By Rabbi Zvi Belsky
My father zt”l, whose seventh yahrtzeit is this Friday, Yud Tes Shevat, asked a question on Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Yisro.
The posuk says, “Vayavo Yisro chosein Moshe uvonov ve’ishto el Moshe el hamidbar” (Shemos 18:5). Yisro came with Moshe’s wife and children to Moshe in the desert. Rashi asks: Didn’t we already know that Moshe was in the desert? Why did the Torah need to tell us that Yisro came to the desert?
The answer, says Rashi, is that the Torah is emphasizing “shivcho shel Yisro,” the praise of Yisro. Yisro was living in a place of high honor in the world, yet his heart moved him and he willingly left it all behind to go to the desert, a desolate place, in order to learn Torah.
However, just three pesukim later, the Torah says, “Vayesapeir Moshe lechosno eis kol asher asah Hashem.” Rashi says on that posuk: “Vayesapeir Moshe lechosno: limshoch es libo lekorvo laTorah.” Moshe related to his father-in-law everything that Hashem did for the Jewish people in order to draw Yisro’s heart and bring him closer to Torah.
The question is that just three pesukim earlier, the Torah testified to Yisro’s greatness, as Rashi explained that he left a place of great honor to go out to the desert to study Torah. Does a person this great need kiruv? Why, on such a person, does the Torah emphasize that Moshe wanted “limshoch es libo lekorvo laTorah”?
My father simply said on this question that we see from here that there is no limit to the amount of chizuk a person needs in Torah and yiras Shomayim.
Perhaps we can add a layer of insight to my father’s words based on the following story.
A number of years ago, my brother, Rav Avrohom, suggested that I visit an elderly man named Rabbi Emile Dresdner. Rabbi Dresdner used to live in the neighborhood of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. He would occasionally daven there and was friendly with my father. He had since moved into a senior living center in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn and appreciated visitors.
I visited him one time before the outbreak of Covid and quickly realized what a great treasure he was. He had known many tzaddikim over the years and had wonderful stories and divrei Torah to share. Unfortunately, Rabbi Dresdner passed away not long after I saw him, and I didn’t get to visit him again.
One of the gems he shared with me was a story he heard from both Rav Elya Chazan, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, and Rav Shaul Brus, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Bais Hatalmud.
In 1937, a very famous baal teshuvah, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, passed away. Dr. Birnbaum started his life as a secular Jew in Austria. Before his twentieth birthday, as a university student in Vienna in the early 1880s, he created a movement for cultural Zionism. It was actually he who coined the term Zionist. He was an intellectual and a prolific writer, and influenced many people with his ideas promoting a resettling of the “ancient national homeland of the Jews.”
Years later, when Herzl had his awakening in the wake of the 1894 Dreyfus trial and began to organize for his vision of political Zionism, Dr. Birnbaum joined forces with him for a short time.
Eventually, though, Dr. Birnbaum became a baal teshuvah. His process of teshuvah began on a ship sailing to the United States in 1908, while still a secular intellectual. He later wrote, “The first sensation of the Master of the Universe was awoken in me as I was traveling across the ocean.” The Chazon Ish used to reference Nathan Birnbaum’s transformation to illustrate the principle that emunah grows from a person’s encounter with the vastness of heaven and earth.
His teshuvah was so sincere and shocking that his contemporaries referred to him as “der baal teshuvah.” He became a trusted servant of gedolei Torah, eventually becoming the secretary general of Agudas Yisroel in Europe in 1919. In 1922, he traveled to America on behalf of Agudas Yisroel together with Rav Meir Don Plotsky and other illustrious rabbonim. That mission, in many ways, is credited with the creation of Agudas Yisroel of America.
When Dr. Birnbaum passed away in 1937, he was a well-known hero to Torah Jewry, a person who had, in his past life, been a leader of the secular Jewish world and made a complete transformation into an ehrlicher Yid in the fullest sense. He showed the way for future baalei teshuvah, and his passing was a great loss to Klal Yisroel. Knowing how important Dr. Birnbaum was, some talmidim in the Kamenitzer Yeshiva felt that they should notify their rebbi, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, of the terrible news. They approached him while he was learning in the bais medrash and told him what they heard.
To their great surprise, Rav Boruch Ber gave no response. The talmidim wondered if perhaps Rav Boruch Ber simply didn’t trust information that came from news sources, so they asked one of the chashuvei Kamenitz, someone they knew Rav Boruch Ber trusted, to inform the rosh yeshiva of Nathan Birnbaum’s passing. When the fellow told Rav Boruch Ber about Dr. Birnbaum’s passing, Rav Boruch Ber got up and started to dance. Then he sat down and continued to learn.
Assuming that there was a misunderstanding, they asked another great talmid chochom to tell Rav Boruch Ber the news. When he did so, Rav Boruch Ber got up again and danced. The talmidim were embarrassed and couldn’t understand why their rebbi would do so.
Rav Boruch Ber had gone back to learn when someone approached him and asked the rosh yeshiva to explain the meaning of his dancing upon hearing this sad news. Rav Boruch Ber responded: “Nathan Birnbaum originally became a baal teshuvah and embraced a Torah life as a ‘choker,’ an academic and an intellectual. He accepted upon himself ohl Torah and mitzvos with truth and complete dedication. However, he did so as a result of his own investigation, inquiry, examination and probing, what we call ‘chakirah.’
“One must always be afraid of chakirah, because an intellectual is at risk of making a further chakirah and coming to the opposite conclusion, chas veshalom. Thus,” said Rav Boruch Ber, yetzt az ehr iz niftar gevoren ah tzaddik gomur, zol ich nisht tantzen?! Now that he passed away a tzaddik gomur, should I not dance?”
Dr. Birnbaum had completed his mission on this world and passed away as a tzaddik gomur. The Torah he learned and his yiras Shomayim were b’shleimus, and his teshuvah was therefore complete and perfect.
Perhaps this is what Rashi is saying. Of course Yisro was great, as the Torah testifies that after sitting in a place of high honor in the world, he left it all behind to go to the desert to learn Torah. Yisro was familiar with all the idols of the world, having worshipped them all before coming to the conclusion that “Hashem echod uShemo echod” (see Rashi 18:8).
But that is not enough, says Rashi. “Vayesapeir Moshe lechosno: limshoch es libo lekorvo laTorah.” Moshe Rabbeinu knew that Yisro believed in Hashem and in His Torah, but he needs more. Limshoch es libo, the heart has to feel that which the mind knows.
Rashi in Parshas Beshalach (Shemos 15:2), on the posuk of “Zeh Keili ve’anveihu Elokei avi va’aromimenhu” says: “Lo ani techilas hakedusha ela muchzekes ve’omedes li hakedusha v’elokuso alai mimei avosai.” A Yid has to feel that his connection to Hashem, the kedusha that he possesses, is not something that he created through his own understanding. Rather, it is first and foremost an inheritance he has from his forefathers.
And perhaps this is what Rashi mean three pesukim later. The posuk says, “Atah yodati ki gadol Hashem mikol ha’elohim – Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods” (18:11). On this, says Rashi, “Atah yodati: I recognized Hashem in the past, but now even more.” Moshe imbued Yisro with a new dimension in his heart.
The sefer Mipi Seforim Vesofrim (Devorim, page 102) quotes from the Chiddushei Harim, who explains a Medrash (Mechilta, Yisro 18:3) that before Matan Torah, there was a place for chakirah to strengthen one’s emunah in Hashem, but as a result of Matan Torah, a Yid’s neshomah is so connected to Torah that just by learning Torah and working to purify one’s middos through the Torah, his neshomah, which is a cheilek Eloka mima’al, shines with an awareness of Hashem. “And every Yid is capable of achieving this level through limud haTorah.”
The Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Stein zt”l, used to explain the posuk in Tehillim, “Tuv ta’am voda’as lamdeini ki bemitzvosecha he’emonti.” Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem to teach him the ta’am voda’as, the explanations and depth of the mitzvos. But only ki bemitzvosecha he’emonti, only because regardless of the reasons or even whether I understand at all, I already believe without question.