There are many high points in the TABC academic year – Shiurim, Chagigot, etc. I am sure that Rabbi Jachter will agree with me that the Lag BaOmer bike trip that we run is high on that list. Picture yourself on a state-of-the-art mountain bike gliding down a wide mountain trail for twenty-five miles. The green Poconos tower above you on your right. On your left, the Lehigh River rages 100 feet below. For two dozen or so students plus Rabbi Jachter and myself, it is a wonderful growing opportunity that allows us to close the teacher-student gap for a day. We all ride out to the Pennsylvania wilderness for twenty-five miles of mountain biking and mountain climbing. It’s great! Just ask Rabbi Jachter!
Five years ago, while waiting to be fitted for their rental bikes, a group of our students on this trip drifted into the souvenir shop. I was hidden behind a postcard rack when I heard the clerk, a new employee, pick up the phone and call his boss Rod, who has taken care of us for years. In a panic, he told Rod that the shop had just filled up with high school boys and he needed help, as he was very concerned about shoplifting. A moment later Rod arrived. He motioned towards us and asked the clerk, “These guys?” The clerk nodded. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about these guys!” he said, and he left.
The next year, the driver of the bus that carried us to the trail remarked to me about how well-behaved our boys are. He asked me if TABC requires its students to take courses on how to conduct themselves, especially around adults. When I told him that there is no such formal course, he expressed his surprise. “You should see how other groups and schools behave,” he told me. “We cringe when we see them coming.”
This sort of phenomenon may be what the Pasuk means when it says at the beginning of this week’s Parsha, “Vayishma Yitro,” “And Yitro heard.” The verb “to hear” can also mean to understand through assessment and inquiry. Apparently, Yitro understood something that gave him Emunah, faith, in the Jewish people and their religion, and caused him to want to join them. There are two types of such Emunah: Emunah Peshutah is a simple, deep faith, while Emunah Derech Chakirah is an Emunah arrived at through inquiry, resulting from scholarly search. This second form was the Emunah of Yitro. After investigating all of the world’s religions (as the Midrash describes), he finally witnessed a system that works. He finally found a people who try to do right and behave properly, a people who strive to be Mekadeish Sheim Shamayim. This same phenomenon was witnessed at the bike shop – the non-Jews who ran the establishment saw the simple fact that Judaism works. Imagine how much more impressed they would have been if they knew how many thousands of dollars of Tzedakah TABC has collected via this bike trip!
Two years ago, the fellow who fits the bikes to the riders told me that he and his co-workers look forward to our arrival to such an extent that they fight over who gets to help TABC prepare for their trip. “You must be very proud of your students,” he told me.
by Ilan Griboff
At the beginning of Parshat Yitro, the Torah lists the names of Moshe’s sons. We are told that Moshe named his older son Gershom because he was a stranger in a foreign land (Midyan), and his younger son Eliezer because he was saved from the sword of Pharaoh. Commentators ask: Shouldn’t he have named his older son after the event that occurred first, as he was saved from Pharaoh before he went to Midyan?
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that for Moshe, being a stranger in a foreign land was good. We know that he had amazing strengths and qualities and was probably offered a position of power, which he declined. Moshe knew that only if he remained a stranger in the land would he be able to keep himself from assimilating. To emphasize the importance of his being a stranger, Moshe named his first son Gershom. If Moshe had not remained a stranger in Midyan, he would have assimilated, and his escape from Pharaoh would have been pointless. Therefore, Moshe named his sons in the order that he needed to thank Hashem. First, he thanked Hashem for allowing him to avoid being influenced by the Midyanim, and only then could he thank Hashem for saving his life.
When You Give a Jew a Miracle…
by Yaakov Rubin
The first Pasuk of Parshat Yitro states that “Vayishma Yitro,” Yitro heard of all the miracles Hashem performed for the Jews, including the splitting of the sea, the Makot in Egypt, and the victory against Amalek. The juxtaposition of Yitro’s arrival at the beginning of this week’s Parsha and the attack of Amalek at the end of last week’s Parsha shows the differences between good and evil in the world. Both Yitro and Amelek heard of the miracles in Egypt and splitting of the sea, but they responded in totally opposite ways. Yitro reacted by joining with the Jews and converting his family, while Amalek became the symbol of evil by defying Hashem and launching an unprovoked attack on a weary and weak Jewish nation. Miracles do not transform nations like Amalek who defy Hashem; no matter what Hashem does, how extraordinary a miracle He performs, Amalek will refuse to recognize the hand of Hashem and will interpret the events to suit its own purposes (see Ibn Ezra’s long commentary to Shemot 18:1).
The Or HaChaim states that Yitro converted his family and joined with the Jews only after both events occurred: the miracles in Egypt and the war with Amalek. The miracles in Egypt could have been interpreted as a punishment for Pharaoh’s and the Egyptians’ refusal to obey Hashem and recognize Him as the only God. However, the Makot did not prove that Hashem would be compassionate for the sake of the Jews. However, the win over Amelek proved that Hashem would intervene purely on behalf of the Jews, not just to punish the enemy for defying Hashem.
Now You Tell Me?
by Chaim Strassman
In Parshat Yitro, Bnei Yisrael receive the Ten Commandments. This was the single most incredible event in history. Just picture Moshe on the mountain, Bnei Yisrael at the bottom and Hashem relating His commandments to us – it was certainly quite a sight to behold!
Immediately following this amazing event, Hashem says, “You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens. You shall not make images of me; do not make gods of silver or gold for yourself” (20:18-19). What does Hashem’s addressing us from heaven have anything to do with a prohibition against idols?
The Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochachim chapter one) offers a brilliant insight. He implies that in order to understand what Hashem is saying, we must look at the roots of idolatry. Idolatry started and was greatly spread during the generation of Enosh. What was the logic behind the idolatry? The original idolaters believed that Hashem did exist in the heavens, but if He was up there, how could He always see what was going on down here? The people of that generation answered that Hashem had helpers, like the sun, the moon, and the stars, who would help Hashem supervise us. In order to pay these helpers respect, the people would bow to them and offer them sacrifices. Based on the Rambam, we may explain that once Hashem had spoken to us from the heavens, no longer could we think that Hashem needed helpers. Everything that happens is because of Hashem, not any helper or (Chas VeShalom) other god.
There is another way of understanding this. The words, “You shall not make images of me,” end with an Etnachta note. This note signifies a separation or change in the Pasuk. What this could be showing is that hearing Hashem speak (“You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens”) could cause Bnei Yisrael to start assigning certain attributes and characteristics to Hashem. Whether or not we are making ourselves another god, assigning human traits to Hashem is not good either, as it contradicts Rambam’s Third Principle of Emunah.
Thus, Hashem’s message against idolatry is very well-timed – it emphasizes both the positive ideas that Bnei Yisrael need to take away from Har Sinai and the dangerous ones which they must avoid.
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