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Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and wife to Moses - to the desert… the Mountain of G-d (18:5).
The Parasha opens with an agreeable, pleasant scene - Moses' reunion with his family. His wife and sons are accompanied by Jethro - Moses' father-in-law. Jethro is warmly welcomed, and he offers sage advice to Moses about how he should take care of himself - by delegating authority for handling routine disputes arising between individual Israelites. This story offers powerful contrasts - sandwiched between war against the Amalakites, and the Revelation and the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Yet Jethro himself appears to be getting more than his fair share of attention. Moses' immediate family fade into the background as 'Aaron and all the Elders of Israel came to eat… with the father-in-law of Moses, before G-d' (18:12). And it was Jethro who obtained Moses' primary attention - as he had the privilege of viewing Moses judging the people, and his advice for reforming the way disputes would be sorted out amongst the Israelites was accepted (18:24).
In fact the whole narrative is unusual in being both peaceful and constructive. Nearly all other stories connected with the Exodus have elements that are neither peaceful nor constructive. How does this story fit into the Exodus, and what may be learnt from it? And why does Jethro receive a high degree of prominence?
Ibn Ezra dismisses the latter as normal behavior - the wife and children of a man of high prestige and dignity go into his home - he does not go out to meet them. The Haemek Davar goes further - one is required to honor one's father in law and Moses acted that way to demonstrate that obligation as an example to the Israelites.
However, the idea of the Ha-Emek Davar may be taken further. Considering Moses' high position, he would have been expected to have made a socially better match than the daughter of 'the Priest of Midian' (2:16), who only much later on declared his affinity with the G-d of Israel - 'Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all deities' (18:11). Indeed Jethro was an outsider: he did not share the trials and tribulations of the Exodus, and indeed only stayed with the Israelites for a brief period (according to literal version of the text, and several commentaries). And further more - how come Moses' family did not enter the scene until then? Plenty for the socially curious, and the gossips…
Moses' approach however, was powerful, public, unambiguous, and cut right through the whole issue. He went forth to welcome his father-in-law, and was honored by him in turn as he went out of his way to fit in: 'Jethro rejoiced on the good that G-d had done for Israel.' (18:9) He introduced Aaron and the Israelite leaders to Jethro (not the other way round) in a banquet prepared in Jethro's honor (18:12). He also brought him into the 'hallways of power', listened to his advice, and put it straight into action. In short, he did not merely accept Jethro - he raised him to a position of importance (and by association the position of his wife and two children). There was neither flattery nor false praise. (And Jethro also left at the right moment - when his prestige was at his highest).
And in addition, Moses used the incident to demonstrate to the Israelites the importance of according due respect to people on the basis of what they have become, rather than on who they are, what they were, and where they came from…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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