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Yisro: Acting on Inspiration

This week’s Parsha features one of the most powerful and impactful scenes in Jewish history: Matan Torah. Standing united at the foot of Har Sinai, the Jewish people hear G-d speak directly to them, and receive the Ten Commandments, which contain within them all of Torah. It is a pivotal moment, one of the cornerstones of Jewish faith and heritage. One might think that the name of the Parsha itself might allude to the incredible events recounted within. And yet, this incredible and foundational story is captured within another story, that of Yisro, Moshe’s gentile father-in-law, who comes to join the Jewish people.

What was so special about Yisro, aside from his relation to Moshe, that enabled him to merit the auspicious, timeless association between his name and the revelation at Sinai?

The commentaries (Rashi 18:1 and others) note that Yisro was inspired by what he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek, the nation that attacked the Jews shortly after they left Egypt. Rav Wolbe points out that some commentaries explain that Yisro actually came to join the Jewish people after Matan Torah, and yet the Torah changes the chronology of events when recounting the story because Yisro possessed specific characteristics that are essential prerequisites for acquiring Torah.

When Kriyas Yam Suf occurred, the Meforshim tell us that all liquid in the world split at that moment. What an incredible sight to behold! One might expect thousands of newcomers to Judaism flocking to the Sinai desert after such an experience. And yet, it seems that every other human being went right back to his or her daily life, barely batting an eyelash at this clearly supernatural experience.

One trait that set Yisro apart was his ability to act upon inspiration. As discussed previously in other places, inspiration and motivation must be captured and distilled into manageable, tangible steps, concretized into actionable goals, in order to lead to growth and change. Yisro is lauded as a righteous individual whose legacy is forever tired to Torah because he understood the power of taking action. When he heard about the splitting of the sea, the war with Amalek, and the incredible revelation and Har Sinai, he could have easily said to himself, “Wow! How amazing!,” and returned to his not-so-mundane daily life leader of all of Midyan. Perhaps his next few weeks would be a bit more elevated, a bit more imbued with spirituality – and then that, too, would fade, as it did in the rest of the world.

Rather than allow that to happen, however, Yisro hurried to channel his inspiration, and left behind his illustrious title and comfortable life to join the Jewish people. Rashi (18:5) notes that the Torah goes out of its way to repetitively mention that Yisro came to join the Jews in the desert to highlight this great sacrifice on Yisro’s part.

During one year of my graduate school training, I worked in an outpatient clinic at a large hospital in New York, providing therapy for college-age young adults. Many of these young adult patients were referred for therapy straight from the psychiatric inpatient unit at that same hospital. On the inpatient unit, psychologists ran groups and provided one-on-one therapy services for the young adults, planting seeds about the efficacy and potential benefits of therapy, hoping that patients would adhere to treatment recommendations and pursue therapy once discharged from the hospital. Many of these young adults had just experienced significant stressors and were struggling greatly to cope with their lives as they were living them. The brief introduction to therapies like CBT and DBT that they experienced while in the hospital were, for some, the first glimmer of hope after months and sometimes years of darkness and despair.

As with most programs of this kind, there was often a waitlist that referred patients were placed on until a slot opened for them to receive outpatient services. I don’t (yet) have data on this, but anecdotally I observed that those patients who came directly off the inpatient unit with little to no waiting time tended to fair better and engage in treatment with higher levels of motivation (at least initially) than those who had to wait longer. It would not surprise me if this difference was due to the immediate concretizing of inspiration, the flash of lightning, as discussed last week, that illuminated these young peoples’ lives briefly enough to light a path to follow.

Concretizing inspiration in whatever shape or form is an essential prerequisite to growth in all areas, whether emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. It is for this reason that the entire story of Matan Torah becomes forever connected to Yisro, who most clearly demonstrated this important attribute. Before truly engaging in Torah study and practice, one must strive to harness and refine this quality. It is all too easy to leave the thunder and lightning and draw-dropping wonder of Matan Torah – or any other pivotal, formative life experience – and ride the high for as long as it will carry you, until it doesn’t.

Following the Siyum HaShas, a relative of mine, who self-identifies as “not the strongest learner,” took it upon himself to start learning Amud Yomi, one one-sided page (half a Daf) of Gemara each day. Even though, as his children put it, it will take him “forever” (15 or so years) to complete Shas in this way, it is not the end goal that truly matters. Rather, in taking an actionable step, he distilled the mind-blowing awe, inspiration, and emotion he experienced into a tangible and realistic ritual that will ultimately change his life.

Before accepting the Torah, we must keep in mind this essential message of Yisro: Whatever the setting, situation, or event that inspires us, we must strive to take immediate action, to do something concrete to inculcate that inspiration into our lives.

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