Parsha Insights

Where Biblical law and Torah tale is brought vividly to life


The Jewish perspective on topical and controversial subjects

Life Cycle

Probing for meaning in our journey and its milestones.

Yearly Cycle

Discover depth and mystique in the annual Jewish festivals

Rabbi’s Desk

Seeking life’s lessons in news items and current events

Home » Education, Yitro

Yitro: Original Thought

Submitted by on January 27, 2013 – 1:24 amNo Comment | 3,557 views

How Dare We?

Jewish tradition and history assigned names to all Torah portions. The portion that describes the delivery of the Ten Commandments at Sinai is named after Moses’ father in law, Jethro.  Based on the belief that everything, including a choice of name, occurs for a reason, we wish to seek the lesson and message of this name as it pertains to original thought in Torah.

Our sages taught that Jethro had many names and that each had meaning. The name Jethro means, the contributor. [1] When Jethro met Moses in the desert he suggested that Moses establish a network of judges that would lighten Moses’ load and Moses complied. This episode, which is recorded in the Torah, would not have been included Had Jethro not made his recommendation. When the Jews realized that this man had contributed an entire portion to G-d’s Torah they began to call him Jethro.

The question that we ask ourselves is this. Granted Jethro deserved this name, but why did Jewish history assign this name to the portion that describes G-d’s commandments? Though this portion has two sections, the first which describes Jethro’s recommendation and the second which describes the Ten Commandments, we would assume that of the two sections the second is more important. Why is the entire portion including the second half, called Jethro?

To answer this question we must first answer an even more profound question. How is it possible for a human being to contribute to G-d’s book? We are the people of the book, but that nomenclature depicts us as students of G-d’s Torah, not as its contributing authors. It is His book, not ours!

Of course this question doesn’t apply only to Jethro. Our sages constantly sought original insights and innovative explanations to the Torah passages that they studied. So ingrained was this habit of seeking an original thought that it was rather common for sages, who missed a day at the academy, to inquire what original thought was proposed in the academy today.[2]  They went so far as to proclaim that a study session that doesn’t develop a new approach or insight is no study session.[3] The question only grows. How can a human being originate a thought and then contribute it to G-d’s Torah; attributing his own thought, as it were, to G-d!

All From Sinai

King Solomon declared that nothing new is under the sun and that whatever is already was.[4] Our sages applied this to thought and said that there is no truly original thought when it comes to Torah. In their words, “Every innovation of a sharp student was told to Moses at Sinai.”[5] It is an innovation, but it was already told by G-d to Moses. This means that G-d gave Moses the outline of every conceivable insight, depth, approach, angle or innovation, but He didn’t spell it out for Moses in detail. On his return from Sinai, Moses was required to unpack all that he was given. There was much that Moses unpacked, but even more that remained hidden inside the broad and often ambiguous strokes given by G-d at Sinai.

As generations of students mull over the passages, traditions and teachings handed down by Moses, they inevitably chance upon new insights and explanations that never occurred to Moses, but that once presented seem so obvious that we wonder how we missed it.[6] Our sages often said that they learned more from their students than from their teachers and colleagues [7] because students bring fresh unfettered minds to age old subjects and often tease out new meaning, depth and perspective that was not evident before, but that now, once revealed, is as obvious as the sun.original thought - innerstream

It seems almost clairvoyant, as if they were there with Moses at Sinai, but Moses never picked up on their particular understandings. Perhaps Moses needed to miss it so that others would have a chance to contribute original ideas. But the key to this innovation is that it is not truly new, it is all based on what Moses was taught at Sinai. We don’t depart from the foundation of our faith to found or originate entirely new ideas. Our thoughts build on the teachings of our predecessors, but those teachings are treated to bold shines and fresh gloss rendering them nearly unrecognizable for the new clarity, breadth and depth elicited by succeeding generations.

Perhaps then the reason Jewish history named this Torah portion Jethro was to remind us that though the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai and is the unchanging, immutable word of G-d, it was G-d’s desire that we each become a Jethro, an original contributor to Torah, by seeking new insight and innovative explanation.

Perhaps the reason G-d wants and allows for this is because He wants us to be inspired students, motivated to take ownership of a text and a set of ideas that originate as abstract and exalted. G-d knows that reading a closed book, not subject to creative contribution, does not penetrate the mind and move the heart. By allowing us part ownership of the text, G-d activated our minds and hearts, inspiring passion and enthusiasm in our studies. This amalgam of G-d’s unerring and unfailing word and our creative, but fallible contribution marries the sanctity of Torah with the innovation of humanity, thus producing a lasting and exciting bond between heaven and earth.[8]

A Mere Echo

Our sages taught that every time we chant the Torah G-d comes and chants it with us. [9] What appears to our ears to be our own voice is in fact an echo of G-d’s voice that is inaudible to the human ear. This means that the very same transcendental revelation that occurred at Sinai occurs every time we read the text. It matters not whether this is the first time this text is read or the millionth; every time it is read G-d descends to sit right beside us and read it along with us.

This applies to our Torah thoughts as well. Innovative Torah perspectives of genuine Torah students appear to be their own, but are actually reflections of G-d’s thought. Just as G-d gave Moses the broad outlines of Torah at Sinai so is it G-d who feeds inspiring beads of insight to our minds to stimulate our innovative ideas. These are not our own ideas, they are G-d’s ideas revealed to our soul at this time and in this place. This means that G-d chooses us as the conduit through which a particular detail of Torah knowledge is disseminated to the world just like He chose Moses thirty-three hundred years ago as the conduit of the Torah’s broad strokes at Sinai.

What an inspiring and earth shaking thought. As you sit down to study Torah you can be the Moses of today with respect to your original idea or insight. Unlike Moses, you neither saw nor heard G-d, but just like Moses you received it from G-d. And once you received it and taught it to others, the idea became available to every succeeding student of Torah. For posterity, this thought will be attributed to you, not merely as its originator, but as the conduit, who brought this Divine kernel to the world.

Now that we know why the Torah portion is called Jethro, can anything be more inspiring?

[1] See Rashi on Exodus 18: 1 citing Mechilta ad loc.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 3a.

[3] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:4.

[4] Kohelet 1: 9-10.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 19: 2.

[6] There are many explanations, see for example Orach Chayim on Leviticus 13:37 and Tosafos Yom Tov introduction to Mishnah. This explanation is from Likutei Sichos v. 19 p. 254.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 7a and Makkos 10a.

[8] See Likutei Sichos v. 19 p. 387 for an explanation of how this enhances, not just the Jew, but the Torah.

[9] Tana D’bei Eliyahu Rabbah ch. 18.