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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Yisro "Not Your Typical Nation"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A news report from January, 22, 2008/ 15 Shevat 5768:

“A secular Israeli farmer in the northern city of Tiberius, whose chief produce is bananas, decided that he would undertake to keep Shmitah[1] this year. When he approached Keren HaShviis[2] for assistance, they stipulated that they would register him in their program only if he would also undertake to be Shomer Shabbos[3] throughout the Shmitah year. When he agreed, Keren HaShviis agreed to cover his farming expenses. In return, all of his produce became the property of the Jewish Court Treasury, to be distributed in full accordance with Jewish law.

“Israel has suffered a significant cold spell over the past 2 to 3 weeks which has caused significant damage to its banana crop. When bananas are still growing and get hit with frost, they turn brown and become rock-solid.

“The banana farmer realized that he would incur significant losses because of the relentless cold. He began to receive calls from neighboring farmers, complaining bitterly that their entire banana crop had been destroyed by the frost.

“When he went to inspect the orchards, he was shocked by the extent of the damage. Not a single fruit had survived; no tree was spared. Yet, when he arrived at his orchard, he was awestruck! ALL of his bananas were yellow and green; it was as if his orchard was subject to a different climate. His orchard bordered those of his neighbors, but not a single tree of his was affected by the frost. He immediately called his contacts at Keren HaShviis and yelled into the phone, “Karah Nes! Karah Nes! – A miracle occurred! A miracle occurred!”

“Keren HaShviis reports that farmers who have until now refused to keep Shmitah, have been turning to the Keren following the losses suffered as a result of the frost. Many are now ready to commit to Shmitah observance.”

“Yisro, the priest of Midyan, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Yisroel, His Nation, that G-d had taken out Yisroel from Egypt…Moshe went out to greet his father-in-law…and Moshe told his father-in-law all that G-d had done to Pharaoh and Egypt on account of Yisroel, all the happenings that had transpired along the way; and G-d had saved them...”

What is the meaning behind the seeming redundancy of the whole account? The Torah states that Yisro joined Klal Yisroel because he heard the miracles that G-d did, “for Moshe and Yisroel”. If so, why did Moshe repeat the whole story again when Yisro arrived? Furthermore, after hearing Moshe’s account, the Torah relates that Yisro was happy, “that He (G-d) had saved the nation from the hand of Egypt.” This time Yisro did not mention Moshe. What did Moshe add that caused Yisro to omit Moshe’s name when he expressed his joy following Moshe’s account?

In the 1700s the American colonists living in the ‘new country’ were fed up with England and King George III. England had raised the colonist’s taxes to compensate for their substantial losses during the Seven Years War. The colonists declared that there could be, “No taxation without representation”. If they had no representation in the English parliament it was unjust for them to be taxed by Parliament. Eventually, the colonists signed the Declaration of Independence, plunging them into war against England.

On October 17, 1781 the English General, Lord Cornwallis, surrendered to Colonist General George Washington, essentially ending the war. The colonists had achieved the unthinkable; they had created a nation dedicated to, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In France 1789 there was growing discontent with the reign of King Louis XVI and the domination of the clergy and nobility. The majority of the country, composed of the bourgeoisie and peasants, deeply resented the fact that most of the country’s prosperity was held by a 2% minority, who represented the upper echelon of the French population.

On July 14, 1789 eight hundred Parisians stormed the Bastille, a grim medieval fortress that served as a prison for political and other prisoners. When told of the attack, King Louis asked, “Is it a revolt?” “No Sire”, replied a noble, “It is a revolution!”

The “National Assembly” issued the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, declaring the revolution’s creed, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. By 1793 King Louis was dead, ushering a volatile period of terror and uncertainty led by Robespierre. This was followed by the rise of Napoleon who, at least temporarily, restored glory to France.

For many decades the great Romanov monarchy, known as the Czars of Russia, failed to lead their immense nation adequately. After a failed attempt at Revolution in 1905, a successful revolution was mounted in 1917, while World War I was yet raging. Led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin, the Bolsheviks promised the impoverished nation, “Peace, Land, and Bread.”

Just a few months after the Romanov dynasty ended with the March Revolution, the Bolsheviks mounted a successful coup against the interim government and assumed control of the country during the November Revolution.

Upon Lenin’s death, the infamous Joseph Stalin became his successor, locking the country behind, “the iron curtain of Communism”.

America, France, and Russia: three separate revolutions which undermined the old order, and forged a completely new path and direction for their respective countries. They were revolutions that impacted all of mankind and changed the fate of millions of people.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershischa zt’l explains that Yisro was a worldly person. In fact, he had experimented with every idol and god in the world before he realized the veracity of the One supreme G-d. Since time immemorial, there were coup d’états, revolutions, and rebellions. When Yisro was informed of all the miracles that occurred, and about the departure en masse from Egypt he was happy for the Jews because they were liberated from tyranny and oppression. The nation, which until now was subjected to the rule of a despotic autocrat, was now free from his nefarious clutches. From that point onward they were subject to the democratic and more tolerant rule of the benevolent Moshe.

In other words, Yisro conceptualized the redemption as a, “Jewish Revolution”, an overthrow of the old regime. In Yisro’s mind, Moshe had become the ruler of the Jews and, therefore, Yisro “heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Yisroel”.

When Yisro arrived, Moshe explained to him that he had misunderstood the entire event. The purpose of the exodus was not to be a revolution at all. Rather, it was a complete transformation of the nation. Until now they were a scorned servile group of slaves, with elite ancestry whose memory had all but faded. When the exodus occurred, they were elevated into a Holy People, a nation who was destined to receive the Torah and became “the rose among thorns”, an example for the rest of the world.

In order for Yisro to comprehend this concept, Moshe had to start from the beginning and explain how every detail - the slavery, plagues, exodus, and the splitting of the sea - were all vital components of the burgeoning nation’s formation and growth. Moshe elucidated for Yisro the Divine Providence that was involved in every step of the process that culminated with their freedom. He explained how the exile and exodus was a shift of attitude and a vital prerequisite for their acceptance of the Torah, their raison d’être. Moshe noted that he was merely an emissary, and G-d was the leader of the Jews, as it were.

When Yisro heard Moshe’s explanation he realized the true greatness of all that had occurred. “Yisro said, ‘Blessed be G-d! Who has saved you from the hands of Egypt and from the hands of Pharaoh, that He has saved the nation from the hand of Egypt.” This time Yisro omitted Moshe’s name, for now he understood that Moshe did not replace Pharaoh. Rather, Moshe was the representative of G-d whose mission was to teach the nation all they needed to know in order to fulfill their newfound unique role. Moshe was a member of Klal Yisroel, no different than every other Jew.

The message that Moshe taught Yisro was that Klal Yisroel is not “just another nation.” As the Nation of G-d, they are guided by unique Providence.

In the opening verse of Parshas Va’era, G-d responded to Moshe’s complaint that his initial contact and appeal to Pharaoh was a dismal failure. G-d replied, “I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov as the All-Sufficing G-d, but through my Name G-d I did not make Myself known to them.” Essentially, G-d was explaining to Moshe why the lives of the patriarchs were continually challenging and difficult.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explains that G-d was revealing to Moshe a fundamental lesson about the Jewish people and G-d’s relationship with them. “Instead of letting Avrohom beget a son in his hundredth year, I could have caused a family to be raised by him by the time he had reached seventy, and allowed his descendants to flourish in happy favorable circumstances to a powerful nation on its own native soil. But then the nation would not have been just the people of G-d, not Am Hashem, the nation that reveals G-d as Hashem. Then this nation would be no different from all other nations, would have developed like them from ordinary natural causes.

“Like them (other nations) they would stand on material visible firm ground, would find the source of power and greatness in material power and greatness, and only aspire to be spiritual and moral, as far as their materialism left space for it, and as far as it fitted in with their materialism. But, in contrast to the other nations, this nation is to get its land, and have its foundation, solely in G-d. Freely of its own will, they were to carry out G-d’s Will, and only to have material substance and its own land, from and for this G-d and this aspiration…

“That is why this nation had to start where other nations finish. It had to lie stricken in the ground, weltering in its blood, with nothing but despair and loathing itself – “B’gal nafshecha” – and only rise up into a People through G-d’s creative call, so that the very existence of this People proclaims to the world: “I am G-d!”

“Yisro… heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Yisroel”

“Blessed be G-d! Who has saved you from the hands of Egypt.”

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[1] the laws of the seventh year, including allowing all land in Israel to remain fallow and uncultivated (5775 will be a shemittah year)

[2] a charity organization that helps support farmers who observe Shmitah

[3] Sabbath observant

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