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Parashat Yitro

In honor of my wife, Arlene, and my children, Ikey and Shirley, Elliot, Rachel, and Maggie by Robert Akerman.

Parashat Yitro

Act On It!

This week’s parasha is named after Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian. Why would the Torah give such an honor to Yitro, an idolatrous Midianite, especially in the parasha that carries the holy words of the Ten Commandments?

Maybe the answer to this question lies in the first two words of the parasha, “Vayishma Yitro — and Yitro heard.” The passuk goes on to say that Yitro heard what Hashem had done for Moshe and B’nei Yisrael. According to Rashi, Yitro heard of the parting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. These two events were known to everyone, but the Torah singles out Yitro for a very important reason. Yitro not only heard, but also decided to act on what he had heard by converting to Judaism.

The same could be said about Rabbi Hershel Weber, the creator of Hatzalah. In 1968, a prominent man in a Williamsburg kollel suffered from a heart attack at the young age of 40. A few men from the kollel called 911, and they waited with him for an ambulance for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, he tragically passed away. Reb Hershel Weber, a fellow kollel member, was deeply affected by this incident. He was so sure that if the ambulance had arrived sooner, this young man would have had a long life ahead of him. He wanted to make a change and prevent this from ever happening again.

The next week, he started reading the American Red Cross textbook and began teaching himself first aid. Four men in the kollel asked him what he was up to, and the next day he brought four more textbooks, and simply told them, “Read the books and go on calls.” A few weeks later, these young scholars from the local kollel volunteered their time and whatever resources they had. Armed with donated oxygen tanks that were unboxed without instructions, small first aid kits, and a few hundred orange stickers with a phone number that led to a single dispatcher, the crew of four began to help wherever and whenever they could.

Rabbi Weber gave them simple instructions. “You are not there to be a doctor; you are there to make sure the patient survives until they get into an ambulance. If a man is having chest pains, turn on the tank and put the mask on until the ambulance arrives.” One rabbi lightheartedly recalled asking him what happens if the patient has a broken ankle, to which Rabbi Weber jokingly replied, “Turn on the tank and put the mask on!” They made arrangements with a local private ambulance service, and the calls started coming in.

Before long, Reb Hershel raised enough money to purchase an ambulance of their own, and Chevrah Hatzalah, translating to Team of Rescuers, was born. Hatzalah now has multiple affiliated organizations in locations across the globe, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Panama, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and 10 states in the US. Hatzalah of New York has nearly two thousand volunteer EMTs and paramedics who answer more than 70,000 calls each year with private vehicles and a fleet of more than 90 ambulances. The average response time for Hatzalah is 2-3 minutes, while city ambulances respond between 8-11 minutes! Hatzalah volunteers were among the first to respond to the horrific 9/11 attacks and received notoriety in multiple memoirs for their services. Because of young Reb Hershel Weber’s efforts to make a change and help his community, the Hatzalah organization evolved into the creation of other volunteer emergency services, like Shomrim, Chaverim, and Misaskim.

Yitro had been a very prominent priest in his religion, as well as an advisor to Pharaoh. It is one thing for a person to realize intellectually that he should change, but it’s another thing to act on it. It is difficult for someone who has held certain beliefs his entire life to alter his way of thinking in his later years. A transformation of that kind involves the realization that everything you believed has been wrong. That was Yitro’s greatness. What we learn from him is that if Yitro — a non-Jewish priest — could make such an amazing change, then so can we!

Rav Shmuel Strickman told an amazing story about how his wife, Shoshana Strickman, A’H, not only listened, but acted on something important to her. One day, she was leaving the grocery store, when her friend approached her and cried about her son Chaim’s condition. The young boy was hearing impaired, and he was having trouble with his Torah studies. Because there were no resources for him where they lived, he was in public school. Shoshana came home to her husband and insisted the rabbi must take him under his wing to learn with him. Rabbi Strickman protested, but his wife cried on this boy’s behalf and insisted that her husband teach him.

Years later, when Chaim was applying to yeshivah in Toronto, the Rosh Yeshivah called Rabbi Strickman asking for a reference. He asked him, “How will the boy learn if he’s deaf?” Rabbi Strickman said Chaim was extremely bright and eager to continue learning, and that they had learned together for years.

Today, Chaim is now known as Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Kakon, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Nefesh David, the International Yeshivah for Young Men with Hearing Loss. He’s teaching these young boys shiurim with sign language and other helpful resources. The whole program only came to fruition because Shoshana Strickman not only heard her friend’s plight, but was pained by the tears of a fellow mother. She not only empathized but acted on her feelings, went to her husband, and made sure to convince him to act as well.

Like Yitro, Shoshana heard something that affected her and decided to act on that inspiration, and through that, helped impact the entire Jewish deaf community. We must learn from her example and act on what inspires us, le’shem Shamayim, and we too can grow and change the world.

The Ten Commandments

This parasha includes the Aseret Hadibrot—Ten Commandments. We learn that each row of the five commandments on the right tablet corresponds to each row from the five commandments on the left. The first commandment, “I am Hashem,” is adjacent to the fifth commandment, or the first in the left row, “You shall not murder.” This teaches us that Hashem gives us life and we are forbidden to take that life.

The second commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is adjacent to “You shall not commit adultery.” In other words, don’t be unfaithful to Hashem, and don’t be unfaithful to your spouse.

The third is the commandment to not take G-d’s name in vain, which is next to “You shall not steal.” This tells us that a thief will use Hashem’s name in vain to try and prove he’s innocent.

There is a great yesodfundamental concept which is most profoundly exemplified in the fourth and ninth commandments. In the fourth commandment, it says, “Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it,” and next to it, the ninth, “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.” A Jew who keeps the Shabbat testifies that the world was created by Hashem’s utterance. One who gives false testimony corrupts his speech. This leaves him unable to testify that Hashem created the world, which is the main point of Shabbat!

Lastly, the fifth commandment, “Honor your parents,” faces the injunction against “coveting.” There is a profound lesson to be had here. Honoring our parents is part of honoring Hashem for His favors. Hashem, like our parents, showers us with gifts. And if we appreciate everything that Hashem has given us and understand that we have been given all that we need, there will be no reason to be jealous of what others have.

Life is a Package Deal

Rabbi Frand asks a question regarding the tenth commandment. Why does the Torah provide a list of specific things that we may not covet, such as our neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, donkey, and then end with a generalization, i.e. “Or anything that belongs to your neighbor?” Rabbi Frand answers, that if you want your friend’s house or his wife, then you have to take the entire package, including your friend’s troubles. The Torah is teaching us that everyone has challenges along with the good things, and we may not always see them when we are blinded by envy.

There is a well-known mashal—parable that my father taught me growing up. If we were to put all our troubles into a suitcase, place the suitcase in a pile with everyone else’s suitcases filled with difficulties, and try to trade, we would always take our own package back, because we don’t know what someone else’s might contain!

A Father In-Law’s Reminder

The Torah teaches, “Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took Tziporah, the wife of Moshe, after she’d been sent away. And her two sons, the name of one was Gershom, for he had said, ‘I was a sojourner in a strange land,’ and the name of the other was Eliezer for ‘the G-d of my father came to my aid, and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh (Shemot 18:2-3).’” Rabbi Frand brings down an interesting question. It’s appropriate to provide these descriptions when a child is born. But since these children were born much earlier, the Torah should simply record their names, not the reasons why they had them. By this point, the reasons are ancient history!

Rav Schlessinger suggests that Yitro was sending a pointed message to his son-in-law, Moshe Rabbenu. Moshe’s leadership task was about to begin. When Moshe was faced with a situation where he had an entire nation to worry about, it would have been very easy for his children to slip through the cracks.

Yitro wanted to bring home to Moshe the idea that he should never forget the importance of the individuals that make up the bigger group. Yitro is gently saying, “Moshe, if the Almighty had not paid close attention to you, where would you be? One person CAN make all the difference in the world. Your children too — if they are properly tended to — could grow up to become great leaders.”

History is not made up of the deeds of nations. It is made up of the deeds of individuals. Yitro reminded Moshe that although he had the overwhelming responsibility of leading Klal Yisrael, he had responsibility for his two young sons as well.

May we all have the strength to act on the Torah that we hear, so that we may change things for the better for ourselves, our families, and our communities. May we grow in Torah values and respect the Ten Commandments. May we remember to foster the need of our young children as individuals, so they may achieve greatness! Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Point:

  • What kind of changes should we be making in our lives, but aren’t acting on yet? Why not?

Etz Haim

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