Rabbi Janet Burden – 25 January 2019
I have always had a particular fondness for the figure of Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. Despite the fact that he isn’t Jewish (though the rabbis later decide that he ‘converted’ to Judaism), he embodies many of the characteristics that we have later come to associate with the Jewish people. No single one of these is exclusively Jewish, of course, but the package together – well, see what you think after we look a bit closer.
So what’s the first clue? For that we would have to look back to when we first meet Yitro. We quickly learn that he, like Abraham, opens his tent to strangers. He is the picture of hospitality. Moses arrives as a fugitive from Egypt, but Yitro does not pre-judge him. Handsome is as handsome does, goes the saying. Moses helped out his daughters when they were being harassed by the male shepherds who used the same well to water their flocks. Therefore, he was welcome to stay with the clan, and eventually to become part of the family.
The second piece of evidence is tied to the first, and it comes from today’s portion. Family is clearly terribly important to him. Thus, the first thing he does when he hears about the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage is to bring Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, to be reunited with her husband. He does this even though the Torah tells us specifically that she had been sent away. She wasn’t left behind initially, as one might have expected given the nature of the mission God had laid before him. Back in Chapter 4, we were told, “And Moses took his wife and sons, and set them on an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt….” Nonetheless, both explicitly and implicitly, the Biblical text leads to believe that the marriage between Moses and Tzipporah wasn’t an easy one. Remember that she had no choice in the match; it was her father’s decision. In those days, women were disposed of like chattels. But that she was disappointed with her husband is obvious. Think of how she greeted Moses earlier after she was left to circumcise her firstborn son herself: “A bridegroom of blood you have been to me.” What did it matter to her that he had just encountered the burning bush and communed with the Eternal God? The tachlis, the bottom line, is that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him. Thus I can’t imagine that Tzipporah was chomping at the bit to be delivered back to Moses. That doesn’t matter to Yitro. It isn’t good for a man to be without his wife and sons, even if God had a mission for him. So Yitro does what he can to put things right – whether the couple want this, or not. Sounds like just the sort of thing that has been happening in Jewish families for years. And sometimes, it even works…
Of course, we don’t hear how the reunion with his wife goes. The Biblical writer isn’t really all that interested in that, or in women generally, as we know. What we see instead is the ritual greeting between Yitro and his son in law. From this we learn that he is a man who appreciates form and ritual. Only after the appropriate greetings have been made do the two men seek the privacy of Moses’ tent to get down to tachlis, to the real business.
Once inside, Moses relates the whole story of the mighty deliverance of the Jewish people to Yitro. His father-in-law’s response shows a deep generosity of spirit. Yitro rejoices in the favour which God has bestowed upon Israel. In an area of the world that is still known for its narrow-minded clan loyalties, this is truly remarkable. By rights, he would have no real interest in the fate of another people. But Yitro shows that he is above such pettiness, and not constrained by a belief in tribal deity, as was the general custom. He affirms God in what later becomes a classic Jewish prayer form, Baruch Adonai – Blessed be the Eternal One who has delivered you out of the power of the Egyptians. Clearly, he isn’t saying this because he has benefited personally from God’s action. But a God who acts to save and redeem is a god worth praising above all other gods. He immediately decides to offer sacrifices to the Eternal One, and to share a feast with all of the elders of Israel.
Shortly after this scene, we learn of another aspect of Yitro’s character. Moses’ fathering-law is a great kibbutser, one who likes to give advice. That element of constructive criticism that strikes me as essentially Jewish. Thus, when Yitro sees what Moses is doing, trying to handle all the people’s problems by himself, he says, “Lo tov ha-davar asher atah oseh.” “It isn’t good, this thing that you do.” He has a better idea, and he is eager to share it. He sets out to Moses how he should re-organise the whole camp. He instructs him to create a whole hierarchy of leaders and judges, so that the burden of settling disputes and keeping order should be shared.
Having put the camp to rights, he has done his job and leaves his son-in-law to get on with it. (Okay, so that might not be quite Jewish, but we can always live in hope!)
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