Why 2 K and Yisro
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Yisro, the priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law, heard of all that G-d
had done for Moshe and Israel, His people, and that G-d had brought Israel
out of Egypt ... Yisro, Moshe's father-in-law came with his [Moshe's] sons
and his wife to Moshe in the desert, where he camped at the mountain of G-d
... (Shemos 18:1-5)
They must have laughed long and hard at Yisro. They must have laughed at
him when he got up and left Midian to become a convert in the desert where
the Jewish people had camped. They probably told him, "Why bother? Their
time will come and go. It won't be very long before they'll be stepped on
again, and rejected by the rest of the world ... You want to join THAT?"
However, in spite of the ribbing, Yisro went anyway, and became a
full-fledged member of the Jewish people.
And you can just imagine all the people who today would have told him "I
told you so." After all, the glory of Mt. Sinai has come and gone, and
anti-Semitism has yet to let up. Even many from the Jewish people
themselves reject their Jewish heritage today. So, in the end, shouldn't
Yisro would have answered a resounding "NO!" He might even have added as a
warning, "He who laughs first laughs last," or, perhaps never again. Why?
Because Yisro didn't come out of the comfort of Midian because he thought
that, at that moment in time, the redemption had come. On the contrary, he
even went back to Midian after he converted.
No, Yisro's conversion had been because of what he "heard," and more
importantly, what he "saw" in what he heard. Yisro was one of the few
individuals who not only saw the "writing on the wall," but he knew how to
read it as well. And the "writing" he read and understood went like this:
"G-d has separated out the Jewish people, and they are going to receive His
Torah NOW, and they are going to be rewarded with eternal life LATER.
Though they may not look important NOW, they will be important LATER."
There is an important lesson to learn from Yisro, especially since the Ten
Commandments were given in "his" parshah. It is a great compliment to have
your name associated with the giving of Torah, and we might learn something
from Yisro's greatness and apply it to today.
"How?" you ask?
I have spent some time over the last few weeks looking into the Y2K thing
(the "Millennium Bug"). Or, should I say, it has been looking into me,
since I am being sent articles from all over.
So far, and it is still early in the year, the conclusion I am drawing from
all the various different sources is that, at best, there is uncertainty.
There is no question that many sectors of the population have been 100%
successful at either resolving the problem (I am skeptical about the 100%
part), or reducing it. There is also no question that many sectors of the
population around the world--including Russia and the developing
countries--have not, and are unlikely to resolve their problems by January
1, 2000. And it seems that their failures can end up being shared, even by
those who have taken the time, spent the money, and have been successful in
killing their portion of the "Millennium Bug."
But that is not what makes me think. What troubles me is, what if the time
for the redemption has come? I want to know WHY "2K" in the first place.
After all, it wouldn't be the first world-wide catastrophe that had humble
beginnings, only to became a monstrous crisis it should NEVER have become,
but did anyways.
First of all, there are Midrashic hints "floating" around that 5760/2000
will be an important year. One reputable source (hundreds of years old)
predicted a world-wide "cleansing" flood in the year 5760. As we know from
other rabbinic literature, not all "floods" have to be with water, and we
probably won't understand what this means until it happens, if it happens.
Yes, I know ... I know very well that many years have been targeted for
Moshiach's arrival (including most recently the year 1990), and they've
already come and gone. And guess what? No Moshiach. Well, at least that's
the way it appears to be ... However, perhaps if one takes a step back,
then the "writing" on the wall may begin to form words, then sentences,
and, for some, perhaps even paragraphs.
"What writing," you ask?
Let's face it, even according to the optimists, the Oslo Peace Accords are
not quite working out as "they" had hoped. In which direction will they go,
and what will be the reactions of the parties involved? Most of the time,
at least according to those of us who live in Eretz Yisroel, it just seems
like a Catch-22 for the Jewish People.
And let us not forget that the year 2000 has been a long-anticipated repeat
engagement of the founding member of the Christian religion. Right now,
they are building hotels all around Jerusalem (though tourism is at its
lowest), to house the tens of thousands of faithful that have already begun
strolling in. That promises to add confusion to confusion over the next
year-and-a-half. Will we see false messiahs on every corner proclaiming
their personal kingdom of Heaven on earth?
The papers are expecting an increase in terrorism over the next year, all
around the world. What terrorist wouldn't see the potential confusion of
the upcoming year as an opportunity to wreak havoc?
Furthermore, there is the tension building up on both sides of the ocean
among the various factions of the Jewish people over issues such as
marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism. We have to remember that,
when the sanctity of the Jewish people is reduced, so too is that of ALL of
creation, as the Talmud teaches:
... And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. (Bereishis 1:31)
The sixth day ... The letter "heh" [preceding the word "sixth"] is extra
... to say that [G-d] made a condition with them [creation]: "If the Jewish
people accept the Five Books of the Torah, [then it is good; if not, then
you will resort back to null and void]." (Shabbos 88a)
In other words, the letter "heh" which represents the number five is an
allusion to the Five Books of the Torah; the "sixth day" is also an
allusion to the sixth day of Sivan, 2,448 years later at Mt. Sinai when the
Torah was destined be given. Without the Jewish people keeping Torah, the
world is destined to descend into chaos.
That's right, CHAOS.
Yet, the latest statistics about assimilation and inter-marriage indicate
that there is still plenty of cause for concern. And, amidst all of this
lurks Y2K, capable of "submerging" much of the civilized world's computer
Let's not forget that when the Tower of Babel was destroyed, only ONE part
was completely destroyed. One part was only partly submerged, and one part
even survived. But the result was enough to change the face of mankind
forever. And why did it happen in the first place? Says the Torah: because
they all spoke ONE language!
"Naaaaahhhhh, they'll fix the problem," you and I are saying, "if they
Maybe they will, and maybe they won't.
However, as I have already said, what I want to know is NOT whether or not
we have the smarts or technology to keep the "floodgates" closed (and the
masses from panicking). I want to know if this is one of those tests again.
After all, four-fifths of the Jewish people died in the Plague of Darkness
because they refused to read the writing on the wall and accept that the
redemption had come. Then, there were the Jews who were exiled into
Babylonian after the destruction of the First Temple, because they refused
to believe the warnings signs--and there had been plenty. And then there
were those--the masses--who didn't come home after the Purim miracle, and
cost us the Third and Final Temple, and all the exiles that have resulted
After them, there were the descendants of the Chashmonaim who virtually
gave over the Second Commonwealth into the hands of the Romans, later to
regret it. We're still regretting it. And can we forget the Jews of Spain
in the 1400's, and countless other places before and after that, who should
have left while Golden Era was still golden, but didn't?
Have we forgetten Europe in the 1930's already?
I tell my students, "You know, if you were to feed the entire Tanach
(Torah, Prophets, and Writings) into a computer, and then Jewish history,
and add some current political trends for "seasoning," what do you think it
would advise the Jewish people?"
At that point, even the disbelievers among the group seem to get a little
bit antsy. The more open-minded in the group usually wonder aloud why we
don't see the pattern and "do teshuvah, FAST!"
That is the Jewish way. I asked an important rabbi about the situation, and
he told me that it won't be time to start pulling money out of the banks,
or stockpiling food until the greatest Torah rabbis of the generation tell
us it is time. However, he also said we can't be ostriches either--if it's
happening, it means something to us. It means we should pray for the
redemption, believe it can come, do serious teshuvah, and take life
We're not a nation given to panic, but we are a people trained to read the
writing on the wall, and to know that if a potential crisis can occur, it
is a message to the Jewish people as well, and in some cases, specifically.
One thing we know for sure is, it never hurts to pray for Divine mercy.
I would also like to add one more thing. It also never hurts to become less
attached to our host societies. After all, according to the commentators,
matzah--"Poor Man's Bread--adorns a Seder Table set for kings, queens, and
princes, to warn us: Don't become too attached to the physical world. Live
with the flexibility of a poor person, who, lacking belongings, is free to
roam wherever he pleases, whenever he pleases, and in some unfortunate
circumstances, when he is forced to.
How many Jews could do this today?
I did not write this so you could label me an "alarmist," and accuse me of
instilling false panic and a premature sense of impending redemption. I did
this because the Talmud says that, in the "End-of-Days," one of the
questions they will ask us on that great "Exam-in-the-Sky" is, "Did you
anticipate the redemption?" (Shabbos 31a). It would seem to me that people
who look forward to THE redemption are people who constantly read the
events of history, with the hope of seeing the hand of G-d bringing about
redemption. I would like to believe that I can be one of those people who
can say then, "Yes, I DID look forward to the Final Redemption."
Even if, G-d forbid, the Redemption does NOT come next year (and we all end
up laughing at ourselves, which is much better than not taking it
seriously, and being caught unprepared)--because I'm sure they will still
say, "Well, it was nice to see that at least you were looking forward to
the redemption, and took the potential seriously." Who knows? Maybe that
will be the merit to actually witness the real redemption, when it finally
Besides, how could I not say something--Yisro made me do it.
In the third month after Israel left Egypt, they arrived in the Sinai
desert. They had traveled from Refidim, had come to the Sinai desert, and
camped there, opposite the mountain. (Shemos 19:1-2)
Rav Chisda and Rabbah the son of Rav Huna both said: Why is it called
"Sinai"? Because it is the mountain from which hatred (Hebrew: sinah) came
down to the Nations-of-the-World ... (Shabbos 89a)
That is not what one would expect to read about Torah from Sinai. Torah was
given to bring peace to the world, and if anything at all, elevate the
Jewish people in the eyes of the nations of the world. The Talmud seems to
imply that more peace would have resulted if Torah had not been given! Even
Rashi's reason for this midrash, which seems to implicate the evil trait of
jealousy, does not answer all the questions:
"Because they didn't receive Torah on it." (Rashi)
Would they have wanted to? The Midrash says no. In fact, the Midrash says
that G-d even asked the nations if they wanted the Torah, and none wanted
to commit themselves to the mitzvos, especially those that undermined their
way of life (Sifri). If not, then to what is the Midrash referring? To
answer this question, we need to understand the anti-Semite himself, and
the quintessential anti-Semite is Amalek-
... a "punishing strap" for Israel, always ready for punishment. (Rashi,
Memuchan was Haman (who descended from Amalek); why was Haman called
Memuchan (ifunn)? Because he was set aside for punishment (,uhbgrupk ifun).
Rashi and the Talmud are indicating what is at the core of anti-Semitism.
Whatever the motivation of the anti-Semite, it doesn't make a difference
ultimately. Anti-Semitism, and Amalek in specific, is the "effect" of a
"cause" that we seem to create, as the Torah forewarns in Parashas
Bechukosai first, and reiterates later in Parashas Ki Savo, and as the
Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once riding on a donkey outside of Jerusalem,
and his disciples had followed him. He saw a young woman picking barley out
of dung of an Arabian's cattle. As soon as she observed him, she covered
herself with her hair, stood up and said to him, "Rabbi! Help me!"
He answered, "Whose daughter are you?"
She said, "I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guryon" (a previously wealthy
man for whom miracles had occurred; see Ta'anis 19b).
"My daughter!" he said, "What has become of your father's house?"
"Is there not a saying in Jerusalem, 'The salt of wealth (i.e., that which
preserves it) is its diminution (i.e., charitable deeds) and some say
through benevolence?" was her answer.
"And what about your father-in-law's house?" he continued.
"Ah," she answered, "one destroyed the other." Then she asked him, "Rabbi,
do you remember signing my marriage contract?"
"I remember," he said, turning to his students, "When I signed her marriage
contract, I read in it that her father gave her a dowry of one million
golden denars besides that of her father-in-law's!"
Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai then burst into tears, and said,
"Happy are you, Israel. As long as you perform the will of G-d, no nation
or people can rule over you. But when you fail to perform the will of G-d,
you are delivered into the hands of a humiliating nation; and not only the
hands of a humiliating nation, but also into the hands of the beasts of the
humiliating nation." (Kesuvos 66b)
Hence, anti-Semitism is not a natural phenomenon, but the chaos that
results when the "light" of the Jewish people ceases to illuminate the
minds of the nations, when the Jewish people stop acting as a "light unto
nations," as Rashi indicates elsewhere:
"I have separated you from the peoples that you should be Mine." (Vayikra
If you hold yourselves apart from them, then you will be Mine, but if not,
you will become subject to Nebuchadnetzar and others like him ... (Rashi)
Anti-Semitism is tohu at its worse, and it is all-consuming.
(Excerpted from "The Big Picture: Thirty-Six Sessions to Intellectual and
Spiritual Clarity," Session Twenty-Five: Sinai and Anti-Semitism;
They had traveled from Refidim, had come to the Sinai desert, and camped
there, opposite the mountain. (Shemos 19:1-2)
"Why does the Torah mention again where they came from? ... To make a
comparison between their journey from Rephidim to their arrival in the
Sinai Desert. How did they arrive in the Sinai Desert? They were in a state
of teshuvah, so too was their travel from Sinai in a state of teshuvah."
Why? Because they had been attacked by Amalek, which had been a very
humbling experience. And the ironic thing was that humility was crucial for
receiving Torah from G-d, as we have mentioned before. For, humility is
indicative of objectivity, and without objectivity, it is impossible to
receive Torah without distorting it. There is no comparison between Torah
that is viewed through the eyes of the Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination), and
Torah that is learned through the eyes of the Yetzer Hara (Evil
In this subtle point is a very important piece of information about Divine
Providence. Actually, it is a very Kabbalistic idea.
Normally, in the everyday world of "revealed" Torah, bad events are simply
bad events; hester panim is hester panim. However, in the more esoteric
world of Torah, the expression is just the opposite: Hester panim? Zeh
gilui panim! The "hiding of G-d's Face"--that is the revealing of G-d's
In other words, because G-d has promised the Jewish people that there shall
always be a remnant of the Seed of Avraham, it means that just when things
hit "rock bottom" for the Jewish people they must turn around and get
better once again. Every negative in Jewish history must yield to a
positive event. Indeed, it may be that the bad event was a kind of
spiritual threshold to get to the positive, "other side." That is why Jews
are supposed to always say,
"All that G-d does, He does for the good."
That is another reason why the verse repeats what occurred in Rephidim,
right before the giving of the Torah. Though G-d would rather not make us
suffer in any way, sometimes we make the suffering inevitable. However, if
G-d is going to have to let us go through some form of spiritual
"refinement" process, in the end, it is sure to result in something good;
it is clear it is meant to be a step up the mountain.
On the third day in the morning, there was thunder and lightning, and heavy
cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of the shofar was very strong. The
people in the camp trembled. Moshe directed the people out of the camp
towards G-d, and they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain ...
There is an interesting midrash on this posuk that enhances one's
appreciation of yeshivos (and might make a good fund-raising pitch). The
You should know that there is no yeshivah below that does not have a
corresponding yeshivah Above, and every student has a corresponding
"Potential" and "Shadow" Above ... And what they learn Below is what they
learn Above, because there is only one Torah for all of them. All of the
rabbis of the Tannaitic and Amoraic Era, their students, and their
students' students were all at Har Sinai when the entire nation stood
there. Before the Torah was given, they were all Above and many times the
entire Torah passed through their lips ... (Midrash Pliyah)
This is one of the many remarkable midrashim that illuminate our eyes as to
just supernatural the whole event of Mattan Torah--the Giving of
Torah--was. It also enhances our appreciation of how important it is to
remain attached to the Sinaitic Tradition of Torah, and to remain entranced
by its holy words.
We should learn from a baby something important. I am always amazed at how
you can present a toy to a crying baby, who will stop crying when his
amazement and curiosity overwhelm his sense of boredom. That's not the
amazing part. What makes me smile is how he looks at this toy as if it is
the first time he has seen it ... though he just played with it 15 minutes
ago. Either a baby's memory is that short, or, his sense of fascination is
that strong, or both.
Our memories may not be so short, but why must our sense of fascination
with Torah be? The first step to understanding Torah and its sea of
commentaries is to be awed by Torah. As King David said,
Secrets to those who fear Him ... (Tehillim 25:14)
And fearing Him also means being awed by His Torah. Without this awe, Torah
is just another book, Judaism is just another religion, and we are just
another people--not the "Nation of Priests" we were taken to Sinai to