The Bookends of Parshas Yisro Teach Us: Slowly but Surely

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

The Jewish people have been at war for almost four months now. The immediate desire, naturally, is for victory. We live in an age of instant gratification – fast food, internet access, and the constant yearning for quick solutions, be it peace or the Messiah’s arrival. However, our weekly Torah portion, Yisro, offers a universally applicable lesson: the importance of gradual progress.

Rabbi Avraham S.B. Sofer (the Kesav Sofer), in his commentary on Yisro, draws wisdom from the verse at the end of the parsha (Shemos 20:23): “וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלוֹת עַל מִזְבְּחִי, Do not go up the steps to my altar”

ולא תעלה במעלת על מזבחי אשר לא תגלה ערותך עליו (כ’ , כ”ג ). מאד צריך לדקדק בזהירות יתירה שלא לפסוע פסיעה גסה לעלות על במתי הקודש, אלא השלמתו תהיה בהדרגה לאט לאט, כי אם יעלה בלי הדרגה מעלות בקודש אז יש לחשוש כי יפול ח”ו מאיגרא רמא וכו’

“You shall not ascend by steps upon My altar, that your nakedness not be exposed on it” (Shemos 20:23). There is a great need to be extraordinarily careful not to stride arrogantly to ascend the holy stage; rather, its completion should be gradual, slow, because if one ascends without order – steps in holiness – then there is room for concern that he will fall, heaven forbid, from the top rung.

While climbing the mizbe’ach by steps might seem quicker than using a ramp, this instruction symbolizes the dangers of rushing towards spiritual growth.

 As Rabbi Sofer explains, hasty ascents risk falls and crashes. The verse is understood as a warning not to stride arrogantly. Rather, one’s spiritual progression must happen slowly, subtly, over time – like walking up a ramp rather than climbing steep stairs. This principle applies to all areas of life: sudden changes without graduality can be perilous.

A similar idea emerges with Yisro. While Rashi suggests his conversion occurred after witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea (Shemos 18:1), the Mechilta implies a later regression:

וַיָּשָׁב יִתְרוֹ לְאַרְצוֹ – אָמַר רַבִּי נָתָן לֹא כְּגֵר שֶׁגַּיֵּר משֶׁה גַּיֵּר יִתְרוֹ אֶלָּא כְּאֶחָד מִן הַגֵּרִים שֶׁגַּיֵּר עֶזְרָא

And Yisro returned to his land” – Rabbi Natan said, not like the sincere convert that Moses converted did Yisro convert, rather like the insincere converts that Ezra converted. 

Rashi on reconversion (Shemos 18:27): וּבָא יִתְֹרו – לְהִתְגַּיֵּר, And Yisro came: to convert.

Rabbeinu Bahya’s commentary elaborates:

להתגייר גירות שלם וקבל עליו עול מצות באמת. וזה טעם ובא יתרו אל משה אל המדבר, פירש הכתוב שבא עתה בפעם שנית להתגייר גירות שלימה, דלא כבתחלה שנתגייר על דעת לחזור לעבודת כוכבים כאשר היה מתחלה כהן לעבודת כוכבים …. בפעם הזאת בא לקבל עליו עול תורה

Yisro did not originally convert with complete sincerity… he came a second time to fully convert… unlike the first time where he converted on condition that he would return to idol worship… This time he came to accept upon himself the yoke of Torah and mitzvot.

 Yisro’s initial conversion, fueled by excitement over miracles, lacked true commitment. Only later did he genuinely embrace the Torah at Mount Sinai.

While moments of inspiration are valuable, embracing change requires balance. Drastic alterations rarely stick. The key lies in pacing oneself. This principle, exemplified by both the mizbe’ach and Yisro’s story, urges us to resist the allure of instant revolution. Instead, we must follow the path of steady perseverance, taking one step at a time towards lasting victory. Progress demands gradual integration of changes.

While drawn from a spiritual context, these principles resonate today. We see their relevance in the ongoing war, reminding us that demanding instant solutions to complex conflicts only fuels tensions and can have adverse results. True progress in such matters requires the slow and steady steps of diplomacy, dialogue, tenacity and understanding.

Similarly, in our personal lives, the allure of quick fixes can often lead us astray. The bookends of the Parsha teach us a powerful lesson: genuine growth and lasting achievements happen through deliberate, measured steps. Let us remember this as we navigate the challenges of war and life, choosing the path of patient perseverance over the fleeting promises of immediate solutions.

The message of the bookends of the Parsha, encapsulated in the Hebrew phrase לאט לאט (slowly, slowly), reminds us that true progress and lasting victory come not through rushed actions, but through steady, patient commitment to both our spiritual growth and the challenges we face – slowly but surely!

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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