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Parshas Yisro

02/02/2018 10:43:52 AM


Besides being Moshe Rabbeinu’s father in law, Yisro is famous for being the first outsider to join the Jewish People.  There is a discussion in the Gemara regarding the timing of when Yisro joined the Jews, as the Tannaim disagree whether Yisro came before or after Matan Torah.  In analysis of this dispute, the Gemara says it depends on the interpretation of the opening words of the Parsha, “And Yisro heard,” as one opinion understands that Yisro heard about the splitting of the Sea or about the war with Amalek, while the other opinion counters that Yisro heard the sounds of Matan Torah.  Given that the Torah presents the story before Matan Torah, the simplicity of the text definitely suggests that Yisro came before Matan Torah, and yet, one opinion is adamant that Matan Torah was the catalyst for Yisro’s conversion and is forced to conclude that the story is presented out of chronological order.

The Maharal expounds on the opinion that Yisro arrived after Matan Torah by explaining that the conversion process to Judaism is more than a change of belief and values- it is rather a change of core identity that is aptly described in the Gemara as the rebirth of the convert like a newborn infant.  What can this idea mean?  Although we believe in the power of change, “rebirth” seems like an imaginative portrayal of the unreal.  The Maharal wonders why it is that the Torah only recognizes conversions from other nations to Judaism, but not within other nations themselves.  For example, if an Amaleki would try to simply “convert” to become like an Edomite, by adopting their culture, language, and beliefs, the Torah still views that person as an Amaleki and a Jew would still be obligated to kill him.  Why is conversion only effective in becoming a Jew?  These points reflect that variables such as belief or culture are ineffective to change one’s identify, because all these sorts of factors are ultimately just new expressions of the same person.  “I believe,” “I speak,” or “I act” are all about the actualization of the “I,” but it is still the same “I” who now chooses to believe, speak, or act.  Only one thing can completely alter the “I”- Torah- because Torah is the only factor where the “I” is forced into the submissive state of accepting its role and finding its individuality within the connection to God Himself.  By learning and observing Torah, one takes the mundane “I” and elevates it to the “I in Torah,” where new creativity, self-awareness, and sublime connections are formed.

The Eirav Rav also joined the fleeing Jewish nation from Egypt, but we find that their Jewish experience is quite ephemeral, as they constantly struggle to really believe in God and Moshe, and their sins eventually become self-destructive.  What made Yisro different?  This question bothered the Gemara so much that it was forced to conclude that, despite the simple presentation of the Torah, Yisro must have converted after Matan Torah and that his conversion was a true change of identity.  Furthering this point, the Gemara writes that when the Jews themselves accepted the Torah, it was really the conclusion of a conversion process that culminated with Torah.  In present times, it is the “Kabbalos Mitzvos” facet of conversion, the concluding step when the convert must connect to Torah itself, which has become a hotbed of controversy in terms of its legitimacy under certain circumstances.  Only Torah can facilitate the true change necessary for conversion, and despite all new beliefs, inspiration, and values, it remains the unequivocal requisite for conversion.  

Wed, January 27 2021 14 Shevat 5781