Thursday, February 4, 2010

YISRO 5770

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Martin comes to Dr. Saul, the veterinarian, with his dog. “Doctor, you gotta help my dog; he’s got a real problem.” The doctor looks at the aging canine, “What’s the problem?” “Well doc, he’s a Jewish dog. His name is Irving and he can talk.” The doctor looks quizzically at Martin, “He can what?” “Just watch this”, says Martin. He calls out to the dog, “Irving, fetch!”

Irving gets up, wags his tail, and walks aimlessly around the room. He walks towards the door, then turns toward Martin, grunts, and says, “Why are you always bossing me around like this? It’s embarrassing the way you order me about like I am your slave. Do you ever consider my arthritis or stop to think how I’m feeling? No, it’s always about you and your silly ideas, trying to show me off to all your friends. Then you put me on that terrible diet. You claim it’s for my health, but that dog food stuff is so bad it’s going to kill me. You take me out for a walk only once every three days, and even then it’s only for a few minutes. I should roll over and play dead and see if you would even care.”

Dr. Saul’s mouth is agape, “That is absolutely incredible. What’s the problem?”

Martin sighs, “He has a hearing problem. I said ‘fetch’ not ‘kvetch’!”


Prior to its account of the giving of the Torah at Sinai the Torah introduces us to Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe.

Rashi1, quoting the Mechilta, notes that Yisro had seven names. Rashi proceeds to list and explain the reason for four of those names. He explains that Yisro was called ‘Yesser2’ because a portion was added to the Torah based on Yisro’s suggestion to Moshe. When Yisro saw the masses lining up before Moshe to present their halachic inquiries, he feared that the people would become weary and frustrated with the lengthy wait. To remedy the problem, Yisro suggested to Moshe that he establish a hierarchy of judges to address the various inquiries that would arise.

Rashi explains that an extra portion was added to the Torah by referencing the verse which begins, “ואתה תחזה – And you shall discern”3. It is perplexing that Rashi quotes this verse, because Yisro’s conversation with Moshe actually began five verses earlier when Yisro pointed out to Moshe that his current system was faulty and wanting. “The father-in-law of Moshe said to him, “The thing that you do is not good…4

Why does Rashi quote the later verse to demonstrate the fact that in Yisro’s merit a portion was added to the Torah?

The Imrei Emes5 was invited to attend a rabbinical conference in Warsaw to discuss some of the major issues confronting the Torah world at that time. There was one individual at the meeting who presented many issues in an acerbic and accusatory tone. Then, whenever a potential idea or proposal was raised, he shot it down dismissively.

After some time the Imrei Emes turned to the man and presented him with the aforementioned question regarding Rashi’s explanation about Yisro’s name “Yesser”. The man admitted that he had no answer to the question.

The Rebbe explained that it is no big deal to discuss issues and problems. Anybody can be cynical and skeptical of virtually any concept or idea. But it is far more difficult and challenging to be able to find solutions and ideas to solve those problems.

The first five verses of Yisro’s conversation with Moshe record Yisro’s presentation of the problem. Yisro is not remembered for those five verses! Anyone could complain about a system by noting its flaws. But Yisro had a wise plan, an idea that Moshe could feasibly carry out to eliminate the problem. It is for that constructive idea – which begins with the later verse, “ואתה תחזה – And you shall discern” that Yisro merited the addition of a portion in the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt’l6 was a tremendously ambitious person with little patience for a naysayer or undue negativity that would not generate results. He would tell everyone in attendance at his meetings that they were welcome to present issues and express their opinions, albeit only if they had a solution and were ready to work to accomplish their ideas.

He would quote the words we recite in the daily prayers in which we describe the conduct of the angels when they sing their celestial song before G-d. We initially describe them as those who, “do the will of their Maker with dread and reverence.” We then continue and state, “And they all open their mouths in holiness and purity.” First one must resolve to do, to roll up his sleeves and be ready to invest time and effort, only then can he open his mouth.

Rabbi Sherer would also quote this idea about Yisro. He would note that Yisro is commended only for his constructive suggestions, not for his preceding criticism. This reminds us that criticism is cheap and easy; if it’s not accompanied by concrete and logical ideas it isn’t worth anything.7

This is an integral lesson for all human relationships. The wise person only notes flaws and shortcomings when the goal is to effect change and improvement, which can conceivably be accomplished. But if it’s something that cannot be changed, addressing it and harping on it only breeds rancor and resentment. What an invaluable lesson for marriage and child-rearing!

The Chofetz Chaim discusses the main ‘catalysts’ which cause a person to speak negatively and malign others8. One of those negative traits is “narganus – pervasive negativity”. There are people who are wont to find fault at every opportunity and criticize every petty detail in which they can find fault. Such people never give anyone the benefit of the doubt and assume that every oversight is deliberate and malicious. One who views everything in such a light will constantly speak negatively about others, because he views everything that occurs as a personal attack.

The greatest tragedy about a negativist is that in many instances he needs to grumble and complain in order to maintain his sanity. A person who lacks self-esteem feels threatened by every accomplishment and positive achievement of others. To protect his own fragile identity he needs to minimize and speak disparagingly about what others have accomplished9.

In Chumash Devorim, when Moshe recounts the egregious sin of the spies he uses the words, “ותרגנו באהליכםAnd you stirred one another up in your tents and said, ‘Because G-d hates us He has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt to give us into the hand of the Amorites to exterminate us.10

It seems unfathomable that the generation who had witnessed such incredible miracles, stood at Sinai, learned Torah from Moshe, and lived supernaturally in the desert on a daily basis could even express such a sentiment.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the word ותרגנו refers to an agitator who, under the guise of self justification, stirs up feelings of dissatisfaction and disloyalty in others. This idea is expressed in the verse in Mishley which states, “The words of an agitator sound as if they were taking up their own quarrel, but sink into the innermost feelings of others.”

The pessimist does not only hurt himself; his negative attitude is potentially menacing to all those around him. He can have a very deleterious effect on everyone in his inner circle and cause others to feel dissatisfied as well.

How can one tell if he is being needlessly negative or if he is truly being constructive? By ascertaining if he has ideas for improvement and ways to rectify the issues he presents. If one truly has the benefit of another in mind, he will only complain and point to flaws that he feels can be solved and eliminated. Otherwise he will keep quiet and just compliment whatever has been accomplished.

One of the many lessons that emerges from Yisro is that a complete Jew always maintains a positive attitude about himself, and ultimately about others as well. But one who finds flaw in everything will, G-d forbid, find flaw in Torah and his spiritual obligations as well. This is a timeless idea which one must understand before he begins to study Torah: It’s all a matter of attitude!

“You stirred one another up in your tents”

“You shall discern”

1 18:1
2 Yesser literally means ‘to add’
3 18:21
4 18:16
5 Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter zt’l , the third Gerrer Rebbe
6 the legendary leader of Agudas Yisroel and one of the premiere spokesmen for Torah Jewry
7 Rabbi Sherer, Mesorah Publications, p. 246
8 The Chofetz Chaim explains that the words "?? ?????" (All Purgatory) is an acronym for the root causes of gossiping: Ka’as (anger), leitzonus (scoffing), ga’avah (arrogance), yiush (despair), hefker (feeling lawless), narganus (negativity), and omer mutar (saying it is permissible)
9 Unfortunately we all know people like this.
10 Devorim 1:27


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