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by Daneal Weiner

May the dissemination of this Rav Wolfson Torah be an elevation for the soul of Kalman Berel ben Alexander, a'h.


At the end of every parsha as what is called a mnemonic. It is a word or two, handed down by tradition, whose numeric equivalent equals the number of verses in the parsha. Of course, many words can have an identical numeric value. The words chosen for the mnemonic are those which encapsulates the highlight or message of the parsha. For

Parshas Yisro

the mnemonic is Yonadav which has the numeric value of 72. Going out on a limb, I’ll call the highlight of this parsha the Revelation on Mt. Sinai, a.k.a. nationwide prophecy, a.k.a. the forging of the descendants of Jacob as a Nation of Israel. The Artscroll Stone Chumash gives over in the name Rabbi Dovid Feinstein that this mnemonic, Yonadav, can be translated as ‘G-d granted.’ This word was appropriately chosen because in this parsha G-d granted Israel the title of His chosen people.

As well and good as this all sounds, would you believe there is a little problem?

Yisro, thanks to the inspiration of Bromberg Printers, begins with 18:1-27, continues on through chapter 19 and its 25 verses, and simultaneously culminates with the ending of chapter 19 at verse 23. What is 27+25+23? Come on; don’t look. Figure it out yourself.….. 75!

We have this wonderful, beautiful, encapsulating mnemonic for the 72 verses of Parshas Yisro, handed down over the millennia, and there are 75 verses in the parsha?! It’s 3 verses off! Well, I guess tradition can be wrong. Everybody over to my house next Friday night for the clam bake!

But before we go reform, let’s have a look over at the other parsha where the 10 Commandments are again recorded. In the book of Devarim, Parshas Va’eschanan, the mnemonic for the parsha is Oziel, numeric value of 118… and the parsha is …ch. 4…. 49… ch.5 ….30….ch.6….hey, the Shema!…25….ch.7….11. 49+30+25+11=115! Again we’re 3 verses off! Darn, a pattern. No clam bake. WAIT! Yisro’s mnemonic is 3 verses too few and Va’eschanan is 3 verses too many. We just need an overall balance. Great! The clam bake is on for Friday, and the following Tuesday we’ll make kiddush and have some herring. It will all balance out in the end!    OR   we can answer these contradicting contradictions another way.

Referring back to the ArtScroll Stone Chumash (since I often use them for translations without crediting them, might as well do them up good at least once) they have a footnote on the bottom of the page on which the 10 Commandments commences. It says, “The 10 Commandments are read with two different sets of trop or cantillation notes.” In a separate text box they reprint the Commandments with the second set of marks. We call the two sets the Ta’am Tachtone and a Ta’am Elyone. Ta’am means from ‘flavor’ to ‘reasoning’ to ‘intonation.’ Tachtone and Elyone mean lower and upper, respectively. The way the 10 Commandments appears in the typical chumash is with the Ta’am Tachtone- lower intonation. That's how we'll hear it read this week. The way it's read Shavuos is with the Ta’am Elyone- upper intonation.

Aside from this cursory understanding of there being different intonations by which the Commandments may be read, it is interesting to note that the Ta’am Tachtone applies to the 13 verses in question whereas the Ta’am Elyone turns the 10 Commandments into 10 verses! The Ta’am Tachtone lets one commandment requiring multiple verses or multiple commandments to appear in one verse. The Ta’am Elyone turns every commandment into a verse of its own. That would probably be how Israel heard them at Sinai.

There you have it! Yisro counts the verses according to the Ta’am Elyone, so the mnemonic is less, Va’eschanan counts according to the Ta’am Tachtone, so the mnemonic is more and Kiddush is back to Friday night! Judaism is saved!

As well and good as this all sounds, would you believe there is a little problem?

In the Shulchan Aruch- Code of Jewish Law, under the laws of Shavuos, the commentary and decisor, Magen Avraham, writes regarding the dispute of whether we read with the Ta’am Elyone or Tachtone, that the problem with making every commandment its own verse is that there is no such thing in the Torah as a two-word verse! The minimum a verse can be is 3 words long!

A man called to the Torah has to say the blessing on at least three verses. Let’s say there are four bar Mitsvahs in shul this week and 25 relatives have to be called to the Torah. It seems, there being 75 verses to divide up, each man gets three verses. There is just no way a man can be called to the Torah and say the opening blessing to have the reader chant, “Don’t kill. Don’t [commit] adultery. Don’t steal.” Upon which he’ll make the closing blessing and sit down! So its very hard to say the mnemonic is based on a counting of the verses which don’t fit the definition of a verse! It’s hard, but not impossible.

What we have here is a dochak- forced answer. There are two ways to answer difficult questions. One way is with a dochak answer, one which, basically, raises a question. The other way is with pilpul- a series of connected rationalizations, deductions and conclusion which ultimately produce an irrefutable answer.

The Chasam Sofer writes that the majority of dochak answers are truth while the majority of pilpul answers are false. But, he continues, explaining we are supposed to ask why we are left with a dochak answer since Hashem could have certainly made the answer be very smooth and easy?

A dochak answer is analogous to a bedspread. We want the spread to cover the bed nice and smooth but when see a lump showing it means there is something underneath. When a dochak answer covers a question but doesn’t cover it smoothly, it only means there is more there than what meets the eye. Hashem wants us to reach around a little bit and try to pull out something else.

So it seems we do have an answer to the question why the mnemonic values are off. It has to do with the Ta’am Tachtone and Elyone. The Chasam Sofer now encourages us to delve a little deeper.

In no time at all we’re going to be reading about the most central article to the Temple, the Ark which held the two tablets of the 10 Commandments. The Ark was 2 ½ cubits in length, 1 ½ in width and 1 ½ in height. But the Gemorah tells us that although the Holy of Holies, the room in which the Ark rested, was 20 cubits square, if one would measure the distance from any side of the Ark to the adjacent wall it would measure 10 cubits! The Ark took up no space! Or rather, as our Rabbis put it, the place of the Ark was beyond natural measure.

The two tablets of the 10 Commandments emanated from a spiritual realm which was at the root of Torah itself. Rashi says that the 10 Commandments include all the Torah. One on level this means hints to all 613 mitsvos are in it’s few verses. On a deeper level, the root of a thing contains all that that thing is. So if the blueprint for all nature was stored in a box in a room, it is understandable that that room was not subject to the laws of nature which only came about due to what is stored in that box. To put it in terms we understand, why should a lawmaker [i.e., politician] be subject to the laws he makes!?

The verses in the Torah where the 10 Commandments rest, like the room where the tablets rested, are not subject to the ‘laws of nature’ of the other verses of the Torah. They are beyond measure. So it’s difficult to count them. Only by dochak. This offers yet another insight as to why we count the 50 days from the start of Passover till Shavous and yet we never count day fifty. Because if we are counting something that has to with the 10 Commandments, then we can expect a dochak count.

In the Rambam's Mishneh Torah, at the very end of the laws of Shmittah and Yovel he asks the question, why didn't the Levites merit a portion of the Land of Israel alongside their brethren?

He answers it's because they were separated from their brothers to serve Hashem. Their mission is to serve Hashem and to teach Hashem's ways to the masses. The Rambam continues saying the Levites were, therefore, separated from the ways of the world! They are not counted amongst the rank and file of the rest of Israel. They don't earn their keep by the might of their physicality. They are soldiers of Hashem. He is their merit.

Not only does this apply to the Levites, continues the Rambam, but to ANY individual in the entire world whose "spirit moves him and who understands intellectually to separate himself to stand before Hashem, to serve Him, to labor to know Him, to walk straight as the way G-d created him, and to unburden himself of the yoke of the multitude of accountings/trappings which mankind chases after. Behold, such an individual is sanctified with the sanctity of the Holy of Holies! Hashem will be his portion and his inheritance for all eternity. He will also merit in this world that which he needs, as did the Levites and Priests."

He whose "spirit moves him" says the Rambam, "is sanctified with the sanctity of the Holy of Holies." The language the Rambam uses for "spirit moves him" is "nadvah rucho". "Nadvah" shares the root with our mnemonic, "Yonadav". And the Holy of Holies is that space where the 10 Commandments rested, a space beyond natural measure. Blessed is he who trusts in Hashem and Hashem is his security. Don’t go yet. There’s more.

It is disputed as to whether Yisro came to greet Israel in the desert before the Revelation of Sinai or after. The parsha opens, "And Yisro heard." What did he hear? Rashi says he heard about Krias Yam Suf- the splitting of the sea and Milchemes Amaleik- the war against Amaleik. According to the opinion that Yisro came before the Revelation this makes sense. But to the opinion that Yisro came after the Revelation, wouldn't the Revelation have been a bigger cause for Yisro to come to the desert?

Regarding the nation of Amaleik, we see from a second narration in D’varim that they attacked Israel from behind! They struck at the stragglers, the weak of Israel. Rashi says these Jews were weak from sin. They were weak in their fear of Hashem. They were self-ejected from the Ananay Hakavode- Clouds of Glory which enveloped the camp of Israel and were susceptible to Amaleik.

Whenever Bnei Yisrael traveled in the desert, the tribe of Dan was the last in the procession. When Hashem desired the camp of Israel to move, the pillar of cloud in front of them moved. That signaled a trumpet blast which told Israel to pack up. Another blast began the procession. When the Tribe of Dan heard the first blast of the trumpets, some of them said to another, “No sweat. There are 550,000 other Jews who have to get moving first. Throw another manna on the bar-b.” Before they knew it they, were outside of the Ananay Hakavode. It was the consequence of their own actions which expelled them. Last week’s parsha ended with the first narration of Milchemes Amaleik and Hashem promised HE will surely erase Amaleik from under the heavens. It’s not just our war. It’s His as well.

Hold this thought and hold onto your socks for this next one.

Last week's parsha, verse 4:3, reads, "And Pharaoh says to sons of Israel..." That's a pretty good since Pharaoh would be talking to Bnei Yisrael AFTER they've left Egypt! Rashi says 'to' means ‘regarding’. The Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, however says, yes, Pharaoh IS talking TO sons of Israel. To 2 sons to be exact, Dasan and Aviram! They didn't want to leave Egypt with Israel and stayed behind! They were even helping Pharaoh plan the homecoming party of Israel’s return. Didn't the Jews who didn't want to leave Egypt die in the plague of Darkness?

Dasan and Aviram had tremendous merits going for them. They were amongst the taskmasters of Israel who were beaten by the Egyptians when brick production diminished (after Israel had to collect the straw themselves) but they refused to beat their fellow Jews. G-d allowed them to survive the Plague of Darkness. And when they heard about Egypt’s demise in the un-splitting of the sea, they thought, maybe they’d join Israel after all. When they traced Israel’s path and reached the sea it split a second time just for them!! (Woa! Someone’s sock just knocked over a vase.)

We can now say that Yisro certainly heard of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. He’s spent his life in search of the true religion and he now knows what it is. The G-d Who proved his sovereignty over all nature with the plagues gave Israel the Torah. But why shlep out into the wilderness? He could stay home, learn, and convert. Then he hears about Kriyas Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. Not Israel’s Kriyas Yam Suf, the latecomer's Kriyas Yam Suf! Not Amaleik’s war on the late Jews, Hashem’s war on behalf of the late Jews!!

Yisro realized that even as a latecomer, if he headed for the desert he would not only be able to convert but would most likely be granted a second Revelation himself. At the beginning of the parsha Rashi says that Yisro was named as such because yeser, at the root, means extra. Because of Yisro an extra portion was added to the Torah. After the Revelation of the 10 Commandments, which was the root of all Torah, Yisro came and by his merit another “revelation” was experienced. Yeser- extra was added to the Torah.

On Shavuos, the precise time when we received the Torah, we then read the Revelation from this parsha beginning with Chapter 19. But Parshas Yisro begins with the conversion of Yisro. It begins with the message that it is never too late, no matter who it is who is interested, no matter how off they were in their past. And even though the Magen Avraham decided that when we read Parshas Yisro we use the Ta'am Tachtone which would not be the way the commandments were heard, never-the-less the count of verses in the parsha is Yonadav- G-d granted, even for that individual who comes late, who decide to separate him/herself from the trappings of this world and who wishes to serve Hashem, be a soldier of Hashem and make their place in the world like the Holy of Holies. And in return, Hashem grants a life beyond natural measure.

Shabbat Shalom.

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