The Key To Divine Triumph

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jax, Florida

At a metro station in Washington DC sat a man one cold January morning playing the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. It was calculated that thousands of people passed through the station during this time, most of them on their way to work. It took three minutes before the first passerby, a middle aged man, stopped for a few seconds to listen before he quickly moved along.

A minute later, the violinist received his first tip from a woman who continued walking even as she dropped the money in the till. A few minutes later someone leaned against the wall to listen, but soon glanced at his watch and continued on his way.

The most attention was paid by a three year old boy. His eyes remained transfixed on the violinist even as his mother tagged him along. This was repeated by several other children. They were all forced to move on.

During the 45 minute performance, only 6 people stopped for a short time. A total of $32 was collected from 20 people who did not stop or even relax their gait. No one noticed when he finished playing. No one applauded. No recognition.

No one took heed of the fact that he played one of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Nor was anyone aware that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world, who only two days before played before a packed theater in Boston at an average of $100 per seat.

Joshua Bell’s incognito performance was arranged by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment on perception, taste and priorities of people.1


It is said in the name of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch that there are three progressive levels in the way something can be heard: To hear with one's ears – listen. To hear with the mind – comprehend.  To hear with all 248 limbs of the body – to sense the subject matter throughout one's entire being.2


We all encounter moments of inspiration that can lift us above the everyday mundane routine; moments of mystical expression that can change our entire perspective. But instead of stopping to observe, we just keep moving, oblivious to the presence of heavenly splendor and grace.

Even when our attention is captivated, we tend to move on before we have a chance to sufficiently absorb and internalize the meaning of it all. We may stare a miracle in the face and see nothing but coincidence and the freak of nature. We are so absorbed in our daily grind that we see not and hear not the inherent call of the Divine.

The story of Yisro, as related in this week’s Parsha, is about the need to surmount this prevailing syndrome.

Of all the Biblical heroes, none have been awarded the privilege of having their name affixed to a Torah portion, not even Avraham or Moshe. This of course makes Yisro all the more unique.

Not only is there a Parsha bearing Yisro’s name, it is actually one of the most distinguished Torah portions of all. The section containing the miraculous revelation at Sinai, the most auspicious event in the annals of human history, is called "Yisro."

What merited Yisro this great honor? What lesson is the Torah conveying by linking him with this celebrated episode?

Our Parsha relates that upon hearing what the Almighty had done for Israel, Yisro was so affected that he actually left Midian and joined the fledgling nation of Israel in the desert. "Yisro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that G‑d did to Moshe and to Israel His people, that G‑d had taken Israel out of Egypt. . . And Yisro came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the wilderness where he was encamped by the mountain of G‑d." (Exodus 18:1-5)

While ancient Midian was not a world power on par with Egypt or Babylon, it was indeed a distinguished metropolis and Yisro was its revered leader. Still, when Yisro hears what the Lord had done for Moses and his people, he leaves his royal comforts behind and joins the Israelites in the arid wilderness.

Yisro was not the only one to hear about what the Almighty had done to Egypt. The entire world knew that G‑d had destroyed Egypt and redeemed His people. "Nations heard and trembled with fear," states the verse (Exedos15:14). Yet for them it was back to bacon and eggs the next morning. None considered making a meaningful change in their lives. Yisro was different. While the rest of the world remained undaunted, he was moved to action.

What did Yisro “hear” that so captivated and transformed him? What prompted him to give up his royal honors and luxurious lifestyle and join a slave people in a barren wasteland?

Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Zevachim 116b), asserts that Yisro was inspired by the miracles of the Splitting of the Sea and the War with Amalek. While both these events were common knowledge to the rest of the world community, Yisro reacted to these miracles with an epiphany-type realization. Hence, he abandoned his position as the Priest of Midian to stand alongside the Jewish nation. While nobody else cared enough to bat an eye, Yisro heard and came. He would never be the same person again.

Upon reflection, one could imagine that the Splitting of the Sea was a phenomenal miracle – the kind that might evoke a need for action and change. But what was so inspiring about the Battle with Amalek? Was this victory more miraculous than the Ten Plagues and the Exodus of Egypt?

The commentaries note that the Ten Plagues and the Exodus had actually engendered within Yisro a profound sense of faith in the G‑d of Israel. These spectacular wonders have led him to acknowledge G‑d's mastery over the world. But they did not motivate him to change his life.

As far as Yisro was concerned, the world had once and for all been liberated and transformed as a result of the wicked Egyptians’ defeat, much as he himself had metamorphosed by those events. There was, hence, no need to do anything. Despite his theological awakening, Yisro was content to remain a “righteous gentile.”

However, the chutzpah of Amalek, his unprovoked attack on Israel – coming as it did immediately after the splitting of the sea – had shaken him to his core.

How could this be? How could the extraordinary wonders which the Almighty performed on behalf of the Israelites have no impact on Amalek? Surely Amalek did not miss this momentous event. Yet, out of sheer malice, he chose to attack the Jewish people. He was ready to sacrifice everything just so that the Divine glory would not sustain the enormous impact of its recent victory.

To Yisro this was astounding. The notion that in face of incontrovertible Divine miracles there could remain defiance. The fact that the overwhelming evidence of G‑d's supreme power did not succeed in neutralizing the opposition was entirely disconcerting. It was proof of a stubborn and nefarious force, the likes of which he could not imagine, one that cares not in the least about logic or truth.

The latter led Yisro to the realization that the war against G‑d and Divine reality is irrational and perpetual. In light of his epiphany, Yisro saw the need to change his paradigm. It was now clear that in this cosmic struggle there can be no neutrality. One is either part of the solution or part of the problem. Only by way of actual support was it possible to stem this brazen force of falsehood and impurity.  Neither Philosophy, nor good will, is useful in the battle against evil. Action was the only response to this mindless form of rebellion.

By naming our Parsha after Yisro the Torah validates his contention. Action is indeed the key to receiving the Torah and Divine revelation, the means by which spirituality and holiness is able to triumph of over impurity and evil.

As articulated in the following anecdote only when we learn to recognize Divine truth and instruction and are willing to pursue it vigorously can we increase Divine inspiration and blessing in our lives and the world we live in:

In the 1960's Rabbi JJ Hecht appeared as a guest on the Barry Farber talk show. The topic of discussion was the prevailing hippie movement and their quest for meaning.

Early in the show, Rabbi Hecht raised the following query. With all these young people in search of truth, one could only imagine that there would be a rush on the various houses of faith and worship. Why in their pursuit of truth have these youngsters not turned to theology and religion?

Towards the end of the program, Mr. Farber addressed Rabbi Hecht: “Rabbi, You asked a question but never offered a response. I know you're a smart man, you would not ask a question to which you have not a reply. So would you care to give us the answer?”

The Rabbi offered the following brilliant rejoin: “The reason why the hippies do not turn towards religion for answers is because ‘though they are looking for truth, they are not looking with truth.’ While we often talk about our search for truth, we lack the commitment and dedication to make changes based on our findings.” 3

The underlying lesson of Yisro's story is that in order to become a conduit and receptacle for supernal revelation and inspiration, we must be receptive and responsive to Divine manifestation and instruction. We must be willing to make the necessary changes when confronted with that truth. Only by taking a step forward can we anchor these transcendent moments and employ them towards self transformation.

May our sensitivity and awareness of the Divine call and ensuing actions hasten the era of redemption and reward, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.