Parshat Yitro: I Know vs Now I Know

Let’s avoid the path of “trial and error” and instead take advantage of the opportunity to emulate David’s inward spiritual journey.

Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children' (photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children'
“And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.”
Illustration by Darius Gilmont,
Assembling complicated gadgets is generally facilitated by the printed instructions that the factory provides. Occasionally, however, there are no instructions, either because of the manufacturer’s negligence or because of its assumption that there is no one out there dumb enough not to be able to figure out how to assemble the gadget on his own. That assumption is frequently mistaken.
So what’s a person to do without the instructions for the new gadget he eagerly wishes to put into action? Some people, perhaps most of them, use the method of trial and error. They tinker with the various parts, desperately attempting to force round pegs into square holes or, alternatively, square pegs into round holes.
After a while, typically after much frustration, they succeed.
There are others who are blessed with a native understanding of all things mechanical. They require no painstaking course of trial and error. They just look at all the pieces spread out before them and somehow immediately apprehend which piece goes where. In an instant the gadget is perfectly assembled and ready for use.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1- 20:22), we read of someone who fits the first category.
Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whom we first met several weeks ago when we began the Book of Exodus, clearly is the “trial and error” type. His frustrating ordeal, however, was not with some complicated gadget but with something of far greater significance. Jethro’s was a lifelong search for a god to worship. According to our Sages, he worshiped all the idols of the ancient world and even succeeded in becoming the high priest of at least one of those pagan religions. But he found none of them satisfactory.
Where did our Sages learn of Jethro’s religious odyssey? Nowhere in the Bible is there any explicit mention of this “trial and error” search for a deity that he could accept. We do know that he was the high priest of Midian, but we are not in possession of evidence of the rejection of the multitude of false gods that is attributed to him.
The answer lies in a single phrase in the conversation during Jethro’s reunion with Moses. “Moses recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake... and how the Lord had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced....”
Not only did Jethro rejoice, but he made the following proclamation: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods!” That single word “now” says it all. “Now,” after many false leads and blind alleys, Jethro at last discovers the Lord of the universe, the God of Israel. It is upon this single word that our Sages base their contention that Jethro experimented with every god in the galaxy of pagan gods before finally “assembling the gadget.”
By contrast, we find another biblical hero who typifies the second type of person, one who has intuitive insight into things and does not require a process of trial and error. That hero is none other than King David.
One does not commonly think of the former high priest of Midian as having much in common with the “sweet singer of Israel,” the source of most of the sublime Psalms, and the progenitor of the Messiah. But, like Jethro, David also proclaims the greatness of God.
He does so in words that are almost identical to the words of Jethro, with one small but very significant difference.
Open your Bible to Psalm 135, verse 5. It reads, “For I know that the Lord is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods.” David does not say “now I know.”
He insists, “I know!” His knowledge is not the result of experimentation, of trial and error, of a frustrating philosophical quest. Rather, he knows God’s greatness from within himself. The source of his knowledge is not based on his disappointment with foreign gods. It is based on what he knows in his own soul. He is blessed with a capacity for the kind of spiritual insight that dispels uncertainty and doubt. His inner self is the source of his certainty.
We have here two paradigms of men of faith. Jethro typifies the seeker whose journey is long and tortuous, and focused outwardly. David exemplifies the seeker who finds God through an inward journey, which can sometimes be equally lengthy and trying.
Rabbi Elimelech bar Shaul, the rabbi of Rehovot who died in the mid-20th century, quotes the 16th-century mystic Rabbi Moses Cordovero, who offers a parable in his book Eilima to illustrate these two paradigms. Here is a loose translation of those wise words: Imagine Reuben carrying a heavy package on his back. Observing him are Simon, Levi and Judah. They begin to try to surmise the nature of the package that Reuben is carrying.
Simon says: “Reuben is a strong man, and it is a small bundle. Yet he seems to have difficulty bearing the burden. So whatever he’s carrying must be very heavy.” Simon’s observations are totally accurate, yet he is far from knowing what the package contains. All he knows is that it is heavy and small. It might be iron, but it can equally well be tin or lead, or silver or gold.
So Levi chimes in: “If it was iron he would not have put it into such a fine cloth container. So it must be silver.”
Levi is getting closer to truth, but he still not there.
Judah then speaks up: “If it was silver or gold, he would not have brought 1,000 warriors along with him to guard and protect the contents of the package.
It must be a very precious gemstone.” Judah is even closer to the real truth about Reuben’s burden.
But none of them knows the full truth. Only Reuben, who actually bears the burden, knows not only that it is a gemstone, but knows its nature, its size, its color and its value.
So it is with spiritual truths. Philosophers can use their skills of reasoning to approximate the true nature of the divine. But it is only those who bear the burden, who come to know the Almighty from within, who can really know the truth. This knowledge was given to each of us when we stood at Mount Sinai, participating in the glorious occasion of the gift of the Torah.
Only when we heard “I am the Lord thy God,” were we able to say “I know.”
This Shabbat, we read those glorious passages which describe the scene at Mount Sinai in full dramatic detail.
These passages are designed to instill within us the capacity to draw on our inner selves in order to be able to proclaim not “now I know” but, rather, “I know.”
Let us take advantage of this week’s very special Torah portion to use this capacity of spiritual introspection.
Let’s avoid the path of “trial and error” and instead take advantage of the opportunity to emulate David’s inward spiritual journey.
The writer is a rabbi and doctor of psychotherapy. He is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union of North America. This column originally appeared on