Latest update: May 23rd, 2013
“Yisro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything Hashem did for Moshe and Yisrael, His nation – that Hashem had taken Yisrael out of Mitzraim.” — Shemos 18:1
The Torah tells us that Yisro heard about the wonders Hashem had brought, and he joined the Jewish people. Rashi explains that while Yisro heard about all of the miracles, the two that actually moved him were the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek. The others were impressive, but these alone actually affected him.
This Rashi is difficult to understand. How can those two events even be mentioned in the same breath? Kriyas Yam Suf (the sea splitting) was the greatest miracle ever revealed to man. The war with Amalek may have been a miracle, but it was nowhere near as stupendous. At the time of the battle, we numbered six hundred thousand men between twenty and sixty years of age. The Jews weren’t soldier – they were born slaves – but they were armed and fighting for their lives. Many a small band of people fighting for their existence has beaten powerful armies. Of all the miracles, why should this be part of what moved Yisro?
The answer to this question is based on understanding one of the most difficult dilemmas in Creation: free will. To give man credit for making himself into what he is, Hashem gave him the ability to choose good or bad, right or wrong. By making the difficult choices presented to him, he is considered the one who shaped himself and forever, he can enjoy the rewards of his labor.
However, here is the problem: Man has wisdom that is greater than the malachim (angels). Man understands that he was put into this world for a few short years, given a mission to accomplish, and when he leaves this thing we call life, he will forever be exactly what he shaped himself into. Every mitzvah is designed to help him grow, and every sin damages him. The stakes are very high, the risks and rewards are great — and he understands that. He is fully aware that who he will be for eternity is in his hands.
If so, how does man have free will? How is it possible he would choose anything other than following every nuance of every commandment exactly as his Creator said he should? In theory, he would have free will. In theory, he can choose poorly. But he never would because it would be self-destructive. How then does man have free will in any practical way?
Blurring the Consciousness of Man
To allow for practical free will, Hashem added another dimension to man to blur his consciousness.
To help understand this feature, let’s imagine that you are watching Shmeil, a young yeshiva bachur. It’s Purim, and he is drunk. You watch as Shmeil walks onto a busy street.
You grab him by the arm and say, “Shmeil! What are you doing?”
“Whad am I doinnn? I’m playing, playing with the pretty cars.”
“Shmeil! You are going to get hit by one of those cars!”
“Yeah. I know. Isn’t that fun? Smack, Crack. Break my back. Hee, hee, hee.”
“Shmeil! Don’t you understand? If a car hits you are going to be in the hospital!”
“Yeah. break those bones. Crack. Crack. Splatter goes me. Hee, hee, hee. And then. . . and then, they take me to the hospital. All those nice doctors with the white coats. Maybe they can put some pins in my legs that set off the metal detectors in airport. Ding. Ding. Ding.”
What you are watching is a great disconnect. Part of Shmeil gets it. He understands that playing in traffic is dangerous, but in his current state the danger doesn’t register; he can’t see the consequences. His normally sharp intellect is dulled, and he is capable of making choices that are quite unwise.
The Neshamah and the Ape
In a similar sense, Hashem blurred our understanding – not by making us drunk but by putting us into a body. This body isn’t simply a physical entity; it has its own desires, hungers, and appetites – all the drives and instincts needed to keep it alive. By taking the brilliant part of man and inserting into this physical entity, Hashem has effectively blurred our vision. The “I” who thinks and feels now has another dimension. Part brilliant and wise, part just instincts and appetites, the darkness of physicality blinds my mind from seeing consequences and truth.
Now man has free will. Now man can just as easily choose good as bad because his inner sight, his wisdom, is blurred. Much like the drunk yeshiva bachur, he can’t see the consequences and doesn’t relate to the danger.
This seems to be the answer to Yisro. He saw two miracles. One was very lofty, a clear miracle; the other was very mundane, something that spoke directly to his nefesh ha’bahami, his animal soul. When he heard about the splitting of the sea, that is G-d-type of stuff. Hurricanes, typhoons, droughts –those are the things G-d controls. But this was war, and war is here and now. War is very concrete. There was a part of him that very powerfully moved by the danger, the realness of the moment. Even though the war with Amalek paled in comparison to the splitting of the sea, it spoke directly to the animal soul of Yisro, and he was moved.
By being aware of our inner makeup and understanding the different forces that play out in our personality, we are able to become wise to ourselves and better accomplish our mission in life. The key is to allow that wise part of me, the brilliant neshamah, to control my physical side so I can reach the greatness that all human are destined for.
About the Author: Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues. All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at the www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android.
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