Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail rebiyosil@earthlink.net

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Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23
Haftorah - Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6


It goes without saying that the main subject of this week's Parsha, Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, was an unusual man. His words of encouragement and timely advice to Moshe at the outset of the journey of the Jewish people through the wilderness set him apart as the only gentile friend of Israel after the experience of the Exodus. And according to one school of rabbinic thought, Yitro became a convert to Judaism and thus serves as the prototype of the Ger Tzedek, the righteous proselyte. Yitro's name thus becomes synonymous with conversion to Judaism, and he becomes a paradigm figure for those who throughout history have come under the wings of G-d's dominion.

And there is some discussion concerning the meaning of Yitro's name. Our Chazal explain Yitro's name as follows: "At first he was called Yeter, but when he accomplished good deeds, the letter "Vav" (O) was added to his name, and he was called Yitro" (Rashi to Exodus 18:1). Thus Yitro joins Avraham whose name was changed from Avram, and Sarah whose name was changed from Sarai. And in keeping with the biblical tradition of changing an individual's name after the performance of meritorious deeds or the experience of some apocryphal, unusual event.

The question, of course, is asked as to why the letter "Vav" was added to Yitro's name. On the most obvious level, it can be suggested that the letter "Vav" is associated with G-d's name. But it also might be stated the function of the letter "Vav" in Hebrew grammar serves to shed light on the very nature of Yitro's good deeds and his special character.

The first function of the "Vav" in Hebrew grammar, as Rashi notes in his commentary to Exodus 21:1, is to add to the past. Yitro not only provided a refuge for Moshe when he fled from Pharaoh, but he took him into his home and made Moshe his son-in-law. Now Yitro was adding to his original hospitality and warmth by coming to encourage Moshe and the Israelites at this transitional period and time in their history and nascent development.

Secondly, the "Vav" is also called the "conversive Vav," because it changes and transforms the tenses in Hebrew grammar. Yitro suggested to Moshe a far reaching change which transformed the government of the Israelite tribes. A product of the autocratic Egyptian court, Moshe had little confidence in the self-governing capacity of the former Hebrew slaves. And in a benevolent way, he modeled his government after that of Pharaoh, exercising all authority and assuming all responsibility. But Yitro pointed out to his son-in-law that one person, no matter how gifted, could not possibly shoulder the responsibility of governing so many people, and survive. He therefore suggested that Moshe delegate authority to appointed chiefs, to deputies, who must be able men, reverent, truthful and just.

The smaller matters of dispute, those issues needing clarification and resolution, the Torah tells us were judged by these chiefs or deputies. And the more complicated and more important disputes were brought to Moshe for his consideration and judgment. Thus, Yitro presented Moshe with a blueprint for a primitive democracy, for a system of delegated authority and responsibility, an ideal which penetrated the Jewish consciousness in its succeeding generations.

And finally, the "Vav" in Hebrew grammar is also a conjunctive "Vav," which unites and holds together the parts of a sentence. So that in bringing Moshe's wife and children to him at the very outset of Israel's journey through the wilderness, before the Sinaitic Revelation, Yitro was teaching his son-in-law a fundamental truth about Jewish life and leadership. Before Moshe could effectively govern the Israelites, before he could receive the Torah and impart it and teach it to the Jewish people, he had to have within his own life a modicum of family unity and harmony. Moshe had to achieve for himself a level of personal peace and tranquility. Through his action, Yitro was saying to Moshe that the family is, in fact, the undisputed fundamental unit of the Jewish people, around which so much of Jewish life is centered. If it is united, peaceful and harmonious, the unity will radiate throughout the ranks of Israel. And only as a united people Israel could face the awesome dangers of the wilderness and the great challenge and responsibility of becoming a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."

The secret of living a long, happy and creative life lies in the realization that underneath life's diversity there is a basic unity - a oneness - in which the spiritual and the material are intertwined. The secret of Jewish survival is to identify with the one G-d, His Torah and His people. And this is what our Talmud meant when they said: "Whoever extends the word 'Echad- One,' in the recitation of the Shema (Hear Oh Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One), his days and his years are extended" (Tractate Berachot 13b).

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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