By: Rabbi Shlomo Katz
R’ Shlomo Brevda z”l (1931-2013; Maggid and author, noted for his commentaries on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon z”l) writes: Parashat Yitro describes the most important event in human history–the Giving of the Torah. Why is the Parashah that includes that seminal event named after Yitro, who was not even present when the Torah was given?
R’ Brevda explains: Rambam z”l describes the path that Avraham Avinu took, beginning as a child, to discovering Hashem. He began by wondering why there was a continuously repeating cycle of day and night, and he concluded that there had to be some power causing this cycle to occur. All this time, he continued to worship idols alongside his parents, until his innate intellect led him to the conclusion that there has to be one G-d who controls the universe. At that point, he realized that all the people that he knew were mistaken in their idolatrous beliefs, and he began to debate them. [Until here paraphrased from Rambam’s Hilchot Avodah Zarah]
R’ Brevda continues: Yitro followed a similar path. Midrash Tanchuma teaches that there was not a single idol in the world with which Yitro did not experiment in his search for the truth. In the end, however (18:5), “Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the Wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of Elokim.” The Midrash asks: Do we not know that Bnei Yisrael were camped in the Wilderness? Nevertheless, the Torah mentions this fact to highlight Yitro’s sacrifice and sincerity.
R’ Brevda concludes: We now can understand why the Giving of the Torah is in “Yitro’s Parashah” — to teach the degree of truth-seeking that is required if one is to truly “receive” the Torah. (Lev Shlomo: Shavuot p. 233)
“Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all the gods, for in the very manner in which the Egyptians had conspired against them.” (18:11)
R’ Ovadiah Seforno z”l (1470-1550; Italy) writes: [Yitro was moved by the fact that] Hashem saved Bnei Yisrael using exactly the same means that Pharaoh had used to oppress Bnei Yisrael. He killed their firstborn, as the Egyptians had killed Jewish children, and because (Shmot 4:22-23), “So said Hashem, ‘My firstborn son is Yisrael. So I say to you: “Send out My son that he may serve Me” — but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son’.” He drowned the Egyptians in the sea, as the Egyptians had drowned Jewish babies in the Nile. And, He took away their free will after they refused to exercise their free will voluntarily to send out Bnei Yisrael.
Before the Exodus and Splitting of the Sea, R’ Ovadiah explains, people also were aware that Hashem punishes Middah K’negged Middah / measure-for-measure, i.e., that the punishments He metes out “fit the crime.” However, they thought that He could only match a punishment to a sin in a general way; for example, that the punishment would fit one aspect of the sin. What impressed
Yitro now was how precisely targeted Hashem’s punishments are. (Be’ur Ha’Seforno)
The Mishnah (Berachot 9:1) teaches: If a person sees a place where a miracle was performed for the Jewish People, he says, “Blessed . . . Who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place.” The Gemara (Berachot 54a) asks: What is the source for this? Because it is written (Shmot 18:10), “Yitro said, ‘Blessed is Hashem, Who rescued you [from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who rescued the people from under the hand of Egypt]’.”
R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z”l (1865-1935; first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael) writes: Yitro praised Hashem both for the “general” fact that He saved Bnei Yisrael and for the details of the salvation. A king whose power is limited is constrained in how precisely the punishments he metes out will fit his subjects’ crimes. Hashem’s power, in contrast, is unlimited, so there is no limitation on His ability to devise perfectly fine-tuned punishments.
It follows from this, continues R’ Kook, that nothing Hashem does is by chance. That is why the Berachah is: “Who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place.” We recognize that, if a miracle occurred in a certain place, there is some significance to that fact; it is not by chance, because that is where the beneficiary of the miracle just happened to be. (Ain Ayah: Berachot 9:1)
“They journeyed from Refidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Yisrael encamped there, opposite the mountain.” (19:2)
Why was the Torah given outside of Eretz Yisrael? Midrash Yalkut Shimoni explains: If the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish People could say to the gentiles, “You have no share in it.”
Therefore, the Torah was given in a public place, a wilderness, so that anyone who wants to can come and receive it. I might think that it was given at night [i.e., in secrecy]; therefore it is written (Shmot 19:16), “On the third day, when it was morning . . .” I might think it was given silently [again, in secrecy], therefore it is written (ibid), “There was thunder and lightning.” I might think that Hashem’s voice could not be clearly heard; therefore, it is written (Tehilim 29:4-5), “The voice of Hashem [comes] in power! The voice of Hashem [comes] in majesty! The voice of Hashem breaks cedars . . .” Bil’am said to those standing around him [who inquired what these noises were] (Tehilim 29:11): “Hashem will give might to His nation,” and they responded, “Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” Rabbi Yosé cites the following verse (Yeshayah 45:19), “I did not speak in secrecy, some place in the land of darkness.” The Torah was given neither in secrecy nor in a secluded place. [Until here from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni]
Midrash Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah (ch.2) offers a different reason for why the Torah was given publicly. Says the Midrash [brackets are from the commentary Shai La’mora]: To what may this be compared? To a king who had gems and pearls. His subjects came to him secretly and said, “Sell us your gems [so we can make you a crown].” The king said, “Instead, I will give them to you publicly. [Even though you will make me a crown from my own gems, I will consider it as if you gave me a gift.]” This, too, is what Hashem did when He gave the Torah.