Waiting for the Watershed Event

The most significant event in world history is undeniably the giving of the Torah by G‑d on Mount Sinai. With that watershed revelation, G‑d entrusted humankind with His Master Plan for the universe. The world would now have a purpose and life would become meaningful.  According to the Midrash, G‑d’s prior “decree,” that the physical and spiritual realms could not meet, was rescinded. After Sinai we were empowered to make this physical world a “dwelling place” for G‑d. When this plan is fully implemented, we will reach the goal of Creation—the Messianic Age. All this became possible at Mount Sinai.

This momentous event was revealed within parsha Yisro, named after Moses’ father-in-law, who rejected the paganism of his upbringing and converted to Judaism.  Placement of the Sinai narrative in this parsha speaks volumes concerning Judaism’s view of outsiders who enter the fold.

Indeed, according to the Zohar, G‑d waited for Yisro to arrive to give the Torah.

We are All Converts

On the simple level, this refers to the Talmudic statement that all Jews—including the souls of future Jewish generations, all of whom were present at Sinai—converted to Judaism at Mount Sinai.

There are some very powerful lessons we can derive from this. First, it reinforces the Torah’s commandment to treat the convert with respect and to love him.  Second, it also reminds us of how the convert’s choice of Judaism should inform our own acceptance of and attitude towards it. True, a Jew born Jewish has no choice in the matter. A Jew born a Jew remains a Jew regardless of his or her actions and choices to the contrary. Nevertheless, a Jew must always strive to incorporate the “Yisro-choice” element inherent in a conversion to Judaism; one should always be looking for ways to apply his or her own initiative, just as if he or she were choosing Judaism for the first time. The advantage of treating this as a choice is that it is usually something one does with fervor, enthusiasm and Joy.

Conversely, the convert to Judaism must recognize that he or she has always possessed a Jewish soul, one that stood at Mount Sinai with all the other Jewish souls and enthusiastically declared “Na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen!” The convert is no less an heir to the Torah than a born-Jew and is in that sense not an outsider after all.

Nature, Nurture and Beyond

Judaism is a composite of nature and nurture or receiving and contributing. There is the part of Judaism that we view as a treasure that we inherited from our ancestors. This treasure is ours and can never be discarded or taken from us, regardless of our choices. As a recipient of this treasure at birth, one can live his or her entire life and never access it or choose to rest on his or her laurels.

There is, therefore, an equally significant part of Judaism that is based on how we nurture that treasure and continue to grow and contribute to it.

This duality continues throughout life. There will always be a need for us to look for ways to “convert” or to offer ourselves to G‑d in ways that go beyond yesterday’s offering. So, while we treasure and use the gifts we received in the past, we must always also look for ways of going forward and increasing it; in other words, adding on to the treasure. This is the Yisro aspect of Judaism—for, indeed, the word Yisro is related to the word for increase.

Micro and Macro

If on the micro level all of life is a process of accessing our treasures from the past and making new investments for the future, this is also true on the macro level.

Over all of the time since creation, through and including today, we have accumulated unbelievable spiritual treasures. As the Rebbe informed us on numerous occasions, the good of the past is cumulative and it is for us to uncover, access and enjoy. However, no matter how much we’ve accumulated—and it is formidable—we need to go one major step forward. We must break out of the constraints and limits of our past accomplishments because they are all contained within the framework of Galus. What Yisro was to the Jewish people prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai is what the Jewish people need today. We need to add something significant to our lives, something that goes beyond all that we’ve inherited from the past. We must make the transition from Galus complacency to Geulah initiative.

Yeser and Yisro: What’s the Difference?

Now, according to our Sages, Yisro actually had seven names. One of his names was Yeser, which means increase and the other name was Yisro, which also means increase. Why two names that denote the same idea of increasing?

Rashi informs us that when he who-was-not-yet-Yisro offered his idea to Moses on how to establish an efficient judicial system, his name was Yeser in recognition that he would be blessed to add to the Torah. G‑d approved of his judicial proposal and an entire section within this week’s parsha was added to the Torah, for which he is given full credit.  It was when he embraced the commandments and became a Jew that he was given the name Yisro. Yisro is actually spelled the same as Yeser with an added letter vov at the end.

An obvious question begs to be asked: We’ve already established that Yisro connotes to not rest on our laurels. What is the difference between the Yeser stage of his life and the Yisro stage? Both stages involve adding on; in the case of Yeser it is contributing a section of the Torah and in the case of Yisro it involved converting to Judaism. What was so fundamentally different about the second stage that a new letter, vov, had to be added to his name?

Second, how do the two dimensions of change—Yeser and Yisro—relate to the need we have to go beyond the accomplishments of Galus and to forge ahead into Geulah?

Outside Contribution

When Yisro or Yeser made a suggestion to Moses that was accepted by G‑d and was incorporated into Torah, for which he was given the name Yeser, he did so as an outsider contributing to those who were inside, i.e., those who were already Jewish. This can be compared to the non-Jewish elements who helped facilitate the construction of the Holy Temple. Another example of an outside influence that contributed to Jewish knowledge is the indexing system, which was not common in Jewish texts; today it is a useful tool and makes learning that much easier. The printing press and computer are other examples of “outside” ideas and inventions that have contributed to the accessibility and proliferation of Torah knowledge.

However, even as much as these inventions have added to the Torah, the index, printing press and computer have not become an integral part of Torah; they remain outside factors that contribute to Torah.

Prior to his personal acceptance of the Torah, Yisro was able to contribute to it while remaining  outside of the Torah. He was merely an accessory. He was a Yeser-outsider individual; not yet a full-fledged Yisro-insider.

Moreover, Yisro’s suggestion for improving the judicial system was taken from his own past experience and knowledge. His contribution to Torah came wholly from the outside, and even after it had been made he was an outsider; esteemed, yes, but still an outsider.

Inside Contribution

When Yisro embraced the Mitzvos, the letter vov was added to his name. That letter is a straight vertical line and thus suggestive of a process that sends something from above downward. In contemporary jargon we would use the term “download.” Yisro was no longer just an accessory to the Torah. He was now able to download all of that which is contained in Torah—its Divine character as well as its knowledge—and integrate it within himself.  Yisro no longer just contributed; he was the contribution.

Two Approaches to Adding a Mitzvah for Geulah

If we apply this mode of thought to Galus and Geulah we may suggest that here, too, there are two ways of conceptualizing the way we “add” to our progress in the direction of Geulah.

On one level, which we can call the “Yeser” macro-model, we are each encouraged to perform one more Mitzvah because it could be the final one that gets us over the top. We must reach a critical mass of Mitzvos to bring the Redemption; therefore one additional Mitzvah—any Mitzvah, big or small—has the potential to do just that and be the proverbial feather that breaks the back of Galus.

However, in this “Yeser” macro-model the focus is on how that additional Mitzvah—which is no different from the Mitzvos we have performed for the last 2,000 years—is added to the pile of accumulated Mitzvos. There is nothing fundamentally new about the additional Mitzvah nor does it result in our internalizing the Geulah even as we become catalysts to bring it on. The Mitzvah we do to bring the Geulah is not something radically new. Moreover, even after we perform it we are still outside the Geulah world.

The second approach—the Yisro model—takes us into uncharted territory. We not only add to our Mitzvah observance; we instill that same Mitzvah with a “futuristic” Geulah character. We look for the deeper meaning in that Mitzvah and consider how it relates to Geulah. By doing that Mitzvah, even as we are still in Galus, we become insiders to Geulah. The Mitzvah is an act of the future and we are now inside the dynamic of Geulah, not just outsiders contributing to it.