Classics and Beyond Va`eira: True Change

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    In the brief genealogical record of the first three shevatim – Reuven, Shimon and Levi – the Torah elaborates in detail regarding shevet Levi, from where Moshe and Aharon descend. In the elaboration we are informed that Aharon’s son Elazar married “one of the daughters of Putiel” (6:25). Rashi (see sota 43a), explains that “Putiel” refers not the name of an individual. (see Ramban for reason why chazal were led to this conclusion.) rather, the term “Putiel” refers to the two forebear’s of Elazar’s wife: both Yosef and Yisro. Yosef was given this appellation because he was -pitpeit beyitzro – “he struggled with his evil inclination” when challenged by Potifars wife. The word “Putiel” also applies to Yisro, as the Gemara explains, shepiteim agalim la`avoda zora – because he (in an earlier stage of his life) fattened calves for idol worship.

    This reference to Yisro’s earlier involvement in idol worship is certainly intended as a tribute, rather than an insult. Emphasizing Yisro’s embrace of Torah/monotheism despite his pagan past. Even though he had previously been committed to idolatrous worship, he managed to change course and find his way to the truth about Hashem`s existence. The facts pertaining to his earlier career, become an inspiring lesson to the absolute change one can make in their life.

    Yet it is curious why the Torah/chazal would emphasize the particular aspect of Yisro’s past, that he “fattened calves for idolatry.” The word “Putiel,” as the gemora said, connects to the term piteim, or “fattened.” Why is this precise element of Yisro’s idolatrous roots, one not associated with actual worship but preparation, characterize the meaningful transition he undertook when later embracing Torah/monotheism?

    Rav Boruch Yitzchok Yissocher Leventhal, in his Birkas Yitzchok explained that the gemora specifically highlighted the Pitum, time, effort and expense that Yisro underwent in the practice/fulfilment of his idolatry. Idolatry for Yisro, was not something in which he merely dabbled: he did not dispassionately follow a fixed routine to which he had become accustomed. Instead, considerable physical, financial and emotional effort were invested in his worship of idols. Not content with merely bringing an offering; he exerted himself and (paid high prices to ensure to bring only the highest-quality animals) spending time and money ensuring that his beast would be the fattest and best – when it came to slaughter. He was zealous and passionate in his involvement, not passive or casual -merely writing a check or leaving a contribution in the donation-bowl.

    Personal change is hard, yet more difficult, is to deviate and and withdraw from a path in which one has exerted substantial resources of time, money and energy. After ahving spent years following a certain career path, a professional cannot not easily change occupations, although the new career may offer even greater opportunity for achievement and success. After investing time and capital renovating or building a (dream) home, to move and relocate takes great effort, even when the neighborhood no longer suits him. The praise being given to Yisro as indicated by the name “Putiel”, relates not to his abandonment of a mere practice, but to his strength and courage to reject a way of life that he had pursued with an investment of vigor and devotion. Regardless of how much he had personally invested in the pagan religion, once he determined the truth of the Torah and monotheism, he was prepared to take this drastic step, striking out and building for himself a new religious life.

    Reb Eliezer

    We usually don’t mention a Baal Teshuva’s previous actions. Maybe it is telling us for the future why Moshe Rabbenu will listen to him when Yisro advises him how to judge showing here his wisdom by giving up his worship to a’z as mentioned above. צפרה is the same gematria as למשה. They are both 375.

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