Parshas Yisro: Humble Beginnings, Sinai and Life Tests

By Rabbi Yosef Tropper

Posted on 01/31/18


Welcome to Parshas Yisro. We’re going to talk about Ma’amad Har Sinai and many other very important points, focusing on the Ramban as we always do.

1) Why The Reason For Gershon and Eliezer’s Here?

Yisro came to go greet Moshe and he took with him his wife, Tzippora and her two children as well. When listing off their names, it suddenly gives reasons why Moshe gave each one his name, One of them is Gershom, and it says the reason: Because Moshe said: Ger hayisi b’eretz nachria. The other one is Eliezer because Elokei avi b’ezri, the G-d of my forefathers saved me, V’yatzileini micherev Pharaoh, and saved me from Pharaoh’s sword. Ramban asks why does it all of a sudden explain the reason for their names here? Normally, when someone is named, it is there that the Torah explains the reason for their name. 

First Opportunity

Ramban explains that there wasn’t any time to mention Eliezer’s name when he originally named, because, and he explained this earlier in Shemos, Moshe was in such a rush to follow Hashem’s tzivu to get back to Mitzrayim to help his brothers that he didn’t even have time to give him a bris milah and so he wasn’t named in the normal manner. The Torah here wanted to take the opportunity to mention the chesed that Hashem did to Moshe who was a ger in a foreign land and it was important for this not to be ignored. Hashem also saved Moshe from the sword of Pharaoh. Now, this Moshe, who came from such humble beginnings, who was a ger in a foreign land and was almost killed by Pharaoh, is now the king of the Jewish people who brings them closer to Hashem, and he was the one who led them out of Mitzrayim as the Jews.

Lesson of Gratitude

We learn from this Ramban that it’s always important to recognize the gratitude that we have for Hashem, and if, for whatever reason, we didn’t at the appropriate time or weren’t able to at an earlier time, then it always should be mentioned at the next available time. The Torah took this opportunity to point out this contrast of how Moshe started off as a ger in a foreign land, and how Moshe was almost killed by Pharaoh, and yet Hashem saved him and brought him to this great place where he was leading the Jewish nation to freedom.

2) The Navi’s Role

Yisro saw all the people waiting in line for Moshe and he says to Moshe that this is too long of a line, and we have to do something (Shemos 18:15) Hashem agrees with Yisro, and actually tells Moshe to appoint dayanim. Moshe explains that the nation come to him “lidrosh Elokim”, to seek Hashem out.  So, obviously, the Ramban says, we understand they’re coming for mishpat and din.  They want Moshe to judge and to teach them the Torah and teach them the laws, and they’re coming to ask him the shaylas and he’s answering them which in the capacity of a ‘rav’.

Ramban adds two other points. What is a Navi’s job?  Firstly, people come to him, people come to the gadol “l’hispaleil al choleihem”, to daven for those that are sick. The gemara says that. Secondly, “L’hodia mah sheyoivad lahem”, to tell them how to recoup the things that they lost. In this context, he quotes the pasuk in Shmuel I that says that they went to go see Shmuel the navi because that was the derech that they would go to the navi if something was lost.  If there was something missing, in this case they were missing a sheep from the flock, so you would go to the navi and he would tell you b’ruach hakodesh where it was.  It’s just interesting to note the extent of knowledge that the navi had that he was able to tell people where their lost items were.

Chachamim for Torah and Hadracha

On our level, nowadays, when we go to the navi “asher yihiyeh bayamim haheim”, when we go to the chacham, we are seeking out the Will of Hashem.  We don’t have neviim, but we have the talmidei chachamim and the gedolei hador, and, in this context, the people that took over Moshe’s position. It was sarei alafim, sarei meios, sarei chamishim and asaros. The officers, the people that are under him, we seek out their advice to ask shailos, but also to be mispalel and also to help us find the things that are lost. Maybe sometimes emotionally, spiritually, physically, or maybe just even a business idea that we want to run by them.

Obviously, a person before they pasken they need to know all the facts and they need to know the nature of things.  But, sometimes the chacham’s mind is able to process, once you give him the information, of whatever you do know, and they could look at it with a new perspective that could change everything for you.  So, that’s what we go to the chacham for, for Torah and for hadrachah and to live our lives properly.

3) Judge Requirements: Chayil

Hashem told Moshe to appoint “anshei chayil” and different rishonim talk about what this means (Shemos 18:21). Ramban says that when it comes to a judge, the reason that he’s called a chayil is because he is zariz and yashar.  He is steadfast to get things done and to follow the halachos properly. Just like a gibor that goes out to milchama, a strong person is also called a chayil.  We know that ‘chayal’ means soldier, but it’s because he’s on the ball and he’s focused on his task. The Eishes Chayil is also called that. The woman of valor is called by that same word because she’s zeriza v’yoda’as b’hanhagas habayis.  She is steadfast and knows how to take care of her household.  This is the noblest trait. In life, we need to learn how to stay focused on our task of avodas Hashem.

4) Availability of the Judges

“Vishaftu es ha’am b’chol eis” (Shemos 18:22).  They should judge the nation always. What does that mean. When there are many judges, and the wait time for judgement is short, then more people come forward to utilize the services. A person that is hurt or feels he’s being taken advantage of he could go at any time, b’chol eis he could find someone.  

Normally when the Jews were waiting for Moshe, and in general if the judgment takes a long time and drags out or we have to wait in line for large amounts of time then people that are hurt are not going to end up seeking justice because they’re just going to swallow it and not deal with it.  And, of course there’s times to swallow things, but there are times that a person has a legal and moral right and obligation even to persue justice, and so we want to afford the opportunity of b’chol eis, the court was open at all times back then in order to allow people to come in.

Great Defender

Rav Yisrael Belsky zt”l (1938 - 2016) dedicated so much of his energy to his beis din during the last twenty-five years of his life. He passed away a few years ago at age seventy-eight. He was not scared of anyone. His ideal was he was a defender of the almanos and the yesomim and the downtrodden and people who didn’t have others to advocate for them, he stood up for them. That’s the purpose of a dayan is to stand up, obviously for justice, but, especially for those that wouldn’t otherwise have it.

5) Eruv Rav and Ma’amad Har Sinai

“Bachodesh hashlishi” The Torah was given in Sivan (Shemos 19:1). Ramban says a number of interesting points, but one of them specifically I want to focus on, is that at this point when they got to Har Sinai, the Asafsuf, the riff raff, the people that came out of Egypt and claimed to convert (known as the Eruv Rav), they were not privileged to be close to the Jews in general, and only Bnei Yisrael were allowed to be near the Har during maamad har Sinai. The Eruv Rav had to be all the way behind the the Jewish nation because only the Jews got the Torah.

Oppression of Mitzrayim

Maharal extrapolates on this Ramban and other Maamarei Chazal that it was only in the zechus of the breaking that the Jews had when they were in Mitzrayim, all the koshee hasheebud that they were pained by that they earned the ability to acquire the Torah.  Eretz Yisrael is nikneis b’yissurim.  Torah and Olam Habah as well (Gemara Berachos). Thus, the Ereu Rav, even though they were converts, maybe not sincere, did not suffer the oppression of Egypt, and, therefore, they were not on the same level as the Jews and could not be as close up when the Torah was given by Hashem to the Jewish people.

6) Experienced Hashem at Ma’amad Har Sinai

Hashem appeared in an anan at Sinai (Shemos 19:9), and Ramban says, that “ba’avur yishma ha’am b’davari”. Hashem says: I want the nation to hear the actual words “v’yihiyu heim atzmam neviim b’divari” and they will all be prophets at Har Sinai when I reveal myself.  “Lo ya’aminu mipi acheirim”  I don’t want them to believe based on other people.  This is our mesorah that we have that Klal Yisrael heard Hashem talk at Har Sinai. Chazal say that Hashem opened the zayin rikiim and the Jews saw Hashem. They experienced Hashem at the deepest possible level. (We will extrapolate below)

7) The Shofar From Ailo Shel Yitzchak

It says “bimshoch hayovel”, at the blast of the shofar, “heimah ya’alu b’har” then you are allowed to enter (Shemos 19:13). This is the shofar of the aiylo shel Yitzchak. That’s what Rashi says. However, Ramban asks: I don’t understand this because if it was the Ail of Yitzchak, that was Yitzchak’s ram at the end of parshas Vayeira during the nissayon of the Akeida. It says in the verse that it was burned as an olah, which means it was totally burnt.  L’chora, this includes the karnayim, the horns, and telaphim, the hooves. How can we understand that which Rashi brings from Chazal that the horn was used at Har Sinai?

Ramban says that perhaps it means that Hashem took the dust, the ash that was found, after it was burned and He restored it back to being this shofar. But Ramban ends, according to my understanding, this aggadah is really a sod. It’s referring to the kol which is pachad Yitzchak.  I don’t know what this means exactly, but the screaming of Yitzchak, the pachad of Yitzchak; it was the same middah that was there, and that’s what it refers to. That sound was heard at Sinai.

Exact Nature and Horns

However, other mefarshim argue with the Ramban, and they say that perhaps the horn was not burnt, and the way they explain it was that perhaps the horns were cut off before it was designated as a olah. But, then they say: This can’t be because it says that it was ne’echaz b’svach, its horns were entangled. Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer is the source for this Chazal and it can be explained that there is some spiritual quality that is being used here. This is especially relevant because Chazal there say that part of the skin was used for Eliyahu HaNavi’s belt.  So, once again, if this is an olah, it was burnt and it needs to be explained. Thus, it must be that there’s very mystical message being expressed here. The left horn was used for Ma’amad Har Sinai, and the right horn will be used for yimos hamashiach to announce the coming of Mashiach.

8) Anochi Hashem Elokecha

Anochi Hashem Elokecha (20:2). Is there a mitzvas asei to believe in Hashem? There is a big machlokes Rishonim whether it’s a mitvah or not.  Obviously, everyone agrees that emunah is a mitzvah, but it might be a prerequisite. Ramban says it is indeed a mitzvas asei, im malchusi einam mikablim, if you’re not mekabeil my malchus, then “gzeirasi heiach atem mikablim”, then everything else in the entire Torah, how are you going to fulfill that if you don’t admit that I’m the king? His opinion is congruent with Zohar (Vaeira 25b) and Rambam.

9) First Two Dibros vs. Rest

Ramban brings down (Shemos 20:7) his tradition: I will share with  you the kabballah that I have from my rabbeim that all the aseres hadibros were heard by the Jews from Hashem, just as the pesukim indicate clearly.  However, the difference is that for the first two dibros they heard the words of Hahsem and they understood what He said just like Moshe understood it.  However, for the rest of the dibros, after anoichi and lo yihiyeh, for the remianing 8 dibros, they heard the kol, but they didn’t understand it, and Moshe had to translate it for them.

Rambam: What Bnei Yisrael Heard

There is a machlokes between the Ramban and the Rambam, and this machlokes is actually based on a Midrash in Shir Hashirim.  The two shitos are exactly what the Ramban and the Rambam argue about. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says the first two dibros were what the Jews heard from Hashem, and the rabbanan say that all the dibros are what they heard

Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, II:33) states that the Jews only heard one kol which said “anochi” and “lo yihiyeh” and then after that because of their fear and their pachad, Moshe had to come and accept the rest of the dibros and give it over to them.

Ramban: What They Heard and Didn’t Understand

However, the Ramban, and this is probably the more pashut p’shat that everybody teaches says that: They heard everything, but they only understood the first two dibros, and then the next ones had to be translated by Moshe. It very well could be that they’re not even arguing, and that really all the Midrash is saying is that the first two everyone agrees that they heard clearly from Hashem and the rest doesn’t count as if they heard it, so to speak. They didn’t really understand it, so Moshe needed to translate, but they also really did hear it which is also important. The Torah She’ba’al peh is needed to explain the Torah Shebichsav because Moshe, who was the Torah she’ba’al peh, raban shel Yisrael, had to come translate it and give it over to the Jews.  Hashem wanted the Jews to understand that we always need Gedolim to explain things.

10) Zachor and Shamor

Ramban (20:8) has a question that if it says “zachor and shamor mipi haGevurah shamanu”, then why don’t the first luchos say it?  Meaning, if zachor and shamor were said by Hashem then the first luchos should say both? He says that I think that in the first luchos and the second luchos it said ‘zachor’, but Moshe explained that shamor was said along with it.

This is a very fascinating p’shat because zachor and shamor are two different things.  Zachor is to be mikadeish Shabbos, a mitzvas asei, and shamor is to preserve Shabbos and not be mechaleil it, mitzvas lo sa’asei.

Zachor is Ahavas Hashem and Shamor Yiras Hashem

Just to extrapolate on the Ramban a drop more because he goes on to say a beautiful yesod which is that why is it that Hashem only said zachor and shamor had to be translated later?  He said that the p’shat is that zachor is the positive, mitzvas aseh.  It’s the things that we do that express our love to Hashem.  It’s ahavah. Shamor is the negative.  To stay away from things.  It’s the yirah. Hashem was showing us that I always want your love.  Your love is the greatest service that you could give me.  Your love is the way that we always connect with people.  Not through fear.  It’s true that there are standards and rules in every relationship and in every connection, but the love, the ahavah that we have for Hashem is always more important than the yirah. (There are two different levels of yirah that the mefarshim explain.  There’s yiras haromimus, the awe that we have for G-d, and then there’s yiras ha’onesh, which is a lower level of fear, fear of punishments.) This is why the first and second dibros said zachor only, to focus on love.

11) Two Luchos

Ramban (20:13) asks why are there two luchos?  Because until kabeid es avicha is kneged Torah Shebichsav, and that’s the first five of the dibros, and after that, mikan v’eilech, is Torah sheBa’al peh. Chazal say that the two luchos are neged shamayim v’aretz, chassan and kallah, shtei shushvinan, two best men or bridesmaid.  The shushbinan are people that walk you down your chuppah. And kneged shtei olamim, to worlds.  And, without going into more details, but it’s interesting to think that that’s what the luchos are being me’rameiz to, these two inyanim.

12) Hashem Tests

Ramban (Shemos 20:17) shares a foundational idea as he says a p’shat in the pasuk “ki la’avor nasos eschem ba elokim”.  Hashem is testing you. This is the purpose of life, as the Ramban explains many times.  The purpose of a nisayon is neis, lihisnoseis, to lift you up and to show you what you’re capable of.  

Hashem sometimes tests us with avodah kasha to see if we will absorb it and take it, and say: Hashem I love you, and I still will hold onto you.  That’s one type of test Hashem gives, challenges, hardship.  And, there’s another type of test.  Hashem sometimes is meitiv, gives us good things to see if we will increase our avodah back towards him, and be mishabeid ourselves even more to him, and honor Hashem even more. “Ashrei adam she’omeid b’nissyonav”, and praiseworthy is a person who hold steady in his nissayon because everyone is tested. He’s quoting Shemos Rabbah (35:20):  Everyone is tested. The rich person Hashem tests him to see if he’s going to be generous with his money, and serve Hashem that way, and the ani, impovrished, Hashem is testing to see if he’s mekabeil yesurim.

We have to know that every situation in life is a test.  Whether good or bad. On the one hand it sounds very scary because, oh my goodness, we’re being tested. On the other hand, Hashem is giving us opportunities to bring out our great potential, and if something is going challenging and hard in our life, Hashem is testing us, just know that he’s testing us. If something is going good in our life, Hashem is also testing.  It’s all the same thing.  Will you turn towards Hashem? Where you turn towards in your times of good and times of challenge, rachmanah l’tzlan, that shows who you really are and brings out who you are.

We pray v’lo lidei nissayon.  We daven to Hashem stating that we don’t want tests, but that when a test comes our way, whether l’tov, or challenges, chas vishalom, because there are always tests, we should recognize that our job is to turn towards Hashem and thereby bring out our great potential.


Rabbi Yosef Tropper is a rav and psychotherapist. Learn more and subscribe at ParshaThemes.com