Essay on Parashat Yitro – 2016 Torah The New Moral code
The New level of morality found in the Torah
Human nature has a tendency to admire great achievers. It doesn’t make a difference what the area of success might be. Be it art, music, science, medicine, leadership, business, athletics, religion etc… Any great success is looked upon with high esteem and admiration by most people. What makes success so attractive is the blessing that is revealed through the talented individuals realizing their potential. Talent is a gift from G-D that was planted in a particular person. When a person utilizes his talent, he is revealing the Divine gift that was given to him. This powerful energy is what really draws the admiration and interest of others. Witnessing great talent is another way of experiencing G-D! It is our talent and gifts that help us find direction in life. Most of us choose our professions that match our talents. It makes life a lot easier. It is not by chance that some choose to spend their lives involved in earthly professions like farmers, builders, chefs, storeowners, businessmen, high-tech, etc. Others are attracted to areas that are more abstract like religion, philosophy, nature, science and other intellectual realms. Since talents are gifts from G-D, He will not judge us according to the amount of talent we have or don’t have. It is what we do with our Divine gifts that makes a difference in G-d’s eyes.
As human beings, it is our job to constantly grow spiritually. At birth we were given a spiritual and physical side that are in constant friction with one another. This conflict make us humans unique among all other creations. Animals have no choice but to be physical and angels to be spiritual. What distinguishes humans from one another is the emphasis we place on each of the above factors and how they relate with one another. The conflict between spirituality and materialism exists equally on both sides of the work spectrum. It is possible for one to be a spiritual investment broker and another a materialistic Rabbi.
What makes a person a better human being is the purpose and sincere motivation of his actions and the ethical code he chooses for inspiration. It does not make a difference what realm a person chooses to invest most of his life’s energy. For this we have learned is connected to one’s talent and one has less control over. The most important factor is what is motivating him in making his choice. This is where our free will comes into motion it is what determines the motives of our actions. There are those that have chosen the realm of religion, philosophy, science, and nature but are motivated by their wanting to make a name for themselves or to become rich. Others may invest their lives as businesspersons striving to earn huge sums of money, but are motivated in helping others. Our Divine gifts can be our greatest reward or our greatest downfall. When a person’s motivation stems from self-interest and egocentric reasons it doesn’t make a difference which realm he chooses. He can be the greatest expert in Torah, but if he is motivated by making a name for himself, then he does not compare in greatness to a businessperson that has no other motives in life other than helping others.
There is a famous story told in regards to a shepherd boy who knew very little about being Jewish. He barely knew the Aleph Beit. One Yom Kippur, he joined the synagogue prayers in the Shul of the renowned Baal Shem Tov. The boy was taken aback by the devotion of the congregation praying on this holy day. He decided to let out the strongest whistle he could draw out of the depth of his lungs; the very same whistle he would use when herding his sheep. The congregation went into total shock screaming – “how can this ignorant shepherd boy disturb our prayers on such a holy day?” The Baal Shem Tov then turned to his congregation and calmed them all down. He told them how a terrible decree was hovering over the community. He continued to explain that because of this shepherd boy’s whistle that came out of the depths of his heart, in pure sincerity, the decree was nullified in heaven.
The question we still have not answered is – Is selflessness and sincerity enough? The answer is no! One may be selfless and only interested in doing something for the sake of idealism but the ideal itself could be evil. This is why an ethical code is so important in proper decision-making as well. There may be some members of ISIS and other extreme Islamic groups that may be selfless and idealistic but they are inspired by an evil code of ethics that basis itself on murder and hatred. For this reason, a proper ethical code is just as important and vital as the motives one’s inspiration is based.
The question is how does someone choose the proper ethical code? How does one know what the proper ethical code is? As Jews, it seems simple for us – we have the Torah. However, what does a person who lives somewhere far away in a jungle who was never exposed to the light of the Torah do? What do billions of other people in the world that follow other religions do? Are they to be blamed for being brought up on a different system of morals and ethics? The answer is of course not! For this reason, G-D planted within every human being the basic ability of knowing what is right and wrong. When a religion offers instruction that contradicts our natural human intuition of distinguishing between good and evil then you know that something is wrong. One does not have to convince civilized societies that murder, theft, and other criminal activities are evil, unfortunately, some religions and ideologies have succeeded in doing so.
For this reason, our Rabbis have taught us that Derech Eretz Kadmah La-Torah – that one’s natural ethical and moral behavior are a prerequisite in receiving the Torah. The minimum requirement of every human being is that he remain loyal and faithful to his natural intuition of knowing what is right and wrong. Since man is created in the image of G-D he naturally is able to distinguish between good and evil. The Divine Image given to man at creation is the source of this innate ethical code. This is what the first book of the Torah Bereishit focuses on – being a good human being. Our Rabbis say that our forefathers kept the entire Torah before it was given. How did they know the commandments if the Torah did not come down from Heaven yet? The answer is that because they were so in tuned with their soul it came natural to them. Through the observance of the Torah, one can achieve the highest possible level of morality possible for a human being. Our forefathers were so spiritually sensitive that they were able to tap into the entire system of morals and ethics that would later appear in the Torah. Their spirituality stemmed from their selfless devotion to G-D. They completely humbled and nullified themselves before the Creator of the universe.
The book of Shmot on the other hand, deals with a different level completely – the birth of the nation of Israel and the bringing the Torah down to earth. The Torah not only outlines the basic ethical code that is natural for all humans to accept as part of its commandments, but it adds hundreds of other laws that cannot easily be supported by human logic and reason. Accepting all of the 613 commandments of the Torah, is not a requirement for all people. However, it is an obligation for the people of Israel or for those who have chosen to join our nation.
The generation of the flood was punished without being told beforehand not to behave immorally. It was naturally expected of them to follow an elementary system of ethics and morality. Why then is this basic ethical code written in the Torah if Hashem demands it naturally from every human being? The Torah seemingly should have mentioned only the laws that do not come natural. From here, we see that even the natural set of laws take on a new form of depth in the Torah.
Regarding the fulfillment of innate and natural laws, we find two levels. The first fundamental level, which is expected from every individual, is to put basic boundaries on one’s egoistic tendencies by abstaining from evil. You shall not murder, You shall not steal etc. The second level is found among very righteous individuals that put aside their own personal interests and are motivated to reach out and help others. These amazing people are full of love for other human beings and only seek to do good for the sake of good.
Is there a higher level than this? The answer is yes! A person who does everything for the sake of G-D. When the Torah was given to Israel G-D upgraded the world with yet another level of sincerity. The other two levels are of course are already included within it. This new level of sincerity means that one is to become a total servant of Hashem and does everything in total devotion and nullification to Hashem. Before the giving of the Torah this level of devotion was only found amongst a few individuals as we mentioned before. Our patriarchs and matriarchs were on this level. That is why they were able to receive prophecy before the Torah was given. Now that the Torah was given this level can potentially be reached on a national scale.
It is so interesting that in our Torah portion, the very portion that mentions the giving of the Torah is named after Yitro a person that did not originate in the house of Israel. One powerful message that we can learn from this is that every human being is given the opportunity of achieving the highest level of Divine worship. Nobody is excluded. Yitro, the most famous convert in all time is a proof of this. In addition, the Torah hints to us in the beginning of this portion these high levels of devotion that we spoke about. “When Moses’ father-in-law saw everything Moses was doing for the people, he asked, “Why are you doing this for the people? Why do you sit here alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law: ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; “When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and His laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good! You will certainly wear yourself out, both you and these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it by yourself. Exodus 18:14-18
We see from the above verses that Yitro using his human logic explains to Moshe that it would make a lot more sense for Moshe to delegate authority. He cannot hack this great task of judging the nation alone. Moshe’s total devotion and selflessness to Hashem overshadowed his personal welfare. “You will certainly wear yourself out” His only concern was serving G-D and the people of Israel. He wasn’t worried about his own personal benefit. He had absolutely no ego. Here we see the two high levels of sincerity that we spoke about. Total devotion to G-D and others. Only when Yitro mentions to Moshe that this can also be detrimental to the people “both you and these people who are with you,” does he quickly accept the advice of his father-in-law. “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said.” Exodus 18:24
After this event, the Torah tells us that Moshe sends Yitro away and that he returns to his land. “Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and he went to his own land.” Exodus 18:27
After joining the house of Israel it seems so strange that Moshe sends Yitro back to his land. A possible answer is that this was the first lesson of Torah that Moshe was teaching his father-in-law. He probably said something like “You did and amazing thing about joining the house of Israel. Nevertheless, it was for yourself.” The first lesson about being Jewish is to be concerned about the wellbeing of others. Yitro who saw the selfless devotion of Moshe to Israel and wanted to emulate this special human being. His message he received loud and clear. He therefore, temporarily went back to his land to help his people and show them the light of the Torah as well.
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith