“And these are the laws that you must place before them..” Rashi tells us that before them teaches us that Moshe was asked to lay out the laws in perfect clarity. Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explains that “And these are the laws…” refers to the laws governing interpersonal relationships bein adam l’chaveiro. The torah is teaching us that these laws come before all others, derech eretz kadma latorah. Before embarking on a successful journey in the laws between G-d and man, we must first bring to order the laws governing man and his fellow.
We are told in the opening pasuk of this week’s parsha that Yisro “heard” and joined the ranks of the Jewish people. Many of the commentators try to understand what it was the Yisro heard and more importantly, why is it only Yisro that heard? Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe) explains that we know “shamu amim yirgazun – all of the nations heard and feared.” Yisro was not alone, everyone heard about the Jewish nation and the Ribono Shel Olam. However, Yisro responded to the message, “ma shmuah shama U’ba – Yisro hear and came.” Yisro heard, internalized the message, and acted upon it. The burning bush that Moshe approached was sitting there for years. People passed it all the time. Moshe saw it, did not turn aside from the phenomenon, and ultimately approached the divine.
We learn in the shiras hayam זֶה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ (this is my G-d and I will glorify Him). Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe) explains that our charge in life is to find the Ribono Shel Olam in our own unique way. However, in doing so, it is always important to remember אֱלֹ-הֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ (the G-d of my father and I will exhalt Him), that we must bear in mind and build on the traditions of our fathers before us.
The Ribono Shel Olam gives over the 4 terms of redemption to Moshe to be brought back to the Jewish people. One of the terms is v’hotzei eschem mitachas sivlos mitrayim. Rebbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explains the meaning of sivlos mitzrayim. He says that it comes from the word savlanut (patience). Moshe is teaching klal yisroel a message of change. They have become too accustomed to their current circumstances. Change can only come with a new and fresh outlook, with a willingness to rise above the status-quo and compromised circumstances. G-d has granted them an infusion of spirit and strength to break through the shackles of servitude and that will allow them to experience personal and national redemption.
The Parsha begins recounting the names of all of the Shevatim and their families. Rashi, quoting the Medrash, tells us that this was done out of the especial love that the Ribono Shel Olam has for Klal Yisroel. Just as we are told in the prophet Yeshaya that every night G-d takes out the stars and counts them individually, so too we are compared to stars and counted in a similar fashion. The S’fas Emes comments on this striking camparison. We live in a world of darkness. Even on the brightest days, true holiness is obscured. Klal Yisroel, all of us individually, has the capacity to shine a bright light of spirituality that can dispel the darkness and reveal the underlying Kedusha.
We are told in the parsha that Yaakov give you Yosef the portion of Shechem in addition to his equal portion given to the brothers. This portion of Shechem was acquired through the Cherev and Keshes (sword and bow). Rashi tells us that the Cherev is Chochma (wisdom) and the Keshes is Tefillah (prayer) The Shem Mishmuel explains that, as a sword, Chochma needs to constantly be sharpened to remain an effective weapon and that, just as an arrow travels only as far as its bow is flexed, so too our Tefillah and spirituality will only take us as far as we are invested.
When Yosef is no longer able to contain himself in the presence of his brothers, he clears the room before revealing himself. The medrash tells us that Yosef calls out, “Yosef ben Yaakov come to me, Yosef ben Yaakov come to me…” The Baal Shem Tov explains that Yosef was calling on himself to identify whether or not he could reclaim the Yosef ben Yaakov that was part of the collective Shevatim, unaffected by the fact that he was wronged by his brothers. Would he be able to extricate himself from the events that had occurred up until this point. Finally, in a moment alone with his brothers, faced with all of the past, Yosef declares, Ani Yosef — I am Yosef. I am not the viceroy or Egypt, I am your brother of old.
We are told that Yosef was “but a lad”. Often this is taken as a derogatory comment regarding Yosef. Rav Aharon m’Karlin tells us that this was high praise in fact. Naar hayisi gam zakanti , Yosef was able to harness his youthful vitality and drive even as he grew older. This is also illustrated in the concept on Chanukah that hadlakah oseh mitzvah. That youthful fire and ambition sparks many spiritual accomplishments. We must always be vigilant to tap into those sparks of enthusiasm and energy.