Exodus 18 -20
Family: The duty which comes before even religion itself
“And Yitro – the high priest of Midian,
father-in-law of Moses –
heard all G-d did
for Moses and for Israel, His People;
when Hashem brought Israel out of Egypt.
Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, brought along
Tziporah, Moses’ wife.
After all, he had sent her away
along with her sons.”
| V’yishma Yitro, kohein midian,
| chotein Mosheh
| et kol asher asah Elohim
| l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo
| ki hotzi Hashem et Yisrael mi mitzrayim.
| Vayikach Yitro chotein Mosheh
| et Tziporah eishet Mosheh
| achar shiluchei’ah
| v’eit vaneiha
This parsha is one of the few parashiot that is named after a person. It is named after Yitro (Jethro) who is the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro is identified as the high priest of Midian. The people of Midian were a tribal people who were primarily identified with the region east of Eilat and Aqaba, on the Arabian peninsula. However they were a nomadic people, who likewise migrated through the Sinai peninsula. If you recall when Yoseph was sold into slavery he was sold to the Midianites, that are identified as traveling arab merchants (Gen. 37:28). This is all to say they were a significant people, a regional force. And Yitro as a high priest held a role best identified as a chieftain of his people.
What we are going to learn as we explore this parsha is that Yitro is going become a convert, and join with the people of Israel in this parsha. During his conversion ceremony he makes one of the first blessings recorded:
“And Yitro said:
Blessed is Hashem who rescued you
from the hand of Egypt
and from the hand of Pharaoh;
who rescued the people from under
the hand of Egypt.
And now I know
that Hashem is greater
than all the deities.
As they planned, it happened back to them.”
| Vayomer Yitro,
| Baruch Hashem asher hitzil etchem
| miyad Mitzrayim
| umiyad Paroh
| asher hitzil et ha’am mitachat
| yad Mitzrayim.
| Atah yadati
| ki gadol Hashem
| mikol ha’elohim
| ki vadavar asher zadu aleihem.
Yitro, like most converts, is most impressed with how greatly G-d has preserved the Jewish people both on a personal and on a national level. He thus invokes the Four-Letter Name of G-d (יהוה), because he has come to understand that greatness of G-d and to associate the G-d of Israel as the Supreme G-d, the Master of All. Yitro then goes on to offer sacrifice and offerings to Hashem; (v.18) followed by a communal meal in which Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel took part. This was not ecumenicism, this was understood as true and total conversion; the religious and dietary barriers no longer there as he is recognized among the congregation of Israel.
When we look at this parsha we should understand that the conversion of Yitro is a big deal, truly he was a celebrity in his day. His conversion attested to the credibility of the Hebrew faith and the openness to which it showed those who were drawn to follow this religion.
As we look at the commentary of the rabbis for the first verses of chapter 18 we are going to see a bunch of very interesting but seeming unrelated points. For example Rashi spends a great deal of time dealing with the fact that Yitro was a man who commanded great respect. He also states that since Moses met him he had associated his own success to his relationship with Yitro. The scriptural text and the rabbis go to great lengths to point out how now as Yitro comes before Moses he comes reverently, but Moses despite the seeming change in positions still shows deference and respect towards his father-in-law.
Through out this parsha Moses is going to respect Yitro as one would a parent. In a lot of ways, this is the nature of the relationship. Yitro apparently was without sons, this is why his daughters were doing the work of the tending the flock and were alone to be harassed when Moses encountered them the first time and rescued them. As the relationship grew and Moses married into the family of Yitro it is certain that it was Yitro who taught Moses everything he needed to know about how to survive the life of a shepherd nomad, a skilled and dangerous life he was not accustomed to. But we must remember first off that even though Yitro was like a father to Moses, he was the true father of Tziporah first.
So when Yitro comes to join Moses, he announces by messenger even before he arrives that he is bringing Tziporah and their two sons as well. (v.6)
Whats Going On With This Family?
The most obvious question that we are faced with when we approach this parsha is, “why is Moses separated from his family?” If we look at the commentary of Rashi for an explanation it gets an even more confusing at first. Rashi tells us that Yitro announced his coming with Moses’ wife and children, while hinting that Yitro believed that Moses might be unreceptive of them. Rashi says that Yitro considered that if Moses wouldn’t come out to greet and accept him, then he might instead be more inclined to do so for his wife, if not for her sake then he hoped certainly for the sake of his children. Why would he suggest this?
The simple reason is, Yitro’s concern comes from the fact that Moses has now become a man of great status since going down to Egypt, the roles have become reversed. Would Moses still be the endearing son-in-law or had he become too self-important for this type of relationship? Secondly, would Moses affirm his Midianite wife and their children or would he dismiss them as illegitimate?
Also, we must keep in mind that the children of Israel were coming to conquer the Land and settle it, whereas the Midianites are among the inhabitants of Canaan. As the story of the exodus continues the tension between Israel and Midian is going to increase, so by the time we get to the book of Numbers the Midianites will be aligned with the Moab in their war against the Israelites (see Numbers chapter 22, see Parshat Balak).
However, it appears that his concern is unfounded. When Moses approaches Yitro he will bow to the ground in respect, they will inquire of each others wellbeing warmly and Moses would welcome them into his tent. The relationship had not changed, Moses still showed respect and reverence for his father-in-law, even though Moses was now the spiritual leader and Yitro the student it would appear, but the love hadn’t wained in the least bit.
But it is still perplexing as to why Moses did not travel with his family, and they are only now joining him. Why did Moses appear to almost abandon his family while he went off to Egypt on his mission from G-d?
Rashi explains to us his commentary for the next verse:
the Holy one, Blessed be He, said to him
while in Midian
‘Go, return to Egypt’ (Exod. 4: 19),
[therefore] ‘Moses took his wife
and his sons, etc.’
And Aharon went forth to meet him,
near the Mountain of G-d.
[Aharon] said to him: ‘Who are
these with you?’
[Moses] said to him:
‘This is my wife that I married in Midian
and my sons.’
[Aharon] said ‘No!
We suffered enough regret because of the first of us
[who went down to Egypt],
and yet you want to go ahead
and increase them!’
And [Moses] then said to her:
‘Return to your father’s house,’
so she took her two sons and departed
לו הקב“ה |
לך שוב מצרימה, (שמות ד יט) |
ויקח משה את אשתו ואת |
בניו גו‘ |
(שם כ) |
ויצא אהרן לקראתו ויפגשהו |
בהר הא–להים. |
אמר לו מי |
הם הללו. |
אמר לו |
זו היא אשתי שנשאתי במדין |
ואלו בני. |
אמר לו |
על הראשונים |
אנו מצטערים |
ואתה בא |
להוסיף עליהם |
אמר לה |
לכי לבית אביך |
נטלה שני בניה והלכה לה |
Rashi on Exodus 18:2
Rashi tells us that when Moses went down to Egypt he met-up along the way with his brother Aharon, who was also tasked with helping to liberate the people of Israel; the two working as a pair, Moses as prophet and Aharon as priest. When Moses finally encounters Aharon he asks him who he had brought along with him, among the people was his wife Tziporah and his two sons.
It appears to me that Moses would have most likely traveled with a band of Midianites, being nomadic merchants they could have easily made their way to Egypt going along with the regular trading caravans. Secondly, they would have needed assistance in actually crossing into Egypt, as our sages tell us the kingdom of Egypt had a closed border; the land bridge between Africa and Asia by means of the route past Gaza was easily secured, being only a small highway and not much more. Just as unlikely as Yoseph could have made it to Egypt without an escort, it is just as likely Moses would have also found entrance to be an obstacle. Moses is infiltrating into Egypt, where he is not welcome, most likely hiding among Midianite merchants to cross over.
Aharon is quick to object though when he realizes they are his family. He points out that the hostility of the Egyptians towards the children of Israel came about because only a few people came to settle there, 70 persons in total (Exodus 1:5). Aharon says that Moses would only be instigating further resentment if he came with more “illegal aliens.” So Moses instead sends his sons and wife back to Midian, to the house of Yitro as he is the cho’tan, (father-in-law), the male patriarch of their clan; therefore it is his responsibility to care her. Keep in mind that during this time in history women do not possess any autonomy, they are always answered and cared for by a male. If not their father or husband, then by another relative in their absence.
Now generally when someone divorced a wife, the custom was to send them back to their father’s house. Had Moses intended to end their marriage, or was he still her cha’tan; her husband, her man?
This is a real issue between them, as Moses and Tziporah had already suffered problems in their marriage related to Moses being seemingly more caught up in his task for G-d than showing concern for his own family. Immediately after the burning bush Moses and her would already face a crisis, as G-d had sought to kill their son because Moses had failed to circumcise him on their way down to Egypt. Tzipporah instead would perform it herself, saving his life. However, his lack of concern in the matter left her noticeably angry with him as she threw the foreskin at his feet; with her saying “ki chatan damim atah li / for you are a bloody husband to me.” (Exodus 4:25) One can only imagine how deep this sense of neglect and rejection ran. How relevant were they as family when Moses did not show concern to bring his son under the symbol of the covenant, almost like he is illegitimate?
In the end it appears that this fear and paranoia was unfounded, Moses still cared for them when they were reunited. But that doesn’t mean that this family still didn’t have some serious issues to work out. In our study of Parshat Shoftim we discussed how Yitro gave Moses advice on appointing judges and magistrates to hear cases for him, delegating so that he would not be overwhelmed settling all the matters of the people. Though Yitro’s words of wisdom offer a benefit to Moses, it wasn’t just to make his life easier; he expected better for his daughter and grandchildren. Moses could not fulfill his responsibility of husband and father while micromanaging the whole nation of Israel.
Moses, is truly “the most humble of men” as the Torah tells us (Numbers 12:3). Most people would resent having to take correction from the in-law. Furthermore, Yitro was now just a commoner among Israel, holding no position, and correcting him in his home and congregation; nonetheless Moses would take his correction to heart.
The reason the rabbis are forced to have to deal with this topic is because unlike other religions, abandoning your family for the call of G-d or in pursuit of asceticism is unthinkable in Judaism. Buddha abandoned the family he fathered and was rewarded with enlightenment. Jesus tells people that if one is not willing to reject their family for him then you are not worth of G-d. And those types of examples are not just metaphors, the followers of these and other like religions are not without a myriad of examples of people following through with this type of total abandon. However, among the Jews such a mentality is anathema. It’s a mitzvah – an obligatory commandment – to make a family, and then a responsibility to maintain it.
In the Tanya we learn that one of the human tendencies when having a religious experience is to want to abandon everything and merely connect with the spiritual. To the point that the soul wishes to leave the physical world behind and merge back into the world of Divine Essence. However, it points out that we instead are commanded to go back to our lives and do righteousness there. And in our mundane lives we elevate those things and encounters we have to holiness; that is our task.
Abandoning and neglecting ones family is something that most people and cultures would frown upon. For this reason people often need to have creative excuses to offer for their actions. The first one that is generally used by fanatics is that they know this is the will of G-d because He spoke to them. This reason is completely false, because we never have an example anywhere in the Scriptures where one was allowed to abandon their wife and children; such dispensation was not even given to Moses who spoke with G-d “face-to-face.”
The second reason usually given is that they are the only person who understands what G-d wants, He needs them. And this reason is just as false for the same reasons. No one knew G-d like Moses did, neither before him or after him (Deuteronomy 34:10). He was the writer of the Torah, no one knew the words of G-d, His laws and ways better than Moses. Though G-d called Moses to task, G-d did not essentially need Moses. Others were capable and needed to be accomplished in administering Torah justice in order for it to continue on anyhow. It was Moses’ job as teacher to enable the people to keep Torah, but he was not needed to make the system work. No one is so wise that without their help G-d is handicapped, it was not true for Moses and certainly it isn’t true for any us.
Moses did fulfill his calling, but also at this point arises to his responsibility as head of his family. He was just as responsible for his job as leader as he was being father to Gershom and Eliezer. Not for any lofty purposes, his role as father was not so that he could produce a dynasty; in fact his sons never become men of any importance at all. He was merely fulfilling his fatherly duty because it was the right thing.
No matter who we are, and how important we think our mission in life is, if we put anything before our own family the scriptures speak to us “lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh / this thing that you are doing is not good!” (Exodus 18:17)