Yitro: Head over Heart

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Head Over Heart
10 Feb 2009

On return from a beautiful whirlwind trip in Eretz Yisrael visiting post-high school yeshivot, I do chazara (mental review) – trying to recollect the inspirational moments. [Full disclosure: as a Rabbi, I am also constantly scrounging for good drasha material]. They often turn out to be the unexpected ones; experience shows that canned inspiration has a short shelf life; it is hard for me to clap my hands on touchdown in Ben Gurion airport. The chance encounter, the flash thought, the manifest Providential moments that abound in a land of natural wonders and the wondrously natural, never fail to move me. On our tenth yeshiva visit I feel a special dose of simple inspiration.

First a word from our parsha:

Moshe’s father in law joins the Jewish people. Inspired by what he hears, Yitro is seeking more. Violating the inviolable rule of kiruv, Moshe outreaches to his father in law (1). He relates to his shver the wonders of the very recent Jewish history. In response to Moshe’s assuredly passionate recounting, Yitro is visibly moved. The Torah describes:

Vayichad Yitro for all the good that God did for Yisrael that he saved them from the hand of Egypt.

Vayichad, the word is a hapax legomenon, the fancy term I learned in school to impress people, for a Biblical one- time phenomenon. Its rarity evokes several major explanations and a few nuanced differences even among like-minded commentaries. Rashi presents us with two classics.

And Yitro rejoiced – this is the simple meaning; And the midrash teaches that his skin became prickly – as he felt pain for the Egyptian destruction. Thus people say: a convert – even for ten generations do not mock an Aramean (gentile) in his presence

We’ll leave the last part for a different time. This is a classic Rashi, which offers two explanations that differ in identifying the root of vayichad (2). What’s remarkable in Rashi however is not the variety; it is the extremity. Rather than being merely divergent approaches, they seem contradictory and irreconcilable. Did Yitro rejoice with Moshe’s tidings or was he pained? If the latter is correct, why would Yitro be motivated to join the Jews?

We met a young man who ‘did his time’ in Yeshiva and was now in university. By his admission, the yeshiva year was not a smashing success. While he acknowledged the powerful dynamic Torah environment and the compelling notions that the Rabbis taught, ultimately he was not moved. In his words, the experience was somewhat akin to an outer body experience – but it failed to penetrate his emotional and psychological reality. A year in, a year out and the boy had not grown in an appreciable manner.

During the semester break, he had returned to visit “his” Yeshiva, now armed with the frenetic experience of college life (where it was hard to focus on learning) starkly contrasted to the previous year’s yeshiva experience. Something happened. This time, the Torah penetrated in a way that it became for this young man, a Torat Chaim, – a living breathing and inspiring Torah. He came for a week and is now staying for the year.

We spoke privately. I lauded his decision and expressed feelings of nachat. He shared how difficult a decision it was for him, to put his life “on hold” for yet another little bit. Even after his choice, he had great difficulty sticking with it, as his friends voiced their disapproval – whereupon I assured him that now he should know he was surely correct – for the great rule in spiritual decision-making is, the more wrench(ing), the higher likelihood of its rectitude. While greatness is found in choosing the right over the expedient, it still feels difficult. Simple life choices exist only for the smug and comfortable.

Yitro and Avraham share the title of eitan, the strong one – for they reflect unbelievable strength. Like Avraham, Yitro, spiritual seeker par excellence, tries out all other worship before finding Torah. Just as Avraham comes from the “other side” to become the first Jew, Yitro becomes the first outsider to join the nascent Jewish nation. Is it not fitting that Avraham, father of Midyan (from Keturah) ultimately yields a Yitro the Midianite – for Avraham the truth seeker transmits that trait to all future generations. Yitro taps into it and his restless soul cannot find serenity.

Yitro hears the news. He is not the only one to hear; In Beshalach, we read sham’u amim yirgazun, chil ach az yoshevei pilashet – “all the nations heard and became excited, a fear gripped the inhabitants”. They all heard the news. Yitro listened and respondedplacing his head over heart, internalizing what he knew to be true, at the cost of sacrificing his comfortable perch in life – all for the sake of truth. Yitro was the strong one, the son of the strong one.

In that great chasm between head and the heart lies the crux of the religious struggle. It is one thing to know, quite another to feel and do. The battle of veyadata hayom vahasheivota el levavecha, knowing today and returning it to the heart, requires bridging the longest eighteen inches known to man – the distance between head and heart.

Rashi’s two approaches are reconciled. Human beings are complex. Was Yitro happy with the downfall of the Egyptians, the cradle of civilization and his old neighborhood (3)? Surely. He knew it was truth. Yismach tzaddik ki chaza nakam (4). Let the righteous rejoice when he sees God’s just vengeance.

But, oh did it hurt.

It is not easy to hear the destruction of one’s personal cradle. The head and the heart were in different places. That was Yitro’s psychological reality. Rashi’s first approach speaks to Yitro’s head, the second to his heart.

One final approach for vayichad: The Baal Haturim states it is related to yachad, i.e. coming together. Yitro unified his head and heart in service to God. It all came together for him. Perhaps Ba’al Haturim argues on Rashi or maybe we are dealing with a later stage in Yitro’s Divine service – for the ultimate goal is to achieve internal consonance. When the headaches and the heart throbs in beautiful synchronicity, an act of shleimut, a perfected religious experience has occurred.

Yitro infuses within Klal Yisrael that courageous spirituality – a head-first attitude that ultimate shleps along the heart. This week I met yet another Holy Jew who tapped in. Let us join their club.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf Rashi Shemos, 18:8 vayisapeir who employs the dramatic language limshoch es libo l’karvo latorah

2. The first sees the root as joy or the verb form of joy which can either be chedva (Ibn Ezra) or chada (Rashbam,Chizkuni) – closely identified with the Aramaic word chadi. Cf. Ohr Hachaim who wonders why the Torah uses an Aramaic word for joy. The second explanation identifies the root as chadad or sharpness – as in the sking became sharp.

3. Cf Sanhedrin 106. which states that Yitro was an advisor to Paroh

4. Cf. Seforno for a slightly different approach.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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