Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Yitro: What Does It Take to Change?
Volume XVI, No. 17
20 Shevat 5762
February 2, 2002
Orach Chaim 577:1-579:1
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Bava Metzia 72
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Terumot 9
Our parashah opens: "Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-
law of Moshe, heard all that Hashem had done for Yisrael." The
gemara (Zevachim 116a) asks: What specifically did Yitro hear
that made him come to join Bnei Yisrael? The gemara offers three
answers: Rabbi Yehoshua says, "The war with Amalek." Rabbi
Elazar Ha'modai says, "The giving of the Torah." Rabbi Eliezer
ben Yaakov says, "The splitting of the sea."
R' Moshe D. Tendler shlita explains that these three Sages are
answering the question: What motivates a person to make a
complete break with his past and begin life anew? Amalek,
according to Rabbi Yehoshua, demonstrates the potential for evil
which is within all men. When the world did not protest Amalek's
unprovoked attack on a defenseless Bnei Yisrael, Yitro severed
his ties to that world.
No, says Rabbi Elazar. The realization that man can be evil is
more likely to depress and paralyze a person than to uplift him.
For man to improve requires the realization that there is a
higher purpose that is within man's reach. It was the giving of
the Torah which moved Yitro.
Rabbi Eliezer does not accept the view of either of his
colleagues. A "Torah," i.e. a code of conduct, alone is not
enough to uplift a person. Every group has its "Torah"; in a
debased society, however, that code of conduct can itself become
the tool of evil. What inspired Yitro was the splitting of the
sea, for here finally was a Law-Giver - Hashem - who uses His
laws towards the ends of justice. (Pardes Rimonim p.5)
"And they stood at the bottom of the mountain." (19:17)
The gemara interprets this verse to mean that Hashem lifted the
mountain above Bnei Yisrael and told them, "If you accept the
Torah - fine. If not - this will be your burial place." This
implies that Bnei Yisrael did not accept the Torah willingly.
Numerous commentaries note that this appears to contradict the
verse (Shmot 24:7), "[Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and
read it in earshot of the people, and they said, `Everything that
Hashem has said, na'aseh ve'nishmah / we will do and we will
obey!'" This verse suggests that Bnei Yisrael did accept the
R' Baruch Rabinowitz z"l (Munkatcher Rebbe; later, Chief Rabbi
of Sao Paulo, Brazil and Holon, Israel; died 1999) offers the
following explanation: If Hashem wanted to force Bnei Yisrael to
accept the Torah, why did He have to do it by holding the
mountain menacingly over their heads? The gemara says that
Hashem created the world conditionally and that He would have
destroyed it if Bnei Yisrael had not accepted the Torah. Wasn't
this knowledge sufficient to force Bnei Yisrael to take the
The answer is that Bnei Yisrael's knowledge that the world's
existence depended on their accepting the Torah did not force
them to accept the Torah. We have to breathe to live, but we do
not say that we are "forced" to breathe! We enjoy breathing. We
have to eat, but we do not say that we are "forced" to eat! We
enjoy eating. Similarly, we had to accept the Torah or the world
would be destroyed, but because we enjoy studying and observing
the Torah, we do not think of ourselves as forced to do so.
Why then did Hashem have to use any kind of force to give the
Torah? Because what we have said above is only true of the
nation as a whole. There are individuals who think that they can
get by without Torah (just as some people do not eat properly).
This explains our Sages' teaching that the Jewish People accepted
the Torah anew after Haman's downfall, this time willingly.
Haman had planned to kill all Jews without differentiating the
individual from the group. Thus the Jewish People realized that
all Jews share the same fate, and every Jew needs the Torah.
R' Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z"l (1865-1935) offers the
following explanation for why Hashem forced Bnei Yisrael to
accept the Torah after they said na'aseh ve'nishmah: The Midrash
Tanchuma states that Bnei Yisrael willingly accepted the Written
Torah, but they had to be forced to accept the Oral Law. Why?
R' Kook explains that, in this context, the "Written Torah"
refers to the fundamental beliefs of Judaism that were passed
down to us from our Patriarchs, while the "Oral Law" refers to
the mitzvot, whose details are primarily found in the Oral Law.
Bnei Yisrael willingly accepted the former, which were their
heritage from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. However, Bnei
Yisrael were reluctant, so soon after Amalek's unprovoked attack
on them, to accept the mitzvot. Bnei Yisrael feared that
agreeing to act so differently from other nations would only fan
the flames of Amalek's and other nations' hatred.
This, too, explains why Bnei Yisrael reaccepted the Torah after
Haman's downfall. Haman's very ascent to power began with the
Jews' sharing in the feasting and revelry of the other nations.
Thus, the Jewish people realized that their attempts to fit in
were useless and even counterproductive, and they therefore
willingly accepted the Oral Torah, the mitzvot.
(Me'orot Ha'reiyah: Parashat Zachor)
R' Aryeh Laib Hakohen Heller z"l (died 1813) adds another
answer: G-d's forcing us to accept the Torah was not intended to
coerce us, but, so-to-speak, to coerce Him. Because G-d forced
us to "marry" Him, He can never divorce us. [See Devarim 22:29]
(Shev Shemaitita, Introduction)
"You shall not covet your fellow's house. You shall not
covet your fellow's wife, his manservant, his maidservant,
his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your
R' Avraham Ibn Ezra z"l (Spain; 1089 - approx. 1164) writes:
"Many people wonder - how can a person be commanded not to covet
something which he finds attractive?" He answers: A villager,
assuming he is intelligent, does not covet the daughter of the
king, for he knows that she is out of his reach. Similarly, an
intelligent person understands that whatever G-d has given to
someone else belongs to that other person and is out of reach.
Therefore, it never occurs to him to covet that which belongs to
R' Aryeh Zvi Fromer z"l (see page 4) offers two other answers
to Ibn Ezra's question: The midrash states that the prohibition,
"You shall not covet," parallels the law (Vayikra 19:18), "You
shall love your fellow as yourself." How so? Says R' Fromer:
Our Sages say, "A person is jealous of everyone, except of his
own son." Thus, if a person loved all of his fellows as himself,
he would never be jealous of them and he would never covet their
Alternatively, we learn in Avot D'Rabbi Natan (Ch. 37), "Even
when two people eat from one bowl, what this one tastes depends
on his deeds and what this one tastes depends on his deeds." In
other words, the level of pleasure that a person succeeds in
deriving from this world is determined by Divine Providence. If
so, what good does it do to covet another's belongings?
(Quoted in Marbitzei Torah Me'Olam Ha'chassidut Vol. VI, p. 52)
"So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael, `You have seen that I
have spoken to you from the shamayim / heaven. You shall
not make with Me, gods of silver and gods of gold shall you
not make for yourselves'." (20:19-20)
R' Yehuda Modern z"l (Hungary; 1819-1893) observes that the
words "with Me" do not appear to fit into the verse. He explains
them as follows:
Chazal say that the Torah was given on Har Sinai, a low
mountain, to teach the importance of humility. Also, several
verses liken Torah to water because Torah, like water, seeks out
low places. On the opposite extreme, our Sages say that
haughtiness is akin to idolatry.
Accordingly, our verses may mean the following: "You have seen
that I have spoken to you from the shamayim - derived from the
word mayim / water. This should remind you of the importance of
humility. Therefore, you shall not make with Me - i.e., when you
serve Me - gods of silver and gods of gold - i.e., you shall not
have a haughty attitude."
Nevertheless, writes R' Modern, there is a proper time and
place for both pride and humility, as is hinted to by the fact
that the word "shamayim" in our verse also alludes to eish /
fire. (Chazal say that the word shamayim is made up of the two
words eish and mayim.) The Midrash says: "Why was the Torah
given amidst fire? Because the Torah is like fire - get too
close to it and you will be scorched, but stay too far from it
and you will freeze." R' Modern interprets this to refer to
one's attitude towards observance of mitzvot: One who feels
haughty because he performed a mitzvah will be scorched by the
fire of Torah. However, one who has too low an opinion of
himself will be incapacitated from serving G-d.
When is each trait appropriate? R' Modern explains: When a
person begins to perform a mitzvah, he should feel proud that he
is a servant of G-d, as it is written (Divrei Hayamim II 17:6),
"His heart was elevated in the ways of Hashem." However, after
he performs the mitzvah, he should recognize that nothing he has
done, or could do, satisfies his obligation to G-d.
R' Aryeh Zvi Fromer z"l
R' Aryeh Zvi ("Laib Hirsch") Fromer, one of the leading roshei
yeshiva and poskim / halachic authorities in pre-war Poland, was
born in a small village near Bendin, Poland in 1884. At the age
of 12, he was sent to learn in the yeshiva of Amstov, but after a
year he moved on to the yeshiva of R' Avraham Bornstein in
Sochaczew. R' Bornstein was the Sochatchover Rebbe and the
author of several important halachic works. R' Fromer remained a
devoted Sochatchover chassid throughout his life, and, despite
his own prominence, he sat humbly before three generations of
Sochatchover rebbes like a student before his master.
When R' Bornstein passed away in 1910, his son R' Shmuel
(author of Shem Mi'shmuel) decided to separate the roles of Rebbe
and rosh yeshiva, and he offered the latter position to R'
Fromer. R' Fromer remained as rosh yeshiva in Sochaczew until
World War I forced the closing of the yeshiva. Some of the
Talmudic lectures that R' Fromer delivered while in Sochaczew
were published in 1913 under the title Siach Ha'sadeh.
Shortly after the war ended, R' Fromer was elected to succeed
his uncle as rabbi of the village of Kozhiglov. Immediately upon
his arrival, R' Fromer opened a yeshiva in his home which soon
had 50 students. Although R' Fromer's stay in Kozhiglov lasted
only two years, he was known for the rest of his life as the
The years which followed saw R' Fromer in a number of different
towns, always living in great poverty and surrounded by many
students. It was during this period that he wrote many of the
halachic responsa in his work, She'eilot U'teshuvot Eretz Zvi.
Among those whose halachic queries R' Fromer addressed in this
work were the Sochatchover Rebbe, R' Shmuel Bornstein and the
Gerrer Rebbe, R' Avraham Mordechai Alter.
One of the unique aspects of R' Fromer's responsa in Eretz Zvi
is the length to which he goes to defend customs that appear to
be contrary to halachah. Another unusual aspect of the work is
the author's willingness to use non-halachic sources, including
kabbalah, to solve halachic problems.
In 1935, following the death of R' Meir Shapiro (founder of the
Daf Yomi movement), R' Fromer accepted the call to serve as rosh
yeshiva of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, the preeminent yeshiva in
Poland. In that same year, he made his only trip to Eretz
Yisrael. (Among the people he visited on his trip was R' Avraham
Yishayahu Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, who reportedly said
afterwards: "It has been many decades since I've met a halachic
authority of such genius.")
In 1938, on the occasion of the completion of the second cycle
of Daf Yomi, R' Fromer proposed a program of Mishnah Yomit / the
worldwide study of the same to paragraphs of Mishnah every day.
When World War II broke out, R' Fromer was imprisoned in the
Warsaw Ghetto with his family and his beloved chassidic rebbe, R'
David Bornstein. Following the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, R' Fromer
was transferred to the extermination camp of Maidenek, where he
was killed on 27 Nissan 5703 / May 2, 1943.
Sponsored by Irving and Arline Katz
in memory of father
Chaim Eliezer ben Avigdor Moshe Hakohen Katz a"h
Copyright © 2002 by Shlomo Katz
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