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Home » Yitro

Yitro: The Confident Approach

Submitted by on February 13, 2006 – 8:03 pmNo Comment | 2,580 views

Cold Feet

Many years ago, I found myself in a plane high above the Grand Canyon. I was on my way to accept a job as head counselor of a West Coast summer day camp when I began to doubt myself. Was this job right for me? Was I good enough? What had I gotten myself into? I lost my confident approach as a swarm of butterflies seemed to flutter in the pit of my stomach.
This experience was new to me at the time, but today, many years later, it is a familiar companion. I experience it every time I take up a new challenge in life. I felt it on the day before my wedding, when I became a father, before I accepted my first pulpit position and before my first public lecture.
Today, the butterflies and I are no longer strangers. I welcome them heartily. They still shake my confidence, but after the initial shock I learn to ignore them and focus on the task at hand. I view the apprehension that they bring as assurance that the endeavor upon which I am about to embark is worthwhile.

Slackening and Apathy

The Torah tells us that our ancestors journeyed from a place called Refidim to the Sinai Desert. Wondering why the Torah found it necessary to spell out that Refidim was the place from which they embarked, our sages explained that they arrived at Sinai in a Refidim state of mind. (1)
The etymological root of the name Refidim is the Hebrew word Rifyon, which means a slackening. Our ancestors experienced a slackening of enthusiasm and a sense of apprehension and dread as they approached their encounter with destiny at Sinai. (2)
G-d had singled them out from among the nations to bestow his mandate upon them. Well aware of what it meant to be chosen by G-d, they fretted over their state of worthiness. They had lived for more than two centuries in the midst of Egyptian idolatry and depravity. Could they repent and transform in seven short weeks? Could they live a righteous and exalted life? Were they worthy of the task? (3)
During their sojourn in Refidim, our Ancestors were attacked by the tribe of Amalek. (4) The Midrash relates that when our ancestors left Egypt the nations of the world stood in awe and were afraid to engage them in war. Amalek was the only tribe that had the temerity to attack them. (5)
Amalek was roundly defeated, but his brazen act destroyed the aura of invincibility that surrounded our ancestors. The kabbalists taught that Amalek represents the characteristic of apathy. He disparages our awe for the Torah, mocks our passion for G-d, scoffs at our spiritual aura and questions our religious convictions. (6)
Amalek’s physical attack against our ancestors represented his metaphoric assault on their spirit. When they questioned their self-worth, they exposed themselves to Amalek’s attack. By doubting their own ability they made themselves vulnerable to his mockery.
Seeds of doubt are healthy because they keep our ego in check, but these seeds must never be permitted to control our state of mind. Where would I have been today if I had heeded my butterflies on that plane high above the Grand Canyon? grand canyonWe must focus first on our abilities and strengths. Only then can we put our concerns in perspective. (7)

Positive Thought

A woman once complained to Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “I have a mean streak,” she said, “I don’t know why, but I refuse every favor that is requested of me. I have been in therapy for years, but it seems I am beyond repair.”
The Rebbe told her that she was too focused on her faults. When you zero in on your shortcomings it obscures your potential for good. The Rebbe suggested that rather than struggle with the darkness of her soul she should work to kindle its flame. “Don’t worry about your inner conflicts just yet,” the Rebbe advised. “Seek out opportunities to perform favors and force yourself to perform them. (8) (9)
When our ancestors arrived at Sinai they left Refidim behind. They focused on their positive traits and their confidence was bolstered. We too must learn to leave our Refidim behind. We too must learn to focus on the positive. We too must learn to light a candle rather than fight our darkness.
Whether it is seeking new employment opportunities, exploring possible career changes,  seeking a Shidduch or raising children, we often fail before we succeed. It is easy to despair and and be assailed by doubts of inadequacy. Yet it is incumbent upon us to marshal our strengths and focus on the positive.
This is even more true on the spiritual front. As we consider the many commandments in the Torah, it is possible to despair of fulfilling them all. We may not have been raised with religious observance. We may not be accustomed to the path of Torah. Is it appropriate to approach G-d when we are saddled with the sins of our past?
If we focus on our negative past, on our inner Refidim, we will lose confidence in ourselves and slowly grow apathetic to Torah. We will expose ourselves to our inner Amalek and lose our passion for Judaism. The alternative is to take the confident approach by channeling our minds and thoughts towards the infinite potential of our Neshama, our Jewish soul. (10)

The Soul

Within every Jew there a soul, a virtual fragment of the divine. The soul pines for G-d and yearns to fulfill his commandments. To the soul, every single Mitzvah pulses with G-dly energy. Every single Mitzvah is a precious channel of joy and a pure source of ecstasy.
We are capable of harnessing our soul’s passion. We are capable of living up to G-d’s mandate, but only if we try. Little by little we can grow every day. Step by step we can lift ourselves up. (11)
The slow path is often the safe path. In this case it is also the wise path. (12)


  1. Exodus 19: 2.
  2. Mechilta on Exodus 17: 8.
  3. This interpretation follows the Shem Mishmuel referenced in footnote #11
  4. Exodus 17: 8.
  5. Tanchumah, ch. 9 on Deuteronomy 25: 18.
  6. Sefer Hamamarim, 1920 p. 1 (R. Y.Y. Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, 1880-1950).
  7. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) teaches that Adam was created on Friday so that he would immediately enter the Shabbos. Shabbos has an uplifting effect upon the Jew. G-d wanted Adam’s first experience to be an uplifting one. After he was uplifted he would be far better equipped to deal with his iniquities and to repent for his sins.
  8. Rabbi Manis Friedman, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore, Bais Channa Press, 1990, p. 32.
  9. There is no question that this woman had reason to be in therapy, but, as King Solomon wrote, there is a time for everything (Ecclesiastics 3: 1). Her emotional issues obscured her ability to do good and that had to be avoided. First she would need to be convinced that she was greater than her problems. Then she would be able to tackle those problems. For now her problems were tackling her. When she could prove to herself that she was capable of goodness then she would be a candidate for therapy.
  10. G-d does not demand more from us than we are capable of delivering. If he issues a commandment, he endows us with the strength to follow it through. (Bab. Talmud Aodah Zara. 3A and Bamidbar Rabbah 12: 3.)
  11. This does not imply that we need not repent for our previous sins. On the contrary, repentance is one of the fundamental commandments. However, repentance is most effective when we know that we are capable of living up to G-d’s expectations. Otherwise excessive dwelling on the negative can cause a loss of enthusiasm for Torah. See Tanya chapter 27(R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813).
  12. This essay is based on a discourse given by the Shem Mishmuel in 1913 (R. Shmuel Salir, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927).

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