Shiurim & Adult Education

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THOUGHTS ON PARASHAT YITRO BY RABBI WILKINSON

This week marks the sixth anniversary of Ahavat Yisrael. Covid has meant that we cannot all join together as we might have liked but I hope to see as many people as possible in Shul either this Shabbat or over the next few weeks.

“And you will warn them regarding the statutes and the teachings, and you will make known to them the path on which they shall walk and the deeds that they should do.” (Shemot 18:20)

The Gemara in Bava Kama expounded this verse to include the fundamental practices of loving-kindness: “‘the path’, those are acts of kindness; ‘they shall walk’, that refers to visiting the sick; ‘on which’, this refers to burial.” How did these admittedly virtuous acts become the definition of “the statutes and the teachings”? One might have expected that the thrust of Yitro’s advice to Moshe would reflect not the universal norms of kindness but the more particular aspects of Torah, the mitzvot that govern our lives and define our practice of Halacha.

Although we normally view Moshe as the man of Torah, for whom ‘the law bores through the mountain,” (Sanhedrin) Moshe was introduced to us as a performer of acts of loving-kindness. We first see Moshe as an adult when he went out to his brothers and “observed their suffering” (2:11), and then he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was cruelly beating a Jew. In Midian, Moshe saved the daughters of Yitro from their tormentors, and found a wife in the process. was Moshe, the man of kindness.

As we know, chesed, kindness, comes in different forms. There is a type of chesed that is simply utilitarian: I’ll do something nice for you, so you will do something nice for me. Undoubtedly, that, if practiced regularly, would make the world a better place, but that is not the Torah’s conception of chesed.

Moshe’s kindness was based on love of justice, and that type of kindness was exemplified in Moshe’s life. Rabbi Pruzansky cites a pertinent modern example in the following story. During World War Il, a Nazi officer boarded a train in Italy and arrested a Jewish girl. A pregnant Italian woman stood between the Nazi and the Jewish girl and refused to let the Nazi arrest her. She said forcefully, “You can kill me if you want, but look at the faces of these passengers here. You will never leave this train alive.” The Nazi backed down. That incredibly brave and principled Italian woman was the mother of Silvio Berlusconi, who many decades later became Italy’s prime minister and is currently a candidate for President in the vote next week. Her kindness was the chesed of justice.

We, however, have higher demands on us from the Torah. We are also required to be affirmative and fearless, and to seek chesed that is motivated by ahavat Hashem, love of Hashem. An example is a story of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook ztl who was once walking in Yerushalayim and saw a young woman who looked lost. Speaking to her he found out that she needed directions to go somewhere and helpfully told her: “Left, left, straight, right, right,” to which she replied that she always hears directions like that, and always gets lost. Rav Kook then walked her to her destination.

Arriving home late, he told his inquisitive wife that he walked a young woman to her destination. She asked him who it was, and Rav Kook answered that she was a young woman from HaShomer Hatzair, the secular Socialist Zionist movement in Israel.

Rav Kook’s wife then asked, “Was she wearing trousers?” Told that she was, Rabbanit Kook continued, “Isn’t it enough that people are constantly attacking you, criticizing you and sullying your good name, that now they will say that you were seen in public walking with and talking to a woman in trousers?”

Rav Kook answered, “If a person doesn’t want to do chesed, there are always plenty of reasons, great reasons and petty reasons, not to do it.”‘ Indeed, there are always reasons not to do something. Apathy is almost a default position in life. There is only one good reason to do an act of kindness: another human being created in the image of Hashem needs help.

Berlusconi’s pregnant mother could have sat on the train and said nothing, just as Moshe could have ignored the Jewish victim of the Egyptian master and the plight of Yitro’s daughters. Yitro imparted to us that chesed is not a part of Torah, but rather the very foundation of the Torah. The Gemara did not offer a homiletic discourse on “the path on which they shall walk” but rather defined precisely what it is.

The Gemara referred to the giving of the Torah in a concise but inspiring way: “Let the good come and receive the good from the Good and give it to the good.” Put plainly, let Moshe, who is all good, receive the Torah, which is defined as good, from Hashem, who is described as good, and give it to people who are good.

As Rabbi Pruzansky says we can be cautioned about the “statutes and the teachings,” but if we do not see “the path on which [we] shall walk” then we will have missed the whole point of the Torah, our tradition, and the very creation of the people of Israel. Opportunities for chesed abound. They define our nation and the purpose for our having been given the Torah, and it is the responsibility of each person to pursue acts of kindness and to perform them.

Shabbat shalom

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