How much of Hashem’s kindness happens behind the scenes?
After hearing of all the miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim and K’rias Yam Suf, Yisro traveled to the desert to join the Jewish camp and faith. Moshe provided him a first-hand account of the events, giving Yisro goosebumps. He exclaimed, “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all other powers, for with the very thing that they plotted against the Jews, He punished them” (Sh’mos 18:11). Rashi explains that Yisro was impressed with Hashem’s measure-for-measure response to the Egyptians and all of their schemes against the Jews.
Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, known as the Brisker Rav zt”l (d. 1959), highlighted an important word in this pasuk: plotted. What impressed Yisro the most was Hashem’s reaction to all the plans of the Egyptians, meaning the conniving ideas they had only considered, but never actually carried out. Chazal say that Yisro was one of three advisors from whom Pharaoh sought counsel when considering ways to torture the Jews (Sotah 11a). Given his position, Yisro must have been privy to many failed oppression attempts, as well as suggestions that had never made it past the planning stage. When Yisro heard the detailed version of the Exodus and how Hashem intervened to save the Jews from their tormentors, he was stunned to see many familiar themes. There were elements of the retribution that directly paralleled, not just the atrocities that the Egyptians had committed, but even the potential horrors that Pharaoh had contemplated but not implemented. For all the suffering they endured, B’nei Yisrael had no idea how many other tragedies Hashem had thwarted before they ever happened. Yisro did know, and this awareness – more than anything else – convinced him that “Hashem is greater than all other powers, for with the very thing that they plotted against the Jews, Hashem punished them.”
The Brisker Rav connected this explanation to an insight of Rav Itzele of Volozhin zt”l (d. 1849; son of the famed Rav Chaim of Volozhin). Rav Itzele was approached by a Russian officer who demanded an explanation of the verses that are recited as part of Hallel: “Praise Hashem, O nations of the world, for His kindness has overwhelmed us” (T’hilim 117:1-2). The officer could not understand: Why would the nations of the world – including enemies of the Jews – praise Hashem for all the mercy He has bestowed upon the Jewish people?
Rav Itzele smiled and explained that we recite Hallel to thank Hashem for the salvations, the occasions when He delivered us from the hands of our enemies. However, we are limited in our praise, as we are only aware of the times that we had been in acute danger, the occasions when we witnessed Hashem’s rescue from an existing attack. We have no idea how many other times Hashem intervened at a much earlier stage and preempted an assault from reaching us in the first place. It is only our enemies who can appreciate the abundant kindness that Hashem has bestowed upon us, for only they know the full extent of Hashem’s protection over B’nei Yisrael. Even in their frustration, they cannot help but marvel at the overwhelming love that Hashem demonstrates for us.
This theme is what Yisro found so impressive, and it was the driving force behind his conversion. We, too, can contemplate all the known and unknown ways in which Hashem protects and provides for us. With introspection, this awareness can bring us closer to Hashem and Torah observance.