The pasuk says, “And Yisro heard…” [Shmos 18:1] This alludes to the Talmudic explanation [Zevachim 116a], as Rashi quotes that Yisro heard the events of the splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek, prompting him to come. We know that “nations heard about it and trembled; fear gripped those who lived in Plashes” [Shmos 15:14]. Everyone had heard about the events surrounding the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Everyone heard about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea. And yet, we do not see that there was a mass movement to come join the Jews or to convert to Judaism. Somehow, Yisro was unique.
One of the things we mentioned in the past when we discussed this Rashi is that we need to learn from the likes of Yisro that dramatic events should affect us. The real lesson is how obtuse people can be. People can live through their lives seeing miraculous events and mind boggling things without the experiences having any real effect on them. They are not willing to open their eyes and ears, which causes them to be able to continue living their lives as if nothing happened after witnessing such events.
This is a general lesson we’ve spoken about in the past. I would like to concentrate on the Talmud’s question: “What event did he hear which prompted him to come? (Mah shmua shama u’bah?)” The Gemara could have phrased this question in a simpler form: Mah shmua shama? (What did he hear?) What does the Talmud mean by adding the word “u’bah” (and he came)?
The Gemara is telling us that there are two things that we need to learn from Yisro. Number one, it teaches that we have to be open to stimuli and when events occur, they should have an effect on us. Number two, it teaches us that when this happens, we should take the inspiration and run with it right away. We are charged with seizing the moment. Basically, there are 3 possible reactions to witnessing miraculous events: There are those who witness what happens and it does not begin to faze them. There are other people who were amazed. It makes a big impression on them, but unfortunately like most of humanity their reaction is “Yeah, takeh, we have to do something about this…” And then they go on with their lives in a business as usual way and the inspiration dissipates.
The novelty of Yisro and indeed the lesson of Yisro is “What did he hear about THAT MADE HIM COME (U’BAH)”. Yisro – like many others – became inspired by what he heard, but uniquely, he took that inspiration and ran with it. He came to the Jewish people right away because he saw the Hand of G-d and he said “I am going to do something with it. I am going to actualize it. I am going to put it into deed.”
I would like to share with you two stories about what it means to put something into deed.
There was a fellow who used to learn in the great Volozhiner Yeshiva. He was known as having the most encyclopedic knowledge (“biggest baki”) in the entire Yeshiva – which is certainly saying a lot. In Volozhin, they did not go through a cycle of 6 or 8 masechtos as is common in many yeshivas today. They began with Brochos (the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud) and continued through Niddah (the final tractate of Shas). So, someone who was the “biggest baki” in Volozhin really knew his stuff!
This fellow was once sitting at a meal and someone came in and asked him a question. He did not know the answer. Someone else at the table answered, “This is explicitly spelled out in Tosfos”. The “baki” was beside himself with dismay. He forgot a Tosfos! What did he do? He got up in the middle of the meal – did not finish his food, did not “bentch” [recite the Grace after meals], ran to the nearest shul and took a vow that he would learn straight for the next 7 years. And that’s what he did!
There was only one problem: He did not “bentch”. So they asked the Rosh Yeshiva – Rav Chaim Volozhiner: Did he do right or did he do wrong? Rav Chaim Volozhiner answered: He certainly did wrong, by not bentching. But had he stopped to recite the Birkas HaMazon, in the intervening minutes the passion of the moment would have passed. He would have never made the vow and never gone on to learn the next 7 straight years. It is no small matter to walk away from the Biblical command to say Grace after meals, but inevitably, had he waited, the inspiration would have dissipated. This is the lesson of “What did Yisro hear, U’BAH – which caused him to come!”
The other story I saw in the volume Otzros HaTorah. One time, the person who took care of the finances for the Radin Yeshiva came into the Chofetz Chaim carrying a plain envelope sent through the Polish Postal System. The envelope contained 500 rubles in cash. We have to assume that the postal system in Radin circa 1920 was no better than the postal system in the United States 90 years later and yet nobody today would put $500 cash in uncertified mail and expect to see it arrive at where it is supposed to arrive.
The Chofetz Chaim told his secretary to find out the story behind this envelope. Who puts 500 ruble in an envelope in the mail without even bothering to get it certified?
By: Rabbi Yissachar Frand