Yitro, Moses father-in-law, upon hearing of the incredible miracles that accompanied the Exodus from Egypt—discussed in this week's parsha which is aptly named Yitro—was impelled to join the Jewish nation. After Moses elaborates on the miracles they experienced, Yitro exclaims: "Baruch Hashem-blessed be G‑d who has saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who saved the nation from under the hand of Egypt."
Our Sages comment that Yitro was deserving of honorable mention because he was the first person to have exclaimed "Baruch Hashem-Blessed is G‑d."
This comment has elicited a strong question. Did not Abraham and others bless G‑d for His kindness? Didn't we just read of how the entire Jewish people—led by Moses—sang praise to G‑d when they crossed the Red Sea? Why then is Yitro credited as the first person to have praised G‑d?
Ketav Sofer (a nineteenth century commentator) answers that while Abraham and others thanked G‑d for the miracles that they themselves experienced, Yitro thanked G‑d for the miracles enjoyed by others. In other words, the distinction of Yitro's praise was not so much that he praised G‑d, but that he was grateful to G‑d for the blessings He bestowed upon others.
This answer, however, can be challenged by referring back to the story of Abraham when he won the war against the four kings who took his nephew Lot hostage. Upon his return from the battlefield, Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, said the following: "Blessed be Abram to the supreme G‑d, who possesses heaven and earth! Blessed be the supreme G‑d, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" Here too, Malkitzedek blesses G‑d for the good G‑d had – not to him personally, but to Abraham. What then makes Yitro's blessing of G‑d for the miracles enjoyed by others unique?
One can perhaps distinguish between the blessing that Yitro expressed from the blessing of Malkitzedek in another fashion.
It is evident from the Biblical text that Malkitzedek, along with Abraham, was a monotheist. Moreover, the Torah identifies him as a priest (the Torah says he was a “Kohein L’Keil Elyon,” a priest for G‑d on high.) Thus, it was Malkitzedek’s responsibility to bring offerings to G‑d. This is particularly true in light of the Oral tradition's interpretation that Malkitzedek was, in fact, none other than Shem, the son of Noah, who actually served as the transmitter of G‑dly teachings to others. It was no surprise then that Malkitzedek would bless G‑d. After all, that was part of his role.
By contrast, Yitro was initially not a monotheist. He was formerly a pagan priest. And yet when he heard about the Exodus and heard from Moses about all of the miracles they experienced, this information effected a complete transformation of his theology. His response of "Blessed is G‑d" was not a perfunctory one that was a part of his responsibility as a priest or teacher, but was an expression of an inner voice within that recognized the One G‑d's role in history.
In short, Malkitzedek's blessing of G‑d was part of a ritual that he was trained to perform. Of course it was done sincerely and infused with feeling, but it was nevertheless prompted by his external role as a priest and teacher of theology.
On the other hand, Yitro's blessing of G‑d originated deeply within his soul. It was his own profound understanding of G‑d and his newly found faith in and love for Him that was awakened that impelled him to spontaneously bless G‑d for the miracles enjoyed by others.
Thus there were two things that distinguished Yitro’s blessing of G‑d: First, it was for the good enjoyed by others. Second, it represented a radical departure from the theology he had held previously. It was a Eureka moment for him. He finally discovered something that he had never realized before and it found expression in his saying "Baruch Hashem-Blessed is G‑d."
One might still ask the follow up question. Wasn't Yitro exposed to monotheism by virtue of his relationship with his son-in-law Moses when the latter lived with him in Midian?
The answer to this question actually underscores the uniqueness of Yitro's expression of gratitude to G‑d in this parsha.
Yitro had indeed acquired the knowledge that there is one G‑d from Moses. Yitro had already abandoned his belief in all of the pagan gods he had previously worshipped. What changed was that he had graduated from the academic knowledge of this subject to the point where the knowledge actually transformed him from within and prompted him to exclaim "Baruch Hashem!" This was truly a remarkable and unprecedented event.
The above lesson—the uniqueness of Yitro's emotional expression of thanks to G‑d—is also reflected in the theme of the holiday of the Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, which we celebrated this past Monday. Tu Bishvat always coincides with the reading of the parsha of Yitro.
When the Torah speaks of the analogy of humans to trees in the Book of Deuteronomy it says: "for a person is a tree of the field." And the Talmud asks: Is a person really a tree? The Talmud's answer is that when a person endowed with knowledge uses his knowledge for the good, he or she is compared to a fruit bearing tree that must not be cut down. If however that knowledge is not used for the good then the person is like a barren tree that can be cut down because it has no use.
The question asked here is why did the Talmud even ask the question "is a person really a tree?" Didn't the Talmudic authors know that it was only a figure of speech and it was obviously not meant to be taken literally?
The Rebbe explains at great length that there are four words in Hebrew that mean man or person. Of these four, the word Adam is the one employed in the Torah's comparison of a person to a tree. The four names correlate to the four domains of existence that are incorporated within the human condition. A human being is a composite of the inanimate (actions), the vegetative (emotions), practical intellect (animal) and abstract intellect (human). The term Adam reflects the highest form of human expression; the human being's ability to fathom truths that are above the human—i.e., the recognition of a G‑d who is utterly transcendent.
Hence the Talmud's question, "Is a person (Adam) really a tree" was meant to ask the following:
Is the term "Adam," which represents the highest form of humanity—his intellect—appropriate to be associated with the level of humanity that is represented by a tree, alluding to human emotions? In other words, from the Torah's comparison of Adam, the highest form of humanity, with a tree, it indicates that it is our emotions and not our intellect that is the ultimate expression of our humanity. Is that truly so?
And the answer is yes and no. While humanity is characterized and distinguished by its ability to know abstract things it does necessarily mean that an ideal human being is one endowed with this knowledge alone. The apparently sophisticated person who is endowed with the most abstract and sublime knowledge is only considered to be full and ideal human being when this superior intelligence he or she possesses affects the emotions. When a human being, and particularly a Jew, translates his or her abstract knowledge into concrete feelings of faith, love, awe, respect and concern for G‑d and others, then that person can truly be called a full-fledged human being, and is worthy of the appellation Adam.
We can now appreciate the significance attached by our Sages to Yitro's expression of gratitude to G‑d and what distinguished it from Malkitzedek's blessing of G‑d. In Yitro's situation his abstract knowledge of G‑d was translated into real feelings.
We can now also understand the reason why the Zohar states that the Torah could not have been given until Yitro came to join the Jewish people. With all due respect to Yitro, why was his participation so crucial for the giving of the Torah?
One answer that may be proposed in light of the above analysis is that it was Yitro's ability to take the abstract knowledge of the oneness of G‑d and translate it into heartfelt emotions that is what the Torah is truly all about. The Torah is not just interested in imparting Divine knowledge to us.
The Torah wants us to transform our personalities by taking that knowledge and applying it to our feelings, as Moses exclaims to the Jewish people before their entry into the Promised Land: "And you shall know this day and take to your heart that G‑d is G‑d in heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other."
When Maimonides describes the nature of the world in the future Messianic era he states: "In that time there will be neither famine nor war, envy or competition for… the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d." Maimonides seems to be saying two things:
First, the reason all of our attitudes will change is because we will be endowed with the knowledge of G‑d.
Second, by prefacing the changes that will occur in the world before mentioning that we will be occupied with the knowledge of G‑d is to underscore that the ultimate goal of our knowledge is to allow us to be transformed into a higher level of humanity—one that is deserving of the title Adam.