Parashat Yitro: Of Buttons and Love

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Pressing Buttons
08 Feb 2007

Part One: Buttons

The Torah relates how Moshe Rabbeinu’s detailed report of what transpired to the Jewish people in the previous year impacted heavily upon Yitro. Rashi explains that Yitro was on both sides of the royal curtain, and therefore understood even better than Moshe and Aharon how the diabolical plans of Pharaoh and his ministers against the Jewish people filtered down to the last detail on the Egyptians themselves.

Yitro recognized the decrees of Pharaoh as small buttons which opened huge flood gates of disaster upon the Egyptian nation.

In the early 1970s, I served as the assistant to Rabbi Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, Minister for Religious Affairs in our government (Rabbi Warhaftig was instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Jews from Poland and Lithuania, including the Mir Yeshiva.) At that time El Al had just taken ownership of its first 747 jumbo passenger plane. The Minister and I were invited by the company to inspect it. For those who were used to flying 707s, the change was more than dramatic. The plane was cavernous compared to its little 707 sister, and we were overwhelmed that our little medina (state) was now in the big leagues.

The Minister and I entered the cockpit and I was dizzy looking at all the controls. I recall thinking that the crew who flew this behemoth must themselves be giants in body and intellect. Then a uniformed gentleman joined us. He was shorter and slighter than I, and introduced himself as the first captain; I think his name was Namir. I stood in wonder how this mere mortal could lift this monster (and in Ivrit – Hebrew) 38000 feet.

He sat down at the controls and explained,

“This red button at the right activates the far right engine of so many tons of thrust. The next button activates its twin engine on the left side; as do the other two red buttons with regard to the other inner engines”.

It was so simple. The pilot was neither a giant nor a genius; he merely pushed buttons designed by engineers to evoke fantastic effects.

I recall saying to the Minister,

“Isn’t this what we do every moment? The mitzvot we keep are buttons which create worlds, and the sins are buttons which destroy worlds.”

The little black boxes with the straps that we don daily on our arm and head; the tzedakah that we give to the poor; the cup of tea we give to father or mother, as well as the other of the 613 Torah mitzvot and the additional 7 rabbinic ones, are in our world little buttons that activate universes above.

Let’s return to our pilot. If he would sit at home and press little red buttons nothing would happen because they are not connected to anything meaningful.

Once a month he is required to enter a simulator which prepares him for eventualities which might arise while in the air. In this simulator, he presses buttons which create the feeling as if he is flying. The simulator is programmed to experience a fire on board, and he has to press other buttons in order to control the situation. But while he is in the simulator feeling these dramatic events, there are two trainers outside who are nonchalantly smoking and leaning against the machine until the program ends. Inside the pilot is experiencing the violent emotions of pending catastrophe and his ability to save the lives of his 500 passengers or to die with them; and right outside the trainers know that it is all fantasy.

But when our pilot exits the simulator to enter the actual 747 and pushes its control buttons real things happen.

There are similar situations in the religious world.

We human beings relate to the great spiritual and physical world of which we are a part, by committing acts which by their intrinsic nature affect mind boggling changes. We push buttons of change which were put into place by the Creator.

When a gentile commits an act devoid of Godly consequence, i.e., an act within a religious context but out of the framework of the seven Bnei Noach (Noachide) commandments, such as spinning a Buddhist or Hindu prayer wheel, or baptismal immersion by a Catholic, or self-flagellation by a Shi’ite Moslem there is no residual consequence – even if one billion people might think so.

There is a situation reminiscent of the pilot in a simulator, when buttons are pressed and emotions are created and felt, but it is self-deception because it is committed in a non-real environment.

As difficult as it is to bear, this is the reality of Jewish life outside of Eretz Yisrael as stated by the great Ramban in his commentary on the Book of Vayikra, 18:25.

Ramban states that the mitzvot were given by Hashem to be kept in Eretz Yisrael. He makes this determination based on verses in Devarim 11:31-32. The reason we abide by the mitzvot in the galut (exile), Ramban asserts (based on a verse in Yirmiyahu 31:20) is so that when we return to Eretz Yisrael the mitzvot will not have been forgotten. Lest anyone conclude mistakenly that the Ramban is suggesting that one may be lenient in keeping any of the mitzvot in galut, let me say here that the punishment for violating a mitzva is operative in the galut as it is in Eretz Yisrael. The difference is in the philosophical basis of the requirement, that the essential place for keeping the Torah is here in Eretz Yisrael; while what one does abroad can be compared to a “dress rehearsal,” which although perfect is in fact not the real thing.

The dynamics of the real world transpire in Eretz Yisrael. Here the mitzvot one performs create changes in the physical world and spiritual realms. Our rabbis have taught that the spiritual level of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael has direct consequences on the weather, food, health and all other matters which make up our lives, and most certainly results in change in the mystical worlds above.

In conclusion: Just as Yitro realized the direct connection between the actions of Pharaoh and the world around him, we must be cognizant of the fact that within ourselves – how and where we keep the mitzvot – lies the reality of our existence in this world and in the next.

Part Two: Defending Loved Ones

Our Parsha begins with Yitro hearing details of the Exodus, which reached the distant land of Midyan. He is so overwhelmed by what he hears that he resigns his privileged status as spiritual leader in Midyan and joins the nation of Israel. The Torah does not relate exactly what moved Yitro to take this life altering step.

Rashi explains that Yitro’s life was forever changed by the awareness of two incidents; one miraculous the other very human. First the news of the miraculous splitting of Yam Suf; the other, the unfortunate human practice of waging war – in this case, the battle against Amalek-Israel’s unrelenting, eternal foe.

Rashi’s illumination raises a question: On the background of the many miracles which transpired during the year preceding the Exodus, and certainly the Exodus itself, why was Yitro so moved by only these two events? And a bigger question: The battle against Amalek proved that the Jews possessed weapons; why did they not battle the Egyptians, thus forcing Hashem to perform miracles?

To answer these questions, we need to talk about one of man’s most basic emotions, one which has been under investigation since man first tread on earth, yet defies exact definition; the emotion of love.

One can love many things. It could be God, or another person, an ideal or an object d’art.

The varied definitions of love towards a single object become more complex with the question: Is there a single explanation of love which defines this emotion regardless of the object of one’s love, or does love take different forms and nuances depending on the object?

The dilemma is more acute when factoring in that we recite twice daily-in tefillot Shacharit (Morning Prayer) and Maariv (evening prayer) – that Hashem loves the Jewish people.

Albeit that I have not read all the literature on physiological, psychological, or philosophical definitions of love (some claim that love is no more than a certain hormone produced in the brain), I suggest that there is one common feature which defines real love regardless of the object: Love is the willingness, and more so, the intense desire to do things for the object of one’s love, without considering the consequences to oneself.

We see this in our love-relationship with Hashem. The Torah refers to the Exodus as ‘Chag HaMatzot‘, we call it ‘Chag HaPesach. Chag HaMatzot because Hashem praises Am Yisrael for irrationally setting out into the wilderness with no more than a few matzot; and we praise Hashem for passing over the Jewish homes on the fateful night of the firstborn’s deaths by calling the holiday ‘Pesach.’

Yitro perceived this incomprehensible relationship between Creator and Created when learning of the miracles at Yam Suf and the war against Amalek.

The Egyptian threat at Yam Suf was not aimed at destroying the Jewish God, but rather at destroying the Jewish nation. When Hashem’s people were threatened, His love for us became aroused and He intervened before we needed to physically battle the enemy.

In contrast, Amalek’s main objective in waging war with the people was to eradicate the God of Israel. When Hashem was being attacked, our love for Him became aroused and we went into armed war for the sanctification of His Holy Name.

Yitro decides that he too must be a part of this profound love relationship.

This reciprocity, whereby Hashem is actively involved in the protection of the Jewish nation and we are actively involved in the sanctification of the Holy Name, is the reality of our past and it will be brought to its fullest expression in our not-too distant future.

The world today is seething with hatred. Hatred of Christians toward Moslems and Moslems toward Christians. But make no mistake. Before they go for each others’ jugular, they will, each in their own way and both together, attempt to eradicate the State of Israel.

It will be a war to destroy the Jewish God and a war to destroy the Jewish nation.

The Christian world of England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, the United Nations (Ayrev Rav-mixed multitude), and many interest groups in the United States of America, will not rest so long as there is one Jew left here who believes that God gave us Eretz Yisrael or one Jew anywhere in the world who believes that Hashem chose the Jewish people.

The Moslem world of over a billion potential human bombs (granted that not all Moslems are terrorists, but nearly all terrorists are Moslems) will stop at nothing to drive us into the sea, so long as one Jew remains here and believes that the Bet HaMikdash stood on the Temple Mount, they will not relent.

In the not too distant future, the realities of our world will force Am Yisrael to sound a call-to-arms to the faithful in pursuit of the sanctification of His Holy Name, and the war against the Jewish nation will arouse our Father in Heaven to intervene for our salvation.

Those of us who will answer the call will prove that there is profound love in our hearts towards the Almighty; and this love will surely be reciprocated.

This is the lesson which Yitro learned from Kriyat Yam Suf (splitting of the Red Sea) and the war against Amalek, and this is the lesson our master rebbe, Rashi, comes to teach.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.