Rabbi Berel Wein
It is well known that there is a difference of opinion as to whether Yisro’s arrival in the camp of Israel in the desert occurred before or after the revelation and granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Even if we say that Yisro arrived before the momentous event of Mount Sinai and that the Torah is recording events in a chronological manner, it still is difficult for us to understand. Why is it that this most important event in Jewish history as outlined for us in the Torah is preceded by a rather mundane description of Yisro’s arrival and reception in the camp of Israel? Would it not be more effective to highlight the revelation at Sinai immediately at the beginning of the parsha? And this appears to be especially true since the parsha goes into great detail and some length in describing the circumstances and experience of the revelation at Sinai. Why is there such an apparent emphasis on Yisro and his arrival? And this question certainly is even more difficult if we adopt the opinion that the revelation at Sinai occurred before the arrival of Yisro. It almost seems that by recording for us the entire story of the arrival of Yisro, the Torah somehow diminishes, in emphasis and focus, the narrative regarding the revelation at Sinai itself. If there ever was a stand-alone event in Jewish and in world history, it certainly would be the moment of the revelation and granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So what is the story of Yisro doing being involved in the immortal narrative of the most seminal event in human history? We are all aware of the great dictum of the Talmud that proper worldly behavior precedes the Torah itself.
The order of the subjects in this week’s parsha reinforces this idea clearly and cogently. The Torah records for us the politeness, courtesy, respect, and sensitivity extended to Yisro by Moshe and Aaron and the Elders of Israel and all of the Jewish people when he arrived in their midst. The Torah indulges in great detail in describing the reception that Yisro received. Simple courtesy extended to a stranger is the basis of the Jewish value system. It is what separated Abraham from Sodom. The Ten Commandments and, in fact, the entire Torah itself cannot be understood or appreciated without a grounding in this basic idea of the worth of the human being and of the necessity to honor, welcome, and help of one another. That is why we are not to be murderers, robbers, adulterers, lying witnesses, or people of greed and avarice. The Talmud places great emphasis on the small things in life that make for a wholesome society. It records for us in great solemnity that one of the great virtues of the leading scholars of Torah of its day was that they greeted everyone, no matter who that person was, in pleasantness. This value is emphasized over and over again in the writings of the great men of Israel, throughout the generations. Therefore, the welcome to Yisro must perforce precede the law of the Torah itself for it is the value upon which the Torah itself is based.