Yitro heard, he understood, he took to heart, he implemented, he came, and he became. Yet we know that Yitro was a person who spent his life going from idol to idol, from cult to cult, testing the grounds of worship in a world antithetical to Hashem’s sovereignty. How did Yitro get inspired and join the Jewish nation? Rashi explains what caused this dramatic turnaround: He heard that Hashem split the Red Sea, and he also heard about the war that Amalek waged against the Jewish nation. According to Rashi, it seems that Yitro gained from two separate pieces of information: 1) The splitting of the sea; 2) the war with Amalek and the Jewish nation.
We can ask, isn’t hearing of the miracle of the splitting of the sea enough to cause Yitro’s turnaround? Why did he also seemingly need the information that Amalek waged war with the Jews in order to inspire him?
Rebbe Yitzchak of Vorke, zt”l, explains that when Yitro heard of the great miracles of the splitting of the sea, that was actually enough of an inspiration to cause this turnaround, and indeed he was tempted to become part of the Jewish nation. However, he recognized his low spiritual level and knew that he wouldn’t be able to serve Hashem perfectly. Therefore, he assumed that he couldn’t join them. But then, he also heard about the war against Amalek. On a deeper level, the war with Amalek is a metaphor for the war each Jew has with the yetzer hara. Thus, Yitro understood from the war with Amalek that Hashem desires primarily our battles and our fight against the yetzer hara. This is even more important than our successes. When Yitro heard this, he knew that he too can also join the Jewish nation, and so he did.
Sometimes we are inspired and inclined to reach higher in our lives. To be involved in more noble projects, do more chesed, to learn more Torah, to be part of a group of people who are aspiring to be in the right direction and to reach lofty levels in spirituality, etc. Yet, in those moments we might think that “after further review” we are actually not really on such a level and don’t deserve to attempt and aspire. One may say, “After all the sins I’ve done.” A person can convince himself that he or she is not worthy, and thus may not end up following through. Yitro, a person who was an idol worship connoisseur, teaches us that all this self talk is irrelevant and false. But rather, the opposite is true—meaning, especially since you are in the spiritual trenches, battling day in, day out trying to persevere, it does not matter if you fail. You can still join. You are worthy. To some extent, such a person all the more so should reach for greatness, and attempt to do noble acts, for these struggles that he or she is dealing with are an aspect of life that Hashem desires.
We may put ourselves down at times, and even mock our rite and worthiness to reach for higher levels. But even though we may at times not believe in ourselves, Hashem, however, is on a different wavelength. R’ Yitzchak Fanger brings a story of a boy who came to the Rebbe of Gur. This boy was apparently having a difficult time in his spiritual life, and he asked the Rebbe for chizuk. The Rebbe said: “You have to understand that Hashem does not laugh.” The boy was confused: Does this mean Hashem is so strict, that He is stern and stubborn? The boy went to the Rebbe of Gur’s son and asked him what the Rebbe meant. The son of the Rebbe who was the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva this boy was in, said, “I know you because I am your rebbe and know that you have a hard time getting up in the morning. Let’s say you say ‘that’s it, I am going to be on time to Shacharit tomorrow.’ The next day you show up an hour late and your excuse is that he—your yetzer hara—got to you, but you resolve that tomorrow you will be on time. The next day you are two hours late and again you say the same thing. The following day you are three hours late and this time your excuse is: ‘You have to understand: I got up but I was so exhausted with fighting with the yetzer hara that I had to rest.’ You see, said the son of the Rebbe of Gur, I would laugh when you say that, but Hashem doesn’t laugh at that. He understands your potential, and he, instead of laughing, is waiting eagerly for you to live up to your capabilities. He knows you can do it and He believes in you.
We say in Tehillim (130:1), “From the depths I call to You, Hashem.” Perhaps we can explain that even someone who feels like he or she is in the depths of impurity, and even if that may be true, even so “I call to You, Hashem”; such a person can reach and get close to Hashem. If Hashem believes in us, we need to believe in ourselves.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Brooklyn and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]