There are many ways to interpret Torah, as we’ve discussed in various contexts. One is the obvious one—the interpretation focuses on what is or what seems to be the literal message of the passage. That’s called pshat. And there are other ways, too. There is also gematria, where we count words or passages based on assigning a number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When we know what the number is, we can often draw connections to other ideas or mitzvot in the Torah.
But here I want to focus on another method of interpretation—a technique called gezera shava. In gezera shava, we look at how often a phrase or a word appears in the Torah; if a phrase or a word occurs only once in the entire Torah, for example, that may mean that there’s something significant about the phrase or word. And if a word or a phrase appears frequently, it doesn’t seem to have as much interpretive weight. And if identical phrases, or sentences, or terms appear INFREQUENTLY, we look for what meaning they might share.
This week’s parsha, parshat Yitro, which we read in its entirety, contains a phrase that has appeared in the Torah before, making it a gezera shava. Moshe’s father-in-law advises him to delegate some of the work he’s been doing. Yitro points out that Moshe is the only person the Israelites rely on, and that dependence is ultimately going to exhaust Moshe. It’s good advice, something that all of us can learn from. That we can’t do it all. But when Yitro observes Moshe, he is quick to pronounce judgment. According to Yitro, the situation is not good. Simple words, in both Hebrew and English. Lo Tov. Not good. And Moshe, wise man that he was, knows that he’s got to change his approach to ruling. So, what about that phrase lo tov? It’s so simple that you might think that it appears repeatedly in the Torah. Yet it does not. In fact, that phrase appears only one other time in the entire Torah. You may be able to figure out where is its earlier occurrence.
Well, the answer is that lo tov appears in Breishit—when God sees that Adam is alone, God declares that that situation is lo tov, not good. So this is a perfect opportunity for gezera shava. And then the question becomes: What might these two examples share? What can we learn from bringing them together?
We might notice that, in the first case, God the father is pronouncing judgment; in the second case, Yitro the father-in-law is pronouncing judgment. But I think we can also go beyond that. God makes clear that it is not good for a person to be alone. And he creates Chava, Eve. Here God is making a statement about the value of family, about the value of intimate partnerships, of love. A partner can provide balance, can help one to shift perspective, can pick you up when you’re down. When Yitro exclaims lo tov, he is declaring that it is not good for rulers to rule alone, for rulers to be alone. That every ruler needs partners, people with whom she or he can share not only the responsibility but also the weight of leadership. Yitro makes clear that justice cannot be the sole province of one person, even someone as wise as his son-in-law Moshe.
So here in these two lo tovs we see the mirroring of family and community, of the personal and of the political, of the private and the public. It is not good to be alone, not good for a society, a community, and not good for the individual. And we know that, for Judaism, the line between family and community is never absolutely delineated. Never clear-cut. Here gezera shava teaches us that it is not good to be alone, and that we are never alone as long as we have each other.