The Zohar1 states that G‑d did not give the Torah until Yisro came and praised Him. “When Yisro arrived and said:2 ‘Blessed is G‑d who rescued you … Now I know that G‑d is greater than all deities…,’ he caused G‑d’s glory to descend, after which G‑d gave the Torah to the Jewish people.”

How is it possible that the combined sanctity of Moshe, Aharon and over 600,000 Jews was insufficient, so that only after Yisro also praised G‑d could the Torah be given?

The Torah portion begins by stating:3 “Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, kohen of Midian, heard about all that G‑d did….” Yisro’s position as kohen of Midian was twofold; he was both the secular and religious leader of Midian,4 knowledgeable in and having served all the idolatrous cults of the world.5

Why does the Torah describe Yisro with the seemingly unflattering appellation of “kohen of Midian,” when it could simply have described him as Moshe’s father-in-law?

In fact, describing him as “kohen of Midian stresses Yisro’s past achievements, both in the political arena (as Midian’s secular leader), as well as in the intellectual arena (as Midian’s religious leader). This in turn serves to underscore Yisro’s greatness; he was willing to forego his past glory in order to become a Jew and learn Torah.6

What is the connection between Yisro’s knowledge of all the world’s idolatrous cults and his intellectual achievement?

The Rambam explains7 that the mistake which leads people to idolatry is primarily an intellectual one: “They said, ‘Since G‑d created various intermediaries by which to conduct the world … it is fitting that they be extolled, praised and given honor. This is what G‑d desires.’ ”

They err in thinking that these intermediaries chose to act as such, and that since they chose to act as intermediaries, honor is due them. But of course they have no free choice at all; they are merely “an ax in the hand of the wood chopper.”8

Yisro’s knowledge of all the idolatrous cults thus means that he was cognizant of all the levels of intermediaries, not only in this world but in the spiritual realms as well. Understandably, this implies a vast comprehension on Yisro’s part.

In light of the above, we can understand the Zohar ’s statement that it was specifically through Yisro’s praise of G‑d that we received the Torah:

The verse states:9 “I have beheld the superiority of wisdom over [literally, “from”] foolishness.” The Zohar10 explains that the superiority of “wisdom,” i.e., a superior aspect of holy wisdom, is achieved through the refinement and elevation of “foolishness,” i.e., unholy wisdom.11

Thus, when Yisro (who was so knowledgeable in unholy wisdom) arrived to study Torah and declared that “G‑d is greater than all deities,” it resulted in the refinement of unholy wisdom and its ultimate transformation into holiness. This added an additional measure of divine illumination to sacred wisdom, and resulted in the giving of the Torah — G‑d’s wisdom — below.

For in order for Torah to be able to descend, it had to emanate from a truly lofty source. This was accomplished by the additional measure of illumination that came from the refinement of Yisro’s unholy wisdom.

It is axiomatic that anything which acts as a preparation to a given event must be similar in some way to that for which it is paving the way. What is it about the refinement of unholy wisdom that caused it to serve as a precursor to the giving of the Torah?

Before giving the Torah, “G‑d decreed that ‘The heavens are the L-rd’s, but the earth He gave to the children of man.’12 When He sought to give the Torah, He nullified the original decree and declared: ‘Those that are below may ascend above, and those who are above may descend below.’ ”13

In other words, at the time the Torah was given there was a commingling of “above” and “below” — the physical could rise and be embraced within the spiritual, and the spiritual could descend and be enclothed within the physical.

This bears a striking similarity to the refinement of unholy wisdom — the lowest of degrees — and its elevation into holy wisdom. This refinement, brought about through Yisro, therefore served as an appropriate preparation to the giving of the Torah.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XI, pp. 74-76.