The Ishbitzer in Mei haShiloach explains that this parsha is an introduction to what Torah is all about. Yisro worshipped every avodah zarah in the world -- he was a priest to avodah zarah! And still, Yisro was drawn to Torah. There is no tumah that is so strong that it can prevent a kabbalas haTorah if a person wants to receive it.Those last words are key -- a person has to want to make a kabbalah. The gemara says that when Moshe went up to get the Torah the angels put up a protest and did not want Torah to be given to mankind. Hashem told Moshe that he should answer them. The Maharal (Derush al haTorah) asks why Hashem told Moshe to answer the angels – why didn’t Hashem himself intervene and give them an answer? After all, it was Hashem who decided that he was going to give his Torah to the Jewish people! The Maharal answers (and this is a good vort to keep in mind for Shavuos) that G-d’s giving the Torah to mankind instead of angels is predicated on mankind wanting the Torah. The desire for Torah has to come from within us and be expressed by us – it has to be our answer, not something G-d can thrust upon us.
According to one view in Chazal it was hearing about the splitting of Yam Suf that drew Yisro to Klal Yisrael. What was it about this event in particular that caught Yisro’s attention? The Beis Ya’akov explains that kri’as Yam Suf revealed something significant. Hashem created the world with boundaries. We read in Parshas Braishis how Hashem divided the land from the sea so that the oceans stay in their place and the land exists in its place. There are boundaries as well between people and between nations. Klal Yisrael is distinct from the rest of the world and has a relationship with Hashem like no other people. Kri’as Yam Suf revealed that those boundaries are not absolute -- what was once a sea can become dry land. If so, reasoned Yisro, the boundary between himself – an outsider, a foreigner -- and Klal Yisrael could be overcome as well.This same message is also reflected in the other view that holds that Yisro came because he heard about the battle with Amalek. As we discussed last week, when Moshe lifted his hands and caused Bnei Yisrael to look up in tefillah, the tide of battle turned in their favor. Picture the two armies of Bnei Yisrael and Amalek deadlocked in battle, each bound by the limits of their own efforts and own strength. Suddenly, the people see Moshe’s hands raised, they turn to Hashem, and they break through the enemy lines. The boundaries that had been there before, whether the boundaries of the enemy lines, whether the limits of their own ability, were no more. Again, boundaries are not absolute. With enough will and enough tefilah, they can be broken.
I didn’t see it in the Beis Ya’akov (I didn’t go through all the pieces), but perhaps this is why the Torah prefaces mattan Torah with the story of Yisro. What greater boundary exists than the boundary between heaven and earth? This was the angels complaint – how could a heavenly Torah be sent down to earth? And irony of ironies, the parsha of mattan Torah itself stresses that the people had to remain in the boundaries set aside for them, distant from the mountain, to obey the mitzvah of hagbalah. We therefore need to first read about kri’as Yam Suf, the battle with Amalek, the coming of Yisro, to appreciate that not all boundaries are absolute – moral Moshe can go up to shamayim, Hashem can come down to har Sinai, and human beings, with all our frailties, can receive a Torah as well.