Date: February 1st 2018


Upon growing to adolescence, Moshe (Moses) began to leave Pharaoh’s palace to look in on the sorry plight of his enslaved Jewish brethren. On one such occasion, he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was attempting to beat a Jew to death. He then fled to Midyan where he married Yitro’s daughter Tziporah who bore him two sons. Years later, Moshe was instructed by Hashem (G-d) to return to Egypt for the purpose of liberating the Jews. Moshe took leave of Midyan with his wife and children. On the outskirts of Egypt, Moshe was met by his brother Ahron (Aaron) who advised that it would be better for Moshe’s wife and children to return to Midyan until after the Exodus (Rashi 18, 2).

Parshat Yitro begins by describing how, after the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, Yitro brought Tziporah and her children to the camp of the Jews to reunite them with Moshe. As Yitro neared the Jewish camp, he sent word to Moshe that he would soon arrive. The Commentary of Rashi (Yitro 18:6) explains that Yitro’s purpose was to assure that Moshe would pay Yitro the honor of leaving the camp in order to greet him as he approached. Yitro’s message to Moshe was recorded in the Torah for posterity without it being criticized. This indicates that the Torah considers what Yitro did to be correct.

A generally accepted Torah virtue is that honor should be avoided. For example, it is written that “Jealousy, lust, and honor remove a person from the world” (Pirkei Avot 4:21). If so, asks the commentary of Gur Aryeh(by the Maharal of Prague, 1520-1609), how can it be that Yitro acted properly? He was pursuing the honor of being greeted by Moshe, the great prophet, and leader of the Jewish people.

The Gur Aryeh answers that Yitro was not seeking honor. Rather, he sought to avoid being embarrassed. Normally, a host goes out to greet an arriving guest - especially if it is the host’s father-in-law. Accordingly, had Moshe NOT gone out to meet Yitro, it would have been a public insult. Yitro, therefore, acted to prevent this affront from transpiring.

(At least) two different relevant ethical principles can be inferred from this text:
I. Avoiding personal embarrassment is a moral virtue of the Torah. Accordingly, a man who walks outside with a stained shirt is violating the Torah’s ethical code – he did not take steps to avoid the shame of wearing sullied garments. Clearly, the same holds true of any other unbecoming or improper behavior that could prove humiliating. When one (sadly) hears of Jews whose financial crimes make headlines, they are typically guilty of at least three major sins: stealing, lying and “chillul Hashem” (desecrating G-d’s Name by one’s improper conduct). But it is also true that on a personal level, these criminals have violated the Torah’s morality by bringing shame upon themselves.

II. A cardinal principle of Torah is that one should avoid pursuing a “Mitzvah haba biaverah,” a good deed that is made possible by a transgression. For instance, we do not steal from others or work on Shabbat in order to earn additional money to donate to charity. Honor is so harmful that (as already mentioned) it “removes a person from the world.” If so, why was it considered proper for Yitro to pursue personal honor (which is normally deemed sinful) in order to adhere to the Torah’s virtue of avoiding embarrassment?

It must be that there is a difference. Stealing in order to give charity is forbidden. Nevertheless, when personal honor is pursued for a just reason, its normally harmful effects can be avoided. To illustrate, a halacha (law) of the Torah is that one should honor his Rebbe (teacher of Torah). Halacha (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, 242:20) further states that a Rebbe who refuses this honor is “withholding kindness (the chance to do a mitzvah) from its owner” (“owner” being the student seeking to bestow the honor).

The halacha is certainly not commanding the Rebbe to sin. Evidently, since the Rebbe is allowing himself to be honored for a proper reason, he can avoid the arrogance that can infect those who are frequently honored, This same principle is also applicable to a parent or classroom teacher and at times, a boss in a workplace. Insisting on a certain measure of deference is often called for. However, this text is teaching that the honor can be pursued without its ordinarily damaging consequences.

Very possibly, in all of these cases, special care must be taken; the recipients of the appropriate deference must constantly remind themselves to retain their humility. They must bear in mind that the honor is a function their position, not their personal superiority. With these precautions in place, it is possible to receive the honor and yet avoid its normally deleterious fallout.

Yitro, therefore, pursued the honor of being greeted by Moshe. It was permissible to do so in order to observe the Torah’s ethic of avoiding embarrassment. And because the inevitable honor that would accrue to Yitro was necessary to act according to the Torah and avoid being embarrassed, Yitro felt confident that he would not be negatively impacted

The point should, however, be made that not all embarrassment should be avoided at all costs. There are times when allowing one’s self to be embarrassed is deemed a virtue.

The prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) is referred to in the Torah as Yechezkel son of Buzi. “Buzi,” the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Yechezkel 1:3) writes, is a derivative of the Hebrew word “Baz” which means embarrassment. The Midrash continues that Buzi was attached to Yechezkel’s name to connote that he was willing to allow himself to be embarrassed for the furtherance of Torah. Clearly, Yechezkel was being extolled for the humiliation he endured in order to perform G-d’s work.

Yechezkel’s ongoing embarrassment at the hands of others was praised. Yet, Yitro’s conduct teaches that even a one-time incidence of personal embarrassment should be avoided. How can the contrary paradigms of Yitro and Yechezkel be reconciled?

A probable answer is that the downside was different in the two cases. For Yitro, avoiding embarrassment, which is otherwise mandated, entailed being honored. As already discussed, it is possible to be revered by others and yet retain one’s modesty, as in the case of a Torah scholar who Jews are required to honor. However, it could be that for the prophet Yechezkel to avoid honor, he would have had to transgress the Torah in an unacceptable manner. So he chose to adhere to the Torah and endure the embarrassment. And for that, he was eternally praised.

This is an edited version of the Dvar that was previously emailed on January 17th, 2014.

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