Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
Timing is Everything
The parsha begins by telling us that Yisro heard. What did he hear? Rashi cites the opinions of Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Yehoshua (Zevachim 116a) that he heard of the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek, and this caused him to come and convert to Judaism.
At first glance, it is somewhat puzzling that both of these phenomena contributed to his coming. The splitting of the sea was an indisputable open miracle while the war with Amalek was fought in a conventional fashion. In fact, the Torah itself testifies that at times during the war (when Moshe's hands were down) that Amalek prevailed. What did the war with Amalek contribute to causing Yisro to come and convert?
The Be'er Yosef (Rabbi Yosef Salant z'l) suggests a fascinating insight. The Torah tells us as part of the Shiras HaYam - the song of praise and exaltation - that the children of Israel sang to Hashem following their miraculous deliverance, "people heard and trembled, they were mortified by Israel's ascendancy. All the inhabitants of Canaan melted in fear of destruction and conquest" (Shemos 15:14-15).
At this moment in history, the Jewish nation was invincible, impenetrable. This perception and fear did not last long. When Amalek attacked, they accomplished "asher korcha" (Devarim 25:18) which our Rabbis understand to mean in addition to ‘chancing upon you,' as ‘who cooled you off.' Rashi explains that the pedestal that the Jewish nation was placed upon as a result of the Splitting of the Sea was toppled by Amalek. It may be compared to a boiling hot bath into which no person could descend. One scoundrel came, jumped into it; although he himself was scolded, he cooled it off for others. Similarly, the luster of the Jewish people was now diminished.
It is thus these two contrasting events that Yisro heard. Who is this Yisro? Shemos Rabbah (1:9) teaches that Pharoah has three advisers who sat on his executive committee, advising him what to do with his Jewish problem. Bilaam, Iyov (Job), and Yisro. Yisro is a recognized world leader and adviser. In addition, Yisro is an accomplished theologian who studied all existing religions of the day, and chose Judaism above all the rest (Tanchuma Yisro 7). Moreover, the Mechiltah informs us that Yisro was living in an environment that afforded him much honor and recognition, yet he abandoned it all to go to the desert, a place of literal desolation, to study and accept Torah.
The damage done by the war with Amalek, the blow to the honor and dignity of the fledgling Jewish nation, following miraculous salvation at the splitting of the Red Sea, was restored by Yisro's embracing Judaism. The feeling of vulnerability that Israel felt by being attacked by Amalek was now replaced with greater self confidence and self esteem by Yisro's choosing on his own to convert to Judaism. Timing is everything!
This lesson is timeless. At different times there are different mitzvos and priorities. The Rabbis describe the mitzvah of Moshe's taking the remains of Yosef as they were leaving Egypt as "chacham lev yikach mitzvos - the wise man busies himself with mitzvos" (Proverbs 10:7). At first glance, why award Moshe with this special designation? Were not the rest of the Jewish people involved in the mitzvah of bizas Mitzrayim, fulfilling the prophecy to Avraham Avinu that the slaves will leave with great wealth? The answer is obvious! While Moshe and Bnei Yisroel were involved with mitzvos, Moshe's were more demanding, less lucrative, and he seized the moment.
We are living in special and challenging times. We can not ignore the many who are experiencing economic hardships. A genuine interested show of concern is a fulfillment of "nosei b'ol im chaveiro" (Avos 6:6). "Feeling his plight" is a warranted mitzvah of the day. Increased support of local Torah institutions is especially necessary to compensate for the many who are presently unable pay their yeshiva tuition.
Finally, this past week the Jewish world lost a Yisro in the form of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, z"l. He, like Yisro, demonstrated initiative, and at a time when the Jewish nation needed a boost to its morale, Rabbi Weinberg created the network of kiruv rechokim throughout the world. As Yisro of old, he not only restored many to their roots, but the raised the level of Jewish pride and identity.
May we follow the example of Rabbi Weinberg, like Yisro before him, and recognize our opportunities to seize the moment and involve ourselves in the performance of mitzvos.