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Posted on January 18, 2011 (5771) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

And Yisro rejoiced for all the good which God had done to Israel, having delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. (Shemos 18:9)

In Hebrew, the word for rejoice in this week’s parshah is vayichad, an unusual word for such a common term, especially since we have so many simpler ways of saying ‘rejoiced’. As a result, the word is interpreted on a deeper level by two Amoraim in the Talmud, Rav and Shmuel.

According to Rav, the word vayichad comes from the chad, which means ‘sharp’, indicating that Yisro, upon hearing about all that God had done for the Jewish people converted on the spot, taking a sharp stone and immediately performing Bris Milah on himself. According to Shmuel, the word is an allusion to the chadudim Yisro felt all over his body, what we call ‘goose bumps’, because he still felt bad for the Egyptians who had been destroyed (Sanhedrin 94a).

However, since the Torah does not have vowels, alternative readings of a single word, for exegetical purposes, is often possible. Hence, the word vayichad can also be read vayachad without changing a single letter, just the vocalization, changing the meaning of the word from ‘rejoiced’ to ‘unified’. This is not so far-fetched given what was happening at that moment, and what the entire Kabbalas HaTorah experience was soon about to evoke from the entire Jewish nation.

Indeed, what Yisro heard and saw at that time had been both intellectually and emotionally overwhelming for him, and certainly had the potential to elevate him to a very high level of spiritual consciousness. At that unique moment, he could easily have had an experience that would have resulted in a precise perception of what life is all about, and how to fulfill its purpose, which in itself is an interesting discussion.

The Talmud makes an fascinating remark:

    A man would prefer one kav of his own instead of nine kabim of another. (Bava Metzia 38a)

A kav is a Biblical measurement, but here it is symbolic. It is the proportion that counts, and that is, a person values that which he earns more than that which he is given for free, even if the latter is many times the former. There is something intrinsically special about that which we create ourselves, in whatever manner we do it.

For example, if a person works hard for a couple of hours and gets paid with a $100 bill, and then gets one as a birthday gift shortly after, he is more likely to spend the latter than the former, even though they are exactly the same amount and type of bill. Somehow, by working for the first one a certain relationship develops between the person and the money itself, as if the specific bill earned intrinsically represents the amount of his life that he spent to earn it.

Not only this, but people can be quite possessive of their personal possessions, in a way that might border on selfishness. We don’t usually think too highly about people who behave in such a way; selfishness seems to be a childish quality that grown-ups are supposed to have overcome.

That may be true, but it is also not so clear-cut that such selfishness and possessiveness are coming totally from the wrong place. Indeed, it may be the result of a certain confusion regarding a specific driving force in Creation that is totally positive, and in fact, the goal of Creation, as the Leshem explains.

    …Since the main pleasure and delight from all brilliance and good is only when it is his own, and not from someone else … especially when the good is the result of his actions and efforts, after which the pleasure and delight is unlimited [because the Shoresh HaAchdus—the Root of Unity—is in everyone, and everything is carried by this Root of Unity. It is the inner reality of everything, the basis of all that exists … (Drushei Olam HaTohu 2:4:10:3:11)

What the Leshem is saying is that, at the center of everything in all of Creation is some very intense unifying force. Though it is very hard to believe, given all the divisiveness and strife in the world, everything in Creation wants to unify with everything else, and ultimately, with God.

    Therefore, a person pursues himself and that which belongs to him because it is dearer to him than everything else since he is one with it; all of his drive is towards that with which he can become most unified … (Ibid.)

This is not a Kabbalistic justification for being selfish; just a Kabbalistic explanation for why selfishness is so gratifying. However, if a person selfishly eats a sandwich, only to find out that by doing so, he surrendered the opportunity to eat a steak, is he not disappointed? Likewise, the most selfish thing a person can do is act selflessly, because then the greater good belongs to him.

    In truth, the Root of Unity unifies all disparate elements since they are all based upon it, but only through veils and physical and thick barriers that have resulted from the zuhama from the sin …(Ibid.)

Once such unity existed in Creation, prior to the sin of Adam HaRishon, after which Creation descended and become greatly reduced, spiritually-speaking. Like man himself who went from skin made from light to actual skin, making unification with Creation on an external level impossible, so was this true for the rest of Creation. However:

    …on an internal level, they remain forever unified. (Ibid.)

Hence, internally, there is a profound unity amongst all of Creation. How such unity can exist on an internal level while externally, people want to kill each other, remains one of the greatest mysteries of Creation.

    However, this is the only unity that is recognizable at this time, being very intense, and therefore a person always longs for his own since it is from himself to himself, a deep unity that is apparent even now … (Ibid.)

Have you every noticed how certain spiritually-uplifting events have the ability to draw the unity out of people? Sometimes it can be a crisis, or sometimes just a very inspiring moment, but the result is always a melting of certain barriers and a unification that seems to be intrinsic to mankind and Creation. The more the moment melts the barriers, the more intense and meaningful the unification ends up being.

For example, we are told by the rabbis that the Sinai experience was so intense that the Jewish people became k’ish echad—like a single individual— b’leiv echad—with a single heart. It was the first and last time the Jewish people ever experienced such sublime unity, which will not return until Yemos HaMoshiach. It was as if the exposure to the Divine Presence yanked them out of their skins to the point that they became more spiritual than physical, allowing them to by-pass their petty negative emotions and instead focus on the opportunity of the moment.

Perhaps this is what happened to Yisro in this week’s parshah. In fact, as we said previously, the Midrash explains that he became so overtaken by the moment that he grabbed a sharp stone and immediately performed Bris Milah on himself, and converted. Clearly he had been functioning on a more dramatic spiritual level than normal, and it may have connected him to God and the rest of Creation on a level that most people never achieve in an entire lifetime. It was if he had a Messianic experience.

It’s what we’re all after. Just as idol worship is an illegal shortcut to the God experience, resulting in just the opposite in the end, Greed, which still seems to drive society is an illegal shortcut to inner unity and self-fulfillment that ends up delivering just the opposite in life. For according to what has been said, the drive to accumulate riches and material possessions is really just a drive to unify with the world around us.

But it doesn’t happen in the end, for a very simple yet profound reason.

It works very similar to the Ohr HaGanuz—the Hidden Light of Creation. The Ohr HaGanuz is such a powerfully miraculous light that if an evil person were to gain access to it, he could manipulate the world at will. The control he would have would be unimaginable and the destruction he could do would be catastrophic. This is why, as Rashi explains, God made it that the only people who can access this light are righteous people.

Hence, though there are some rules in life that evil people can circumvent, this is not one of them. It is an immutable principle of Creation so that Creation can continue to fulfill the will of its Creator. A certain amount of abuse and destructive behavior is allowed in history, but God has set a limit, and it is not one that can ever be adjusted, at least not by man.

Likewise, the unity that we seek, with ourselves and the world around us, is the reward for a life of spiritual growth and development. That is another immutable principle of life in this world, unchangeable by everyone, especially the evil geniuses of history. That is why when Eisav confronted Ya’akov and boasted about his material wealth, it was he, and not Ya’akov, who left their meeting with a sense of lack just the same.

Ya’akov Avinu, on the other hand, left with a sense of satiation, physical and spiritual. For, as the Talmud points out, righteous people avoid any kind of theft at any cost—even denying themselves possessions that others might not think twice about taking or using—if any question of ownership comes up at all. They are looking for inner unity, and they know that it is not going to happen unless that with which they are unifying is totally relevant to them.

The same is true of shalom bayis on any level. People cannot unify with others unless that with which they are unifying truly belongs to them, which can only happen if a relationship is cultivated. When it comes to relationships the basic rule is: the more you give, the more you get. If you try to get without giving, then the relationship usually disintegrates. Therefore, the first thing Yisro did when he arrived at the Jewish camp in searching for a close relationship with God, was give himself over to the Ultimate Cause, resulting in vayachad Yisro: unification with God, the Jewish people, and Creation as whole.


Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.

Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details!