Thursday, February 08, 2007

On Yitro: Did You Hear Anything?

Avraham Avinu became famous as a believer in and proponent of one true G-d. When he became aware of Avraham's antics, King Nimrod threatened him and then followed through. He threw Avraham into a furnace full of flames. Avraham came out of the fire, without a scratch, without a burn. While this happened, his brother Nachor watched, hedging his bet. He decides that if Avraham comes out unscathed, he'll side with him, but if Avraham dies he'll tell Nimrod that he's with him. When a miracle occurs and Avraham survives, Nachor tells Nimrod that he's with Avraham. So Nimrod throws Nachor into the fire. And the end of the story is that Nachor dies because his belief was not genuine like his brother's, rather it was conditional and unreal.

A question that isn't usually asked: Why did Nimrod throw Nachor into the fire after Avraham had just walked out of it alive. Nimrod was proven wrong, he lost the bet. It seems strange that he then turns to the next guy and asks if he's on the same team and throws him into the fire!

Rabbi Addess, the Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Yaakov in Israel asked this question in a talk on Parshat Yitro. He used a good look at the opening line of Yitro to explain this story as well as vice versa.

We are told that "Yitro heard". The first question we need answered upon hearing that he heard is WHAT specifically was it that inspired him to convert to Judaism. Rashi provides this information, telling us that Yitro heard about Kriyat Yam Suf and about Amalek. The next thing that needs to be explained is why Rashi felt it necessary to say Yitro heard TWO things. The pasuk says in general terms that he heard of all that Hashem did. While narrowing it down to one thing would be sensible and helpful, but what prompts Rashi to break it into two things. The Gemora that Rashi is based on presents several separate and distinct opinions regarding what it was that so shook up Yitro. Two of the opposing views are Kriyat Yam Suf and Amalek. What prompted Rashi to combine these two views into one?

Rashi's approach can be understood through a brief lesson in psychology. What happens when someone suggests that we're wrong about something, and we recognize his or her criticism as accurate and true? Two things can happen, and one of these two possible reactions generally wins out over the other: We either humbly admit that we were wrong, or we react resentfully BECAUSE we know the other person is right.

When they heard about Yetziat Mitzrayim the majority of the world's nations stood in awe of the one true G-d and his chosen nation Israel. Amalek went the other way. They realized that there is one true G-d and that the Jewish People are proof of that reality. They rationally understood this reality, but they refused to accept it. So they reacted by trying to destroy the Jewish People BECAUSE they were the proof of the G-d that they didn't want to accept.

This is why Rashi tells us that Yitro heard two things, because these two things are significantly linked. Yitro heard about Kriyat Yam Suf, the grand finale of Yetziat Mitzrayim. And he heard about Amalek's reaction to it all. He realized that there were two choices, and he opted to go the other way. He realized that having heard the truth, he was now bound to either fight 'em or join 'em. He decided to join them.

The end of the story of the Kivshan HaAish actually makes a lot of sense. Nimrod felt threatened by Avraham's opposition to the idol worship of Nimrod's reign, so he challenged Avraham to prove that he was right - which Avraham did. But Nimrod (like Par'oh) couldn't admit defeat even as the truth became abundantly clear. And so he threw Avraham's brother into the fire. Out of anger, like Amalek, he fought anyone that that represented truth. He opposed anyone that associated with Avraham BECAUSE he knew Avraham was right and he was wrong.

A related thought: I've noticed that the letters of the Hebrew word for belief and protest are the same (EMUNA & MA'ANA). I think this is because they come from the same place inside a human being. Often, the biggest deniers are the ones that actually believe most strongly, but can't allow themselves to join on to the side of truth, so they fight fast and hard instead.

May we be blessed to acknowledge and embrace the truth, rather than fighting and denying it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Thanks for sharing. Tell whoever was calling you blog a little shvach to read this post.

February 8, 2007 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks, you made me smile. The person that said that the blog was shvach lately always skips the Torah, it doesn't count for him as "the blog."

February 8, 2007 at 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing Dvar Torah. Thank you. If Torah doesn't count as "the blog" then someone has their priorities wrong, and it's not you!
Shabbat Shalom

February 9, 2007 at 3:31 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

MSB - thanks. The word amazing is high praise indeed. All I can say is thanks. And - that I'm reminded of the time that I saw Rav Noach Weinberg exiting the Beis Medrash after giving a talk and a fellow who apparently had never heard Torah presentation before stopped him and said, "that was a great speech Rabbi!" And Rav Noach replied - "It's some Torah we have, isn't it?"

I was struck by that Torah idea back when I first heard it many years ago (sigh). I was learning in BMT (was there for about 5 years) in a valley under Bayit VeGan, which is built high up on a mountain. I don't remember from whom I'd heard that Rav Addess was a rabbi worth hearing because he said original mussar related ideas. This talk was the first I heard from him and it blew me away.

February 10, 2007 at 9:08 PM  

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