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Parsha Perspectives: Yisro-Individualized Holiness

“Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (Shemos 18:1)

What motived Yisro to leave his life of comfort and prominence in Midyan, journey to the middle of the desert and join the fledgling Jewish nation? What moved Yisro to give up the priesthood of Midyan with its fame and fortune and embrace the God of Israel? The Talmud quotes various opinions. Some explain that he heard about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, others explain he heard of the exceptional Jewish bravery in the battle against Amaleykand still others maintain it was the awesome glory of Sinaitic revelation that caused Yisro to travel from Midyan to the Jewish encampment. Whatever the reason, Yisro felt a burning desire to connect and be part of the Jewish people.  Yet, only a few verses later the Torah states, “Moses saw his father in law off, and he went away to his land.” (Shemos 18:27) The Torah in Bamidbar tells us that Yisro said to Moshe, “… I will travel back to my home and to my birthplace.” (Bamidbar 10:30) Why did Yisro leave? Why did Yisro choose to return home after he had sacrificed so much to join the Jewish people?

hen Menachem Mendel from the city of Kotzk was a young boy, he was convinced by an acquaintance to spend some time learning by the great Chassidic master, the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin (Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, 1745-1815). After a few months away from home, Menachem Mendel’s father, upset that his son had chosen to follow in the ways of Chassidus (Menachem Mendel’s family were “misnagdim,” those opposed to the Chassidic movement), decided to travel to Lublin to persuade his young son to return home. When he found his son in the home of the Chozeh, he said, Menachem Mendel, this is not the way I raised you, this is not the tradition of your forefathers, I beg of you, return with me and embrace the path of service of your ancestors.” Menachem Mendel replied quoting a verse from the Shira (song) in last week’s Parsha, “….this is my God (Zeh Keyli), and I will make Him great, the God of my father (Elokay Avi), and I will ascribe to Him exaltation.” (Shemos 15:2) “Father, I fully embrace all you have taught and conveyed to me, I fully accept the ideas and ideals you have imprinted on my soul. But it is not enough for me to live with “your God,” I must find “my God.” You have given me Elokay Avi, the God of my father, now I must find and cultivate a relationship with Zeh Keyli, my personal God.” Young Menachem Mendel grew up to become the famed Chassidic luminary, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859).

The Kotzker teaches us a profound idea. There are two components in man’s relationship with God:

Elokai Avi, the God of my father – each of us inherits a spiritual legacy from the generations that preceded us. I learn the spiritual ideals and outlooks of my parents. I accept their values and appreciate their philosophy and theology.

Zeh Keyli, this is my God – but I must also strive to forge my own personal and special bond with God. I must discover, “My God,” I must uncover what makes me unique and use it to build a bond between myself and my Father above.

Perhaps this is why Yisro went back to Midyan. When Yisro camped with the Jewish people, the text refers to him as “Chosein Moshe, (the father in law of Moshe)” – his individual identity eclipsed by his relationship to the Prophet of Israel. Although it was a great honor to be identified as Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro felt that he had personal contributions to make. He journeyed to the Jewish people to learn and understand God and His Torah. He journeyed to the Jewish people to establish a spiritual foundation. Once this foundation was solidified, Yisro knew he had to build his individual bond with the Almighty. This individuality was to be expressed in his ability to influence his family, friends and community back in Midyan. It would have been easy to remain with the Jewish people and bask in the perpetual holiness and revelation. But he knew he had the potential to influence and help shape the theological and spiritual thinking of others. He had to go back to Midyan. He came to the desert to find Elokai Avi and now it was his mission to find his Zeh Keyli; his personal God.

We each possess collective and individual identities. Our collective identity is forged by the generations who came before us. This identity is solidified through the lessons of our parents and their parents before them. But collective, historical identity is not enough. We must strive to create our own unique relationships and personal connections to God. We must try to find our individual strengths, talents and abilities and use them in the service of God. We may observe the same mitzvos, recite the same prayers and share common practices but we are individualistically unique when it comes to our relationship with God. We each nurture our Elokay Avi and celebrate our Zeh Keyli.

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