HOW IN-LAWS RELATE
While the Jewish people were encamped in the desert, Moses' father-in-law Yitro was frequently close at hand.
While the Jewish people were encamped in the desert, Moses' father-in-law Yitro was frequently close at hand. In this week's portion, we read the following discussion between Moses and Yitro (who is referred to in the Torah by several names, including Yitro and Chovev): "Moses said to Chovev the son of Reuel the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses, 'We are traveling to the place that Hashem has promised us. Come with us and we shall treat you well.' Yitro responded to Moses, 'I shall not go; only to my land and my family shall I go'" (Numbers 10:29-30).
Two questions are apparent after reading these misleadingly simple verses. First, the verses appear to be in the wrong order. Moses' request of Yitro to stay should follow, not precede, Yitro's comment that he is leaving. Why would Moses think that Yitro would not join the Jewish people as they continue their travels to the land of Israel? Second, when Moses addressed his father in-law, he called him by his proper name, Chovev the son of Reuel, the father-in-law of Moses. One would think that after all these years, Moses would address his father-in law by a more endearing term (assuming one's father-in-law is indeed endearing). Furthermore, the reader already knows who Chovev/Yitro is. Why are we reminded that he is the "father-in-law of Moses"?
Rabbi Ben Zion Firer, a contemporary Torah scholar in Israel, offers some insight into these puzzling questions. Just before the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, Yitro joined the Jewish people. He was so enamored by the miracles that Hashem performed on behalf of the Jews while they were in Egypt that he converted to Judaism and accompanied the Children of Israel in their travels for a period of time. A short while later, he returned to his homeland Midian to inspire others to follow the Torah. After living in Midian, he rejoined the Jewish people in the desert, and in this week's portion he tells of his desire to return to Midian a second time. However, during the period between his arrival the first time and his second departure, Moses separated himself from his wife Tzipporah, Yitro's daughter. Three days before the giving of the Torah, the men were commanded to temporarily separate themselves from their wives. After the Torah was given, husbands and wives were allowed to return to their daily lives. Moses, however, was the exception. After the events at Mt. Sinai, Moses never returned to Tzipporah's tent because he had to be constantly prepared to receive prophecy from Hashem.
It was on Yitro's second visit to the Jewish encampment that he learned that his daughter was separated from Moses. Realizing that Yitro knew about the separation, Moses understood that Yitro would feel that he no longer has a role to play in the desert and would return home to Midian. Sensitive to Yitro's needs, Moses first addresses Yitro and asks him to stay, telling him that by staying with them, he continues to fill an important need for the Jewish people. As the verses indicate later on, "And if you go with us, the good that Hashem will bestow upon you will also be bestowed upon us" (Numbers 10:32).
With this explanation, it is clear why Moses addresses Yitro by his proper name, then adding the title "father-in-law of Moses". Moses is telling Yitro that you were once the father-in-law of Moses, but that was the Moses before Mt. Sinai who was married to Tzipporah. Now, you are Chovev the son of Reuel, but we want you to stay with us for a reason other than being the father-in-law of Moses. Although you may no longer be my father-in-law, there is still a need for you to accompany us as we travel in the desert and prepare to enter the land of Israel.
Frequently we think that the nature of our relationships with others remains stagnant. Once we establish a bond with others, we find it comforting to assume that the religious beliefs, intelligence, and sensitivity levels of others remains constant. However, we neglect to account for changes that others may undergo due to experiences that are unknown to us. Additionally, we assume that our standing in the eyes of family or close friends remains unchanged even though we may undergo a transformation. Moses' change in status, although obvious, nevertheless teaches us an important lesson. He knew that once he separated from Tzipporah, his relationship with Yitro radically changed. Yet he retained his relationship with Yitro and even tried to persuade him to remain with the Jewish people. We must strive to maintain the self-awareness that allows us to properly adapt to even the most subtle changes that may occur in our relationships with others.
Eyal Feiler, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, resides in New York City.
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