Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

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#MeToo, #Yitro and TheRaDR

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Before I begin, I want to be very clear that I’m offering a drash by another rabbi, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, aka @TheRaDR. You can learn about her and her work at her website.

This morning Rabbi Ruttenberg published a thread on Twitter about Moses and #MeToo, a drash on Parashat #Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. My reaction to this thread was something along the lines of “owowowowowowowowowow!”

I would love to hear your reactions to her take on #Yitro. Did “Moses simultaneously [cut] women out of Revelation and [turn] them into sexual objects” with his addition to the command of God?

How might Judaism be different had he not made this insertion?

Click the link. Yes, it’s Twitter, but don’t let that stop you!

“And Yitro heard” – Midrash

Image: Postage Stamp, Israel, 1060: The Tomb of Yitro, WikimediaIsraeli postage stamp catalog, Catalog Number: 219

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1

This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love.  One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ

And Yitro heard

The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it?  The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:

Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!

Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!

Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?

Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!)  – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!

The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.

The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.

Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.

For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.

It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.

I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.

Shabbat Shalom! Yitro

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.) It recounts how Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro) advises him to organize his administrative work. Then the text gives us the dramatic story of the giving of the Tablets of the Law, the 10 Commandments.

Some words of Torah on the web concerning Parashat Yitro:

Empowering the People – by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Everybody’s Working for the Weekend – by Rabbi Marci Bellows

Parashat Yitro and Judicial Discretion – by Adam Waters

Be Careful What You Want – by Rabbi Laura Geller

A Special Transmission at Sinai – by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The “Strange” Tenth Commandment? – by Rabbi Don Levy

The 12th Commandment Against Fanaticism – by Rabbi Rifat Soncino

Yitro: A Tantalizing Gap – by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Yitro: A Tantalizing Gap

Open_Torah_and_pointerThere’s a tantalizing little gap at the beginning of Parashat Yitro:

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons … Gershom… and Eliezer… Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness where he was camped at the mountain of God. – Exodus 18:2-5

What? I remember the first time I read this, flipping back to see when it was that Zipporah and the boys had been sent back to Midian. I could not find the story, because the story wasn’t there. Looking closely at the Hebrew, I noticed that the verb usually translated as “sent home” is shillach, which is more commonly translated as “sent away” or “divorced.” And yet this text emphasizes the marriage: over and over, Yitro is designated “father-in-law” and Zipporah is “Moses’ wife.”

No doubt about it: a piece of the story is missing. Moses and Zipporah had some kind of separation. She went home to her father’s house, and he went to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Was he simply off on a “business trip” while the family remained safely in Midian? Or was there an estrangement between Moses and Zipporah? The text doesn’t say. All it tells us is that Yitro brought Zipporah and the boys to Moses, after he heard how Israel had made a successful exodus from Egypt.

Yitro is a wise man and a capable leader, and he is also a role model for in-laws everywhere. Whatever had caused the separation, he supported the couple in their reunion. He brought them safely back together.

It is tempting to pick sides when there is discord in a family. It is tempting to listen sympathetically to grievances. The ego expands when one’s child comes home, asking for a shoulder or for help. But a couple cannot work out their troubles when each can “run home to mama” to complain: it is better to say, “Go back, work it out, talk to each other, not to me.”

Obviously there are limitations. Domestic abuse is a serious matter, for instance. But even in such a case, the job of a parent – an in-law – is to support their adult child in working towards a resolution, whatever that may be.

In a marriage, as in any other human relationship, working things out requires the couple to interact directly. Talking to third parties is rarely helpful unless it leads to talking to one another. Those of us who want to be good parents and good in-laws or even good friends to a married couple can take a lesson from Yitro.