Yitro- The Limits of Giving


Translated by Netzach Sapir

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, is one of the most positively presented characters in the Torah. In the portion which bears his name, we see that even Moshe has something to learn from him.

The portion begins with a joyous family reunion. Yitro reunites Moshe with his wife and his children, Yitro’s daughter and grandsons, and the Torah tells of the excitement of the moment: kisses and catching up, and even Moshe’s bowing to Yitro.

But the next day is business as usual for Moshe. He sits as judge for the nation from morning until night. Yitro sees the immensity of the burden upon Moshe, and suspects he will collapse under the weight. He knows his son-in-law well, and therefore makes a personal appeal. In his words, “what you are doing is not good. It will cause you to whither – both you and this nation – for it is too much for you to undertake alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18) Yitro suggests a system to divide the burden of judging the people amongst others who are worthy for the task. Moshe accepts his father-in-law’s suggestion, and thus Bnei Yisrael’s first justice system is established.

As we have seen in previous portions, Moshe's dedication to pursuing justice and his intolerance of injustice can cost him dearly. Yitro is attempting to establish a limit to the degree to which Moshe can give, because giving without limits is destructive to the giver and the receiver alike. It is noteworthy that it is Yitro, who enters from outside the story, who notices the problem with Moshe’s approach. Perhaps thanks to the distance he had and the perspective it afforded, he was able to see what others were not. Alternatively, perhaps it was only because of his closeness with Moshe that he was able to see his fallibility, and to recognize that even his great strength was not without limit. And of course, he had a personal interest at stake. Yitro is concerned for the welfare of his daughter and her children whom he has just returned to Moshe. As their father and grandfather, he wants to ensure that his son-in-law will have some time for his family, and that the burden of his leadership will not be too much for them to bear. It is not by coincidence that the man who taught me the principle, “How long is a groom considered a king? For as long as he treats his wife as a queen,” was my wife’s father.

We are all familiar with the airline safety instructions that the flight attendants recite before take-off: “In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, air masks will descend from the ceiling. Make sure your own mask is securely in place before helping other passengers with theirs.” This simple instruction contains within it a deep spiritual truth – you can’t help others if you neglect yourself. First you must have a steady flow of oxygen, then look around and see whom you can help.

Giving without limits has a price, and frequently it is paid by the giver’s immediate family. In her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Ramen tells a story of a man who recovered from cancer, and resolved thereafter to dedicate his life to environmentalism, a cause which had always been dear to his heart.  But alas, his dedication to the greater good became so absolute it brought about the dissolution of his own family, and his wife and children left him.

I once heard a son of a well-known man bitterly allude to the personal price he paid for his father’s dedication to the public, citing the midrash about Moshe’s grandson who became a priest of Avodah Zarah (Rashi on Shoftim 17:6). The Torah gives us no record of Moshe’s relationship with his sons, except for one, and it is an instance of neglect. Moshe is on his way to Egypt to free the people of Israel, but it seems that in his dedication to his task he neglected his fatherly duty to circumcise his own son, and in so doing, endangered his life. In the end it is Tzipora, who was not even born into the people of Israel, who saved the family by circumcising her son.

On that note, another anecdote that bears sharing: On the night of the holiday of Shavuot, one of the Rabbis in the yeshiva where I teach was scheduled to give a class in the Beit Midrash. Because the festive meal went on for some time, the class started quite late. Only a few minutes after he began, his youngest son entered the Beit Midrash, in order to learn with his father. The Rabbi apologized before the large audience, “it true that there are many of you and only one of him, but for him – I am a father,” and so saying he stopped the class and sat to learn with his son.

“Na’aseh v’Nishmah” (We Will Do and We Will Hear)

The main event of Parshat Yitro is the giving of the Torah. The Sages consider Bnei Yisrael’s declaration of “Na’aseh v’Nishmah” to be one of the foundational elements of the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem. As the Talmud says, “at the moment that Bnei Yisrael prefaced ‘We will do,’ to ‘We will hear,’ a divine voice came down from heaven and said, ‘who revealed to my children this secret, that the heavenly angels employ?’” (Shabbat 88a)

Why is “Na’aseh v’Nishmah” such a foundational principle? In a class I once taught to a group of soldiers, new immigrants from Russia, I discussed the way that in Judaism there is a constant dynamic between the energies of “doing” and “being.” One soldier was not impressed. “That’s obvious,” she explained to me, “Bnei Yisrael clearly say ‘we will do and we will hear.’ ‘We will do’ refers to doing and the active world, and ‘we will hear’ refers to the independent value of listening, in other words, the act of being.” What for her was obvious was to my eyes a new interpretation of the well-known phrase. According to the straightforward meaning of the text, the prefacing of ‘we will do’ to ‘we will hear’ shows unconditional dedication, a commitment to carry out whatever will be asked. The Beit Yaakov uses the first verse in the book of Vayikra, “And He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him,” to point out the difference between calling and speaking. “When you are called, you must first come close to the one calling you, and only then can your hear the particular message they want to tell you. So too for all of Israel, at the sound of the call they dedicate themselves completely to Hashem[1].” (Beit Yaakov, Parshat Bo) When you agree to do a friend a favor before ascertaining exactly what he needs, there is an inherent value to the very expression of good will and dedication.

The first step, therefore, is “Na’aseh,” the unconditional commitment. But “Nishmah,” the understanding, must follow. The action is unconditional, but we don’t seek to limit ourselves to action alone; we don’t wish to be carrying it out mechanically. We thirst for “Nishmah,” the place of listening, understanding and internalizing, which will enable us to connect to our actions and identify with them from deep inside.

I will conclude with an insight I heard in the name of Reb Nachman of Breslov, which could in and of itself guide a spiritual journey. “Na’aseh” refers to all the things which I am capable of achieving in my present state. “Nishmah” refers to all the levels which are beyond me at the moment, outside of my current ability to attain. By ‘listening’ to the beyond and cultivating a spiritual awareness that I have a room to grow, I can awaken an internal thirst to reach that place beyond my current state. Hopefully, that which is today only in the realm of our “Nishmah,” will one day become our “Na’aseh.” 

[1] Note from Netzach: I’m not 100% sure I understood this Beit Yaakov correctly.

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