Yitro and Matan Torah

Yitro is memorialized in this parsha in appreciation of both his recognition of truth and his sage advice to the Jewish people. Many heard of the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim, but only Yitro came forward to give praise. When he saw Moshe judging the people alone, he suggested the system of delegation that was eventually implemented.[1] Chazal[2] tell us that he was given the name Yitro because he “added” this parsha to the Torah. Not only was this piece added, the entire parsha is named after him!

Yitro’s greatness makes the conclusion of the story all the more interesting. The story ends with Moshe sending Yitro away right before Matan Torah.[3] If Yitro was such a special person, why not let him stay for Matan Torah? Rashi explains that Yitro returned to influence friends and family back home. This is, of course, an important mission, but why embark on it before Matan Torah? Shouldn’t Yitro have had the chance to experience Matan Torah? Would he not have been able to accomplish more had he been emboldened by Matan Torah? 

The Mosif Rashi quotes the Machzor Vitri, who explains that Moshe sent Yitro away so that he would not be a separation between the Jewish people and Hashem at Har Sinai.[4] What does this mean?  Why would the presence of a person as sincere, observant, and committed as Yitro be a problem?

Ma’amad Har Sinai

I believe that a deeper understanding of the goal and nature of Ma’amad Har Sinai can help us answer this question. Ma’amad Har Sinai was an intimidating experience. The Torah describes how both the people and the actual mountain trembled in the presence of the heavenly fire and brimstone.[5] After experiencing this during the first two commandments, the people feared that they would not survive any more of it and begged Moshe to receive the rest of the commandments on their behalf.[6]

The Gemara[7] elaborates on the intense nature of the experience.  Each dibbur caused the Jews to faint or be thrown back twelve mil. It also adds that Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads, threatening that refusal to accept the Torah would result in them being buried under it.[8]

Why did Hashem have to intimidate, pressure, and threaten the Jewish people? Had they not just resoundingly consented to accept the Torah? The Maharal[9] explains that the intimidation was a necessary component of properly presenting the Torah. Though accepted voluntarily, the Torah must be appreciated as more than just a whim. The creation and continued existence of the world hinge upon kabalat HaTorah. Though not needed to convince the people, the fiery mountain was held over their heads because the implied threat was a true representation of the reality they needed to appreciate.[10]

This explains another unique aspect of Ma’amad Har Sinai the fact that the people saw the words of Hashem.[11] The Kli Yakar explains that each one of the Ten Commandments appeared as something tangible. The devar Hashem was not just an idea, it was reality.

A Relationship Based on Commitment and Trust

This understanding of Torah and Ma’amad Har Sinai helps us appreciate the significance of the Jewish people’s blind acceptance of the Torah, symbolized by their proclamation of na’aseh before nishma.  As opposed to the other nations, who asked what was written in the Torah before deciding whether to accept it, the Jews committed themselves to whatever it included. The Jews recognized that Hashem’s word is the basis of our existence and trusted Hashem to guide them. 

This kind of commitment laid the foundation for the special relationship we have with Hashem. The Gemara[12] tells of a heretic who criticized Rava for absentmindedly sitting on his fingers while learning. He chided Rava: “What a rash nation you are, that you committed before knowing what you were committing to!” Rava’s response beautifully encapsulates the basis and significance of our blind acceptance: “We rely faithfully on Hashem; we are His children.”


Yitro’s Approach

Yitro’s approach to religion and to G-d was very different. Yitro was a searcher who explored all of his options and only arrived at avodat Hashem after hearing of the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim.[13] For Yitro, Torah and avodat Hashem were not ontological realities. They were just the options he happened to choose. 

As meritorious as his choice was, his approach was antithetical to the principle of matan and kabalat haTorah — seeing Torah as an undeniable, ontological reality. Yitro could not join Klal Yisrael for Ma’amad Har Sinai because, despite his great wisdom, and maybe because of his great wisdom, he would have “separated” us from Hashem. His approach would have taken away from the unique relationship our receiving of the Torah was meant to concretize because his approach was diametrically opposed to what our approach needed to be.

Torah As Our Reality

What allows for our unique relationship with Hashem and His Torah is the fact that we commit to it, not because we arrive at it after narrowing down the options and deciding what we see as best, but because we trust Hashem and see His word as reality.

Let’s reflect on what Ma’amad Har Sinai is meant to be so that we can accept the Torah and commit ourselves to it properly.

[1] The Or HaChaim explains that the Torah places the story of Yitro before Matan Torah to teach us that all people have wisdom to offer: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man (Avot 4:1).”

[2] Rashi 18:1.

[3] 18:27.

[4] Interestingly, Rashi comments on the second part of the pasuk that refers to Yitro’s going, but not on the first part that mentions Yitro being sent away. It is possible that Rashi agrees to the idea of the Machzor Vitri added by the Mosif Rashi.

[5] 19:16–18.

[6] 20:16.

[7] Shabbat 88b.

[8] Ibid., 88a.

[9] Gur Aryeh 19:17.

[10] The Gemara (Shabbat 89) learns from Breishit 1 that when Hashem created the world , He conditioned its existence on the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah; without it, the world would be returned to tohu vavohu. This is the deeper significance of Bnei Yisrael saying נעשה before נשמע, of committing themselves without knowing what they were accepting and without being able to think through the options. Instead, they accepted out of the recognition that Torah was not a choice, it was their reality.

[11] 20:15.

[12] Shabbat 88a.

[13] See 18:11 with Rashi