The Torah of the Nation and the Individual

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





Parashat yitro



The Torah of the Nation and the Individual

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Parashat Yitro is clearly divided into two parts: the story of Yitro, and the story of the giving of the Torah.  If we think about the greater context – i.e., how these two narratives fit into Sefer Shemot – the second part seems quite natural.  Am Yisrael has left Egypt, the Red Sea has split for them, and they commence their journey through the wilderness, with all the difficulties and complaints that this involves.  All of this describes the experience of the nation as a whole.  The war against Amalek likewise finds its place in this saga of internal and external challenges, and adds an extra dimension: “God is at war with Amalek from generation to generation” – the cosmic battle against evil.  It is only natural that this process reaches its climax and conclusion at Mount Sinai, since everything since the Exodus has anticipated this: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God” (Bamidbar 15:41).


But in the midst of this we are suddenly presented with the story of Yitro, which seems entirely out of place.  It is an individual story which, at first glance, seems of little value.  In addition, there is a disagreement among the Tannaim in the Mekhilta – and, following their lead, among the Rishonim – as to whether this episode took place prior to the giving of the Torah or afterwards.  According to the first view (Ramban), the story is recorded where it is because everything appears in its chronological order.  However, if we adopt Rashi’s view that Yitro only arrived after the giving of the Torah, our problem is intensified: not only does the story appear to have no connection with the historical continuity of Sefer Shemot; it also appears in the wrong place in the timeline!


In fact, even according to the view that Yitro arrived prior to the giving of the Torah, the issue of chronology presents a problem.  We read, “And it was the next day that Moshe sat to judge the people…” (18:13).  Rashi, citing Chazal, explains, “This was the day after Yom Kippur.” Moshe had not judged the people prior to this time.  This being so, the giving of the Torah had already taken place, the Tablets had been broken, Moshe had been atop the mountain twice for forty days, had come down on Yom Kippur – and Yitro is still on the scene, handing out advice!


Upon deeper consideration we understand why the story of Yitro had to be written, and why it had to appear prior to the giving of the Torah, for otherwise a certain aspect of the giving of the Torah would be missing.


The Torah tells us, “Israel encamped (in the singular) there” (19:2).  Chazal comment on the singular form of the verb, explaining that here they encamped “like a single person with a single heart, whereas all the other encampments were [characterized by] grievances and strife” (Rashi).  This is not just an incidental, momentary transcendence of internal friction.  An occasion and experience such as the giving of the Torah cannot take place at all in the absence of that unity, since the whole purpose of the Revelation was the creation and consolidation of the national nucleus.  Bnei Yisrael were to undergo a process of mass conversion: “Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their clothes” (19:10).  This serves as the precedent from which Chazal deduce that a convert to Judaism requires circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice.


A most fundamental concept in Judaism, then, is that the Torah was given to the entire nation, as a single entity.


Of course, giving the Torah to the entire people involves a certain risk.  The Revelation was a wondrous, awe-inspiring event, involving “thunder and lightning and heavy cloud” (19:16).  As the Sages put it, “[God] held the mountain over them like a cask” (Shabbat 88a): the nation was subjected to an experience that surrounded them on all sides.  It was precisely this all-encompassing nature of the experience that exposed them to the danger of simply being carried along.  God was drawing them near, pulling them close, and all they had to do was to jump onto the wagon, as it were, which was already in motion.


Here it was necessary for Yitro to appear, of his own initiative, without any mountain being held over him, to accept the Torah of his own free will.  He had no obligation, nor anyone urging him to act.  Nevertheless, he bursts the bounds of his present state and comes to receive the Torah.  Just because his son-in-law is there, is he forced to join too?


A mass experience entails another danger as well.  The Revelation at Sinai is referred to as a “yom ha-kahal” – a “day of gathering” (Devarim 9:10).  There is a danger that a person might say, “This whole affair wasn’t directed towards me personally.” Here it must be clear that while the Torah was given to Am Yisrael as a nation, at the same time it was also given to each and every individual.  All the talk of “Knesset Yisrael” may come to blur the aspect of personal commitment and to lead the individual to evade his responsibility towards the Revelation as an event directed towards him, too.


It is precisely for this reason that Yitro appears – so as to teach that the Torah was given to the nation, but also to every individual.


This message arises from the text itself.  The whole of Shemot chapter 19 is formulated in the plural: “You have seen (atem re’item),” “You (atem) shall be,” etc.  But in the Ten Commandments, the Torah reverts to the singular: “I am the Lord your [singular] God”; “You [singular] shall not take…”; “Remember [singular] the Shabbat day….”


Chazal (cited in Rashi, 20:2) teach that this transition was meant “to give an opening to Moshe to defend [the nation] following the golden calf… ‘It was not them whom You commanded, You shall have no other gods, but only me.’” However, the simplest and most literal understanding of the transition to the singular would seem to be, as Ramban explains: “All of the [Ten] Commandments were uttered in the singular… for God was speaking to each individual, so that they would not think that He would focus on the majority, such that the individual would be saved along with them…”.


The Torah was given to the nation as a whole, but no less so to every individual.  “God spoke one thing; I heard two” (Tehillim 62:12).


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Yitro 5746 [1986].)