Yitro: Excruciating Elation ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
Exodus 18:9 – Jethro rejoiced about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel; Rashi: Jethro rejoiced; this is its simple meaning. The Aggadic Midrash, however, [explains that] his flesh became prickly (חִדּוּדִּין חִדּוּדִין) [because] he was upset about the destruction of the Egyptians.
Many commentators have asked on this homiletic interpretation; how could the Sages stray so far from the simple meaning of ויחד –rejoicing– to painful, piercing חידודים?
One thing that חדוה and חידודים do have in common is the two letters חד chet-dalet. If one examines other words that share these letters, a pattern and a core meaning seem to emerge, and this emergent definition appears to shed light on the difficult Midrashic interpretation in question.
The simplest meaning of חד is sharp and pointy. On an abstract level, a sharp thinker is one who thinks piercingly, incisively, acutely, keenly, penetratingly and poignantly. These words all abstractly reflect the power of a sharp object, which derives from the focusing of all energies in a condensed area. Thus, while a small pin has the ability to pierce a leather sofa, a sledge hammer applied to the same area with similar energies would never accomplish the deed. We find the meaning of focus and concentration in the first obvious derivative of חד, namely:
אחד (one) – ‘אחד’ is used as a verb לאחד (Ezekiel 21:21), the sense of concentration and focus on a particular goal (see also Radak Shorashim, entry חד).
We continue with other words of the חד genre:
A ‘חידה’ is a riddle, requiring sharp focus and concentration to solve (see Abarbanel, introduction to Hosea).
Two straightforward words related toחד are:
Yachad ‘יחד’ (together) – is another clear offshoot of חד (see also תענית דף ז.).
Chud, chidudim ‘חידודים’, ‘חוד’ (sharp prickles) – the word used in our Midrash, a derivative of חוד, which is in turn related to חד (see Rashi Job 41:22).
Our Sages hinted at other חד derivatives by way of homiletic interpretation:
Chidekel חדקל (the Tigris river, Gen. 2:14) – is a contraction ofחד-קל or חד-קול according to the Sages (Gen. Rabba 16:14). The strong current is described as חד (see Rashi on ברכות נט: and on בבא בתרא כד.), and קל/קול refers to its noisy flow.
6. Cheder חדר (single room) – This may be viewed as a compound word: חד-דר; The word חד here means אחד (single, discrete); דר meaning dwelling, as in דירה (see Lam. Rabba 1:2 and the מתנת כהונה commentary regarding the חד-דר contraction, and עירובין עב.-עב: regarding the associated halacha).
Some kinds of unity/focus are negative:
7. Shochad שוחד (bribery) – is explained in the Talmud (כתובות קה:) as a contraction of שהוא חד – “he is one”; Rashi explains: the giver and the receiver of bribery unite into figurative bearers of a single heart and mind.
In a similar fashion to the above Talmudic techniques, latter-day rabbinic linguists have interpreted other חד words:
Pachad פחד (fear) – This may be viewed as a compound word: פח-חד; a פח is a trap of sorts (e.g. Job 18:10 and Ralbag there); but Ibn Ezra (Ps. 91:3-4) suggests it may denote a sword. If so, this word for fear simply means a sharp sword, a metaphor for life-threatening dangers of all kinds.
Chedva חדוה (joy) – This may be viewed as a compound word: חד-ו’ה’, the penetrating, poignant joy associated with G-d כביכול, as the verse states: There is beauty and majesty before Him; might and joy (עוז וחדוה) in His place (I Chron. 16:27). The letters ו’ and ה’ are part of the holy שם הויה, hence this is an especially spiritual joy, connected to Hashem’s own joy, so to speak (See R’ Glazerson’s רזי שבת ומועד, p. 141, and אמונת אברהם, p. קלח).
And I humbly suggest the following words:
Chadal חדל (desist, shirk) – This may be viewed as a compound word: חד-דל; the word חד in the sense of strength, power (see חדקל above). חדל describes one who has the ability and strength to accomplish a deed, but defaults and fails to do so, as if he were a דל [in the sense of a lifeless corpse (see ברכות יח.)]. This purport of חדל is illustrated in Num. 9:13 (and Sifrei on that verse).
Chedek חדק (thorn; “The way of the lazy man is like a hedge of thorns” Prov. 15:19) – This may be viewed as a compound word: חד-דק; a sharp, small thorn. Each of the lazy man’s excuses is likened to a tiny, sharp thorn; but the cumulative effect is like an entire thorn hedge, which serves to block him from action even when he wishes to act.
Chadash חדש (new) – This may be viewed as a compound word: חד-דש; the word חד here means sharp; דש means to thresh. The threshing tool is as good as new as long as it is kept sharp (see Isa. 41:15 and Rashi there); so too are humans compared to blades of steel, who keep their minds sharpened through lifelong Torah study, as the Talmud (תענית ז.) states: “What is the meaning of the verse, Iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17)? This is to teach you that just as in the case of one [iron], iron sharpens the other, so too do two scholars sharpen each other’s mind by halachah.” And just as steel is as good as new as long as it is sharpened, so does Torah preserve and improve one’s mind even in old age (see Shab. 152b).
Finally, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch employs another technique in regards to the word כחד:
Kached כחד – See commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Exodus 23:23), who compares כחד with יחד in the sense of unity (the leading letters of the words, כ’ and י’ belong to the גיכ”ק group and are phonetically related), whose necessary result is a relinquishment of independence, a form of destruction [this is seen in the parallel comparisons of שָׁוֶה (equal) to שָּׁוְא (empty, in vain), as well as דומה (similar, identical) to נדמה (destruction, excision, see e.g. Isaiah 15:1, Zef. 1:11)].
In summary, theחד words we’ve seen relate in one way or another to focus, sharpness and concentration of forces into a single point yielding maximum power for a minimum of energy. We return now to examine “ויחד יתרו” once more with this in mind.
Yitro was indeed joyous at Israel’s salvation – penetratingly so. In fact, he was moved to convert, and according to Rav (סנהדרין צד.), he actually took a sharp knife and circumcised himself. However, according to Shmuel who says he felt חידודים חידוים (pinpricks) all over his skin, one may say he experienced conflicting emotions at one and the same time – joy for the Israelites and pain at the fact that the Egyptians did not take advantage of the opportunity to repent, as Yitro himself had.
Although the ultimate חוד is a single focal point for all of one’s energies and emotions, a partial focus of this sort also bears the name חוד, the plural being חידודים. This may be explained by comparison with another word which denotes unification, namely אגד. The Torah commands that we not cut ourselves as an expression mourning the dead: You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead (Deut. 14:1). The Sifrei (פסקא צו) comments on this commandment: “לא תעשו אגודות” – “you shall not form groups.”
Despite this prohibition however, one may infer from the plural אגודות that each of these imperfect unions is yet called an אגודה, since it meets the basic criteria of such, as the word literally means a “band” or “bond” of individuals (see Radak, II Sam. 2:25), each with its own focus. So too could each of Yitro’s individual חודים coexist with the other חידודים, despite their conflicting foci.
We end with a prayer that we focus our lives and souls on serving the Lord with singular joy always, and proclaim as one: Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One!