At a metro station in Washington DC sat a man one cold January morning playing the violin. Thousands of people passed through the station while he played six Bach pieces, most of them on their way to work.
Only six onlookers paused throughout the 45 minute performance. Most attention was paid by a three year old boy, whose eyes were transfixed on the violinist even as his mother tugged him along.
A total of $32 was collected from 20 people who did not care enough to stop and admire the presentation. The artist received no recognition; no applauds.
Neither did anyone take note of the fact that the instrumentalist played one of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Nor did they have a clue that it was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world, who only two days before played before a packed theater in Boston at an average of $100 per seat.
Joshua Bell’s incognito performance was arranged by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment on perception, taste and priorities of people.
It is said in the name of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch that there are three progressive levels in the way something can be heard: To hear with one’s ears – listen. To hear with the mind – comprehend. To hear with all 248 limbs of the body – to sense the subject matter throughout one’s entire being.
We all encounter moments of inspiration that contain the potential to transform our entire perspective; moments of mystical exposure that can lift us above the mundane fray of our daily routine. But instead of stopping to observe, we just keep moving, oblivious to the presence of heavenly splendor and grace. We are so absorbed in our daily grind that our eyes see not and our ears hear not the glaring call of the Divine. We may stare a miracle straight in the face and see nothing but coincidence and the freak of nature.
Even when our attention is captivated, we tend to move on before we’ve had a chance to sufficiently absorb and internalize the meaning of it all. The story of Yisro, as related in this week’s Parsha, reminds us of the importance to be aware of this prevailing syndrome.
Of all the great heroes in the Torah, few have been awarded the privilege of having a portion dedicated in their name. Not even Avraham or Moshe have been awarded this honor. This of course makes Yisro all the more unique.
Not only is there a Parsha that bears the name Yisro, but the Parsha that bears his name is actually one of the most distinguished Torah portions of all. Indeed, the section containing the miraculous revelation at Sinai – the most auspicious event in the annals of human history – is called “Yisro.” What merited Yisro this great honor? What lesson is the Torah conveying by linking Yisro, of all people, with this celebrated episode? The answer lies in our Parsha’s opening narrative.
Our Parsha relates that upon hearing the great miracles that the Almighty had preformed for the emerging nation of Israel, Yisro was so moved by the events that he actually left his home in Midian and joined the fledgling nation in the desert: “Yisro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that G-d did to Moshe and to Israel His people, that G-d had taken Israel out of Egypt. . . And Yisro came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the wilderness where he was encamped by the mountain of G-d.” (Exodus 18:1-5)
While ancient Midian was not a world power on par with Egypt, it was indeed a respectable metropolis and Yisro was its revered leader. Still, when Yisro hears what the Lord had done for Moshe and His people, he leaves his stately comforts and joins the Israelites in the arid wilderness.
To be sure, Yisro was not the only one to hear about what the Almighty had done to for the children of Israel. The entire world knew that G-d had destroyed Egypt and redeemed His people. “Nations heard and trembled with fear,” states the verse (Exodus15:14). Yet for them all, it was business as usual. None considered making the slightest change in their lives. These earth shattering Divine interventions have left them entirely un-phased. Yisro, however, was different, he was moved to action.
What did Yisro “Hear” that so captivated and transformed him? What prompted him to give up his noble comforts and join a slave people in a barren wilderness?
Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Zevachim 116b), asserts that Yisro was inspired by the miracles of the Splitting of the Sea and the War against Amalek. While both these events were common knowledge to the rest of the world community, Yisro reacted to these miracles with an epiphany-type realization. Hence, he abandoned his privileged status to stand alongside the Jewish nation. While nobody else cared enough to bat an eye, Yisro would never be the same person again – he heard and came.
Upon reflection, one could imagine why the splitting of the sea would have made so deep an impression – the type of event that might evoke in him a need for action and change. But what made the battle against Amalek so uniquely inspirational? Was this victory more miraculous than the Ten Plagues and the obliteration of Egypt?
The commentaries note that the miraculous demise of the Egyptian army had in fact evoked within Yisro a profound awakening and sense of awareness; it has indeed affirmed his faith in the G-d of Israel. All the spectacular wonders that G-d had exacted upon Egypt had led him to acknowledge G-d’s mastery over the world. But they did not motivate him to take any action.
Yisro understood the defeat of Egypt to have brought about the defeat and eradication of all impurity and evil in our planet. He interpreted the astonishing turn of events to mean that the world had finally been transformed and enlightened, much as he himself had been. Therefore he saw no need for any particular action. His theological awakening notwithstanding, Yisro remained content to stay right where he was, albeit an enthusiastic believer in the monotheistic G-d of Israel.
However, the Chutzpah of Amalek and his unprovoked attack on Israel – coming as it did on the heels of the miraculous splitting of the sea – shattered that paradigm and shook him to his core.
How could this be? How could anyone actually remain defiant of the Almighty G-d in light of the extraordinary wonders which He performed on behalf of the Israelites? Surely this phenomenon was not completely lost on Amalek. Yet, out of sheer malice, he chose to attack the Jewish people. He was ready to sacrifice everything, just so that the Divine glory does not prevail and sustain its remarkable universal triumph.
To Yisro this was astounding. The notion that there could remain defiance in face of manifest Divine revelation and preeminence, was inconceivable. The fact that the overwhelming evidence of G-d’s sovereignty did not succeed in neutralizing the opposition was utterly disconcerting. It was proof of a stubborn and nefarious force, the likes of which he could have never imagined; an evil that cares not in the least about logic or truth.
The latter led Yisro to realize that the war against G-d and Divine reality was far from over; that it was obdurately irrational by nature. In light of his epiphany, Yisro saw the need to change his paradigm.
Moved to Action
Abraham Lincoln, it is told, often would unassumingly slip out of the White House on a Wednesday evening and head for the Presbyterian Church on New York Avenue. There he would listen to the sermons delivered by Dr. Finnes Gurley. When the president’s attendance was expected, Dr. Gurley would leave the door to his private study unlocked, since the president generally preferred to come and go unnoticed.
On one such occasion, Mr. Lincoln slipped through the side door and took a seat in the minister’s study, located just to the side of the sanctuary. There he propped the door open, just wide enough to hear Dr. Gurley.
During the walk home, an aide prodded the president’s appraisal of the sermon. The president thoughtfully replied, “The content was excellent; he delivered with elegance; he obviously put work into the message.”“Then you thought it was an excellent sermon,” questioned the aide. “No, not really,” answered Lincoln.
“But you said that the content was excellent. It was delivered with eloquence, and it showed that he had worked hard,” the aide pressed. “That’s true,” Lincoln said, “But Dr. Gurley forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great.”
It has become ever so clear to Yisro that in the cosmic struggle between good and evil; the holy and unholy, one must do something great! There can be no neutrality in the battle between truth and falsehood. One is either part of the solution or part of the problem.
Only by joining ranks with the embattled holiness was it possible to stem the brazen force of falsehood and impurity. Empathy and passive righteousness are useless in the struggle against mindless Divine spite and rebellion.
By naming our Parsha Yisro, the Torah validates this contention. It asserts that in order for there to be Divine revelation we must take a side. We must do more than offer-up passive recognition and admiration. Pro-activity is the key to receiving the Torah and Divine revelation; the means by which spirituality and holiness are able to prevail over impurity and darkness.
As underscored in the following anecdote, only when our Divine consciousness and inspiration moves us to pursue a proactive path, is it of any use or value, otherwise it is to miss the entire point.
In the 1960′s Rabbi JJ Hecht appeared as a guest on the Barry Farber talk show. The topic of discussion was the prevailing hippie movement and their quest for spirituality. “With all these young people in search of truth, one would have imagined that there would be a run on the houses of faith and worship, yet that does not seem to be the case. Why,” wondered Mr. Farber, “Have these youngsters, in their pursuit of truth, not turned to theology and religion?”
The Rabbi offered a brilliant rejoin: “The reason why the hippies do not turn towards G-d for answers is because their search for truth is without truth. Though they are looking ‘For’ truth, they are not looking ‘With’ truth.” While we all talk about the search for truth, we often lack truth in our search. We lack the commitment and dedication to make the changes that our findings demand.
The underlying lesson of Yisro’s story is that to make a difference in the spiritual equation, requires a receptive ear and responsive heart to Divine manifestation and instruction. We must be willing to take the necessary steps and make the necessary changes, as stated in the verse: “A heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Devarim, 29:3)
“Every sort of Torah Knowledge and comprehension,” says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “even the most profound, must be expressed in Avoda (Service of G-d). I.e. the intellectual attainment must bring about an actual refinement and improvement of character traits. It must be translated into a deep-rooted inward attachment to G-d – all of which is what the Chassidic lexicon calls ‘Avoda.’” (Hayom Yom).
May our sensitivity and awareness of the Divine call and ensuing actions hasten the era of redemption and reward, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.