By Rabbi Shaya Gopin
We live in a time in which being ‘spiritual’ has become quite popular.
People search and find meaning in spirituality. Many groups offer various methods of finding spirituality and connecting with one’s spiritual inner self, often devoid of any mention of God or connecting to God through the mitzvot God commanded us.
The namesake of this week’s Torah portion can possibly enlighten us as to the true meaning of being spiritual.
Who was Yitro?
The midrash tells us that Yitro was an idol worshipper. He wasn’t an ordinary idolater — he was a “pro” at it. In fact the Midrash Mechilta says that “There was not one idol in the world that Yitro had not worshipped”!
Isn’t it ironic that the Torah portion concerning the giving of the Torah should be called “Yitro” – a well-experienced idolater? Shouldn’t it have been called something like “Torah” or “Moshe”? Or at least nicknamed “Shabbat Matan Torah” – “Shabbat of the Giving of the Torah” — like we find other Shabbosim are named, for example Shabbat Shuva, or Shabbat Shira, etc.
Even though Yitro had repented at this point and recognized God, nevertheless couldn’t we have found a more befitting name for this Torah portion?
There must be something about Yitro that embodies the theme of the giving of the Torah, which is why the custom is to call this portion with the giving of the Torah in his name.
What, in fact, is the core of this major event when God revealed Himself to millions of people and gave them this divine body of knowledge and directives?
The Mishna tells us that “Avraham our forefather fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given” (Kedushin 82.1).
In fact, we are taught that “from the times of our forefathers – a yeshiva has not ceased from them.”
In parshat Vayigash, when Yaakov was preparing to go down to Egypt, it says, “He sent forth Yehudah before him…,” the midrash explains that Yehuda went to open a yeshiva for the children in Goshen.
From here we see that the Jewish people were quite familiar with the Torah. If that is the case, what is the great accomplishment that God made a whole tumult about, with coming down to Mount Sinai in a thick cloud with thunder and lightning to give us something we were already familiar with?
Rather, at Matan Torah –the giving of the Torah — something revolutionary happened that the world hadn’t experienced before.
At Matan Torah God empowered us to do what up until that point was impossible to accomplish.
The reason God created the world was because “God desired a dwelling place in the lower realm” (Midrash Tanchumah). God wanted this mundane world — where Godliness is not seen or felt in a tangible way— to be transformed into a Godly place, a “home” for God.
How is this done?
God gave us mitzvot. Most mitzvot involve an aspect of the physical world, be it animal hide for teffilin or wool for tzitzit, lulav and esrog etc. By us fulfilling the mitzvot we are permeating a lowly physical object with holiness.
Up until that point this was impossible. Being that God is so great, holiness is the antithesis of the physical and mundane, where often Godliness scan be concealed and even denied. To combine the two is impossible. This was the supernatural power God gave us at Matan Torah.
Yitro had experience being ‘spiritual.’
He was searching and trying to find true spirituality. What he found in all other faiths was that, in order to connect higher, you cannot be involved in the world around you — but Judaism is unique in that it doesn’t ask us to disengage from the world around us, to escape into a spiritual space – rather to use, influence and transform the physical. He found that God wasn’t limited to the spiritual realm; that the infinite divine energy can permeate the physical plane.
This impressed Yitro to leave the comforts of Midyan and go out into the desert to join the Jewish people. That is when he said, ”Now I know that God is greater than all the other Gods.” He knows because he has experienced it all. His intimate knowledge of the very lowest idol enabled him to truly understand and appreciate how great God really is. This helps us understand how Yitro embodied the theme of the giving of the Torah.
Often in our lives, we compartmentalize. We make time and space in our lives for our relationship with God. We don’t see how other elements of our lives — work, friends, pleasure — are directly connected to our relationship with God, and we try not to mix them.
The message of the giving of the Torah is that every aspect of our lives, no matter how mundane, can and should become a vehicle to bringing Godliness into this world. By seeing every relationship, acquaintance and experience as an opportunity to fulfill God’s desire, we will succeed in our collective mission to transform this world into a place of goodness and Godliness, with the coming of Moshiach very soon.
Rabbi Shaya Gopin is director of education at Chabad of Greater Hartford in West Hartford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.