Parashat Yitro- Yitro and the Two Kinds of Miracles
Parashat Yitro begins with the story of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, who heard of the miracles that G-d performed for Beneh Yisrael and then decided to join the nation. Rashi, commenting on the opening verse of the Parasha, writes that there were two events in particular that inspired Yitro to join Beneh Yisrael: the miracle of the splitting of the sea, and Beneh Yisrael’s battle against Amalek.
We might wonder where these two events are mentioned in the Torah’s account of Yitro’s arrival. The verse states simply, "Yitro…heard all that G-d did for Moshe and for his nation, Yisrael; that Hashem took Yisrael from Egypt," without specifying the splitting of the sea or the war against Amalek. How do we reconcile the text of this verse with Rashi’s explanation?
The answer is found in the different Names of G-d used in this verse. The Torah here says that Yitro heard of all that "Elokim" did for Beneh Yisrael, and that "Hashem" – the Name of "Havaya" (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh) – took Beneh Yisrael from Egypt. The Name of Elokim is associated with G-d’s governing the laws of nature, His power and authority which is concealed behind the veil of the natural order. This Name is a composite of the words "Mi" ("who") and "Eleh" ("this"). "Mi" signifies uncertainty, doubt and mystery, the feeling that events unfold haphazardly and randomly, without a Supreme Being running the world, whereas "Eleh" signifies certainty and clarity, being able to point to G-d as the One controlling and orchestrating all events. The Name "Elokim," then, refers to those situations where we are at first inclined to say, "Mi," to think that the world runs randomly, by chance, but we are expected to believe "Eleh," that the world is run by Hashem. The Name of "Havaya," by contrast, refers to the clear manifestation of G-d’s power, those rare occasions in history when Hashem’s existence and power were visible and unquestionably manifest.
The Torah tells that Yitro heard two things: what "Elokim" did for Beneh Yisrael, and what "Havaya" did for Beneh Yisrael. The first refers to the miracle that did not seem miraculous, that appeared natural – Beneh Yisrael’s war against Amalek. There was no supernatural involvement on G-d’s part in this war; He simply helped Beneh Yisrael defeat Amalek through natural means. The second part of the verse, which tells of what "Havaya" did, refers to the supernatural event of Keri’at Yam Suf. This was a clear manifestation of G-d’s unlimited control over the world, an event so remarkable and extraordinary that it could not be interpreted as anything but the work of the Creator who controls the universe. Yitro reached the level where he was able to recognize both "Havaya" and "Elokim." He understood that Hashem is behind not only the supernatural events that occur, but also the natural events which outwardly appear to unfold randomly.
One might ask, however, why the verse reverses the sequence. If, indeed, the first half – "all that Elokim did" – refers to the battle against Amalek, and the second – "that ‘Havaya’ took Beneh Yisrael from Egypt" – refers to the splitting of the sea, then the order of these events is reversed. The sea split before Amalek launched its attack against Beneh Yisrael. Why, then, does the Torah speak first of Yitro hearing about the war with Amalek, and then of him hearing about the miracle of the sea?
The answer might be that the supernatural miracles are intended to show us the miraculous quality of so-called natural events. As the Ramban famously writes in his commentary to the end of Parashat Bo, G-d performed rare, supernatural miracles in order to reveal that He is behind everything that happens in the world. By showing us His unlimited control over nature through these miracles, He demonstrates that nature is not random as it seems, that everything that happens in the world is directly caused and brought about by the Creator.
This, then, is the meaning of the opening verse of this Parasha. It tells us that Yitro understood the "miraculous" nature of Beneh Yisrael’s victory over Amalek because of the miracle of the sea. He arrived at the realization that even seemingly natural events are the handiwork of G-d, and he understood this as a result of the great miracle of the splitting of the sea. Yitro was wise enough to realize that Hashem can be found in every occurrence, in natural events which seem ordinary and random, that we need to believe that Hashem directly controls everything that happens in this world, even when His presence cannot easily be seen.