At the very beginning of this week’s portion Ramban presents a fundamental dispute regarding whether or not there is a chronological order in the narrative of the Torah. The question addressed in this case is the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, to the camp of the Jews in the desert. Did this happen between the splitting of the reed sea and the giving of the Torah, or was this in fact an event that happened after the Torah was given? Although Ramban sees many apparent proofs in the text itself that this event indeed happened after the giving of the Torah, Ramban himself sides with the opinion that the chronological order here in this case is correct. Nonetheless the principal echoed by our sages in the Talmud (Pesachim 6:b) that there is no strict chronological order in the Torah narrative is significant and should not be dismissed out of hand.
The principle taught by our sages does not mean, as some might erroneously think, that the narrative of the Torah is presented in disarray, rather there is a clear order but rather than being historical it is thematic. Accordingly, we should try to understand what the thematic order is here. Why does the story of Yitro come before Matan Torah?
A well-taught Aggadic passage in the Talmud (Bechorot 8:b) relates that the elders of Athens posed certain questions to the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chanania who answers all their so-called riddles.
In one of these riddles they pose the following principle: If a person is seeking a shidduch and is rejected by a certain family would it then make sense that the person should approach a more distinguished family? Rather they should go to a less highly-regarded family. The Gaon of Vilna explains this as being a criticism and an indictment of the Jewish people. Based on the famous Midrash that the Almighty first approached the nations of the world with the Torah and only after they all rejected the Torah were the Jewish people approached. They were arguing that the Jewish people are the least of all the nations.
The answer given in the Talmud by Rabbi Yehoshua was given in parable form. The Rabbi took a wooden peg and tried to hammer it into the bottom of a wall. In those days’ walls were denser at the bottom than on the top. The peg would not penetrate the wall or lodge itself within. Yet when the rabbi hammered the peg into the top part of the wall it indeed lodged in firmly.
The straightforward understanding of the narrative is that the Jewish people ae the higher part of the wall, at first the attempt was to insert the peg at the bottom, the lower part of the wall; only after that did not succeed was the peg inserted into the higher part of the wall, the Jewish people.
Maharal (Gevurot Hashem Chap 72) addresses the difficulty in the narrative of Hashem approaching the nations of the world first before the Jewish people were given the Torah, as the Talmud indeed teaches in the aggadic passage (Avoda Zara 2:b). He questions the historical correctness of this passage and says we have never found any evidence that prophets were sent to the nations of the world with such a message. Rather this passage teaches that the Maharal is to be understood metaphorically. Hashem examined each nation as to their compatibility to receive the Torah and only the Jewish people were found to fit the bill and to have the necessary qualities.
What was that quality?
A verse in Hoshea (Chap 11: 1) states that “For Israel was like a youth and I loved him…”
Malbim understands this verse to be the attribute that G-d sees in the Jewish people already from inception. Young people adapt to new situations, older people struggle with change, as the saying goes regarding teaching old dogs’ new tricks. The necessary attribute to receive the Torah is the ability to adapt, to accept new teachings and implement them even when it requires great change.
R’ Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, in his Tzidkat Hatzadik (Ot 259), addresses the attributes of Yitro.
Yitro was not a part of the Exodus. He was part of another world, another way of life, nonetheless he joins the Jewish people and, as the midrash states, he does so leading a delegation of outsiders, converts (see Meshech Chochma here). The theme introducing Matan Torah is the willingness to receive, implement and change, the attributes the Jewish people represent and the attributes Yitro and his delegation embodied. This then is the reason the narrative of Yitro precedes Matan Torah and the reason Rabbi Yehoshua hammers the peg into the higher part of the wall where it can penetrate and lodge itself permanently.