Torah, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to choose a topic that he did not yet know about?

Harav Meir Wahrsager of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim suggests that we can derive from here an important lesson regarding the nature of Torah study. The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 2:13) teaches that although the nations of the world might possess chochmah (wisdom), they cannot possess Torah. Through this statement, Chazal are telling us that Torah is not just another complex discipline, comparable to quantum physics, algebraic geometry or nuclear engineering. Torah is unique, fundamentally and qualitatively different from any other chochmah in the world.

If an expert in any discipline wishes to impress another person with his accumulated knowledge, he will share with him a profound insight that would take decades to reach on his own. If that were the case with Torah, we would expect Moshe to astonish Yisro by opening his eyes to its profundity as seen through the works of the Arizal, the Vilna Gaon and Harav Akiva Eiger.

Moshe’s decision to discuss much simpler topics — and specifically subjects with which Yisro was already familiar — confirms the unparalleled nature of Torah wisdom, which is different from any human-developed wisdom, for the Torah represents Hashem’s chochmah, which is on a completely different plane.

In Rav Wahrsager’s words, the uniqueness of Torah is that rather than teaching us something we don’t yet know, it gives us a new perspective on things we think we already know. Thus, to appreciate the depth of Torah, a person has to specifically study a subject with which he is already familiar. For this reason, when Moshe wanted to draw Yisro’s heart closer to Torah, he chose to speak to him about the miracles at the Yam Suf and in the battle against Amalek, two episodes he knew Yisro was already familiar with.

In doing so, Moshe sensitized Yisro to the vast difference between the viewpoints of the Torah and a layman by sharing with him a completely new perspective on events he thought he already knew. Yisro — who had already explored and rejected every other religion (Rashi 18:11) — discovered a wisdom unlike anything he had ever experienced, a chochmah that emanates not from man, but from Hashem.

This insight into the unique nature of Torah explains why it was chosen as the introduction to the parashah that contains Kabbalas HaTorah, for a prerequisite to accepting the Torah is appreciating its unparalleled greatness and understanding what makes it so special. Rav Wahrsager adds that this lesson is not purely theoretical, for it has two important practical applications to our own approach to Torah study.

When we attend a Torah class or lecture, we must recalibrate our mindset. Rather than expecting to be presented with new facts as we would when attending a speech on any other topic, we should recognize that true Torah learning occurs when we are hearing something that we already know, but are taught to discover the subtle nuances of the familiar material.

Often, when we hear the title or subject of an upcoming shiur, we are tempted to skip it and excuse ourselves because, “Oh, I’ve heard that already.” Shlomo Hamelech writes (Mishlei 28:9), “Mesir ozno mishmoa Torah gam tefillaso toevah — a person who turns aside his ear from listening to Torah, his prayers are also considered an abomination.”

In his commentary on this verse, the Vilna Gaon explains that it refers to a person who turns his ear away from listening to Torah not the first time, but the second time, justifying his actions with the claim that, “I already know that.”

A person who does not value Torah enough to want to hear it again is missing the entire point of Torah study, which only begins the second time around, when its subtleties that enable it to be more deeply grasped are brought out. For this reason, one of the 48 attributes through which the Torah is acquired (Avos 6:6) is shmiyas ha’ozen — the ability and willingness to listen again and again in the pursuit of higher and more profound levels of understanding.

Q: Which brachah should a minor child not say due to his obligation to honor his parents?

A: The Magen Avraham writes that a minor should not recite Gomel, the blessing said after a person has been saved from a dangerous situation. The wording of the brachah expresses gratitude to Hashem for being “gomel l’chayavim tovos” — bestowing goodness on those who are culpable and do not deserve it. Because a minor is not punished for his deeds, the perilous episode must have been due to the actions of his parents. Thus, by publicly reciting this blessing, a minor is embarrassing his parents, which is a transgression of his obligation to honor them, and therefore it is better that he not say the brachah.

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 oalport@Hamodia.com.