Father-in-laws and sons, doing it their way


A previous column discussed the father-in-law-son-in-law relationship, using Lavan and Yaakov as the model protagonists. This week we will explore the same relationship through the eyes of Yitro and Moshe.

Yitro arrives at the Israelites’ camp bringing his daughter and “her two sons.” Why are they with Yitro? Didn’t Tziporah accompany Moshe to Egypt in chapter 4? Why are they referred to as her sons? Aren’t they also “Moshe’s sons?”

After all the efforts to get Moshe to greet his family, we find that the only person Moshe seems able to relate to is his father-in-law, Yitro. Beginning in 18:7, when Moshe leaves the camp to meet them, the Torah says, “Moshe want out to greet his father-in-law” — only to Yitro, not to his wife or sons.

These points are debatable, of course, as the Torah often leaves out details. There is room to suggest — and much of this is in the Midrash — that Moshe divorced his wife, saw no need for her to be in Egypt, viewed his sons as his connection to a Midianite life he no longer lived and, as G-d’s devoted shepherd, did not feel a connection to his immediate family.

But Yitro was different. He was a political ally as the “Kohen of Midian.” And his history with Moshe had been one of more than total support.

After Moshe saved Yitro’s daughters from shepherds, it was Yitro who said, “Where is he? Why did you leave him? Invite him here to eat with us.” It was Yitro who gave Moshe a wife, a job, and total trust. He even gave Moshe his blessing when Moshe said, “I need to branch out and return to Egypt.” (2:20-21, 3:1, 4:18)

Moshe had a sense of appreciation for this man that went beyond the claim of, “This is my father in law.”

Yitro observes Moshe’s practice of sitting all day to judge the people and, frankly, he is not impressed. As the parsha states: “18. You cannot do it all alone. 19. You must … bring [their] concerns to G-d. 20. Show them the path they must take. 21. But you must [also] seek out from among all the people capable, G-d-fearing men, men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them over [the people] as leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.”

In essence, the key word is “delegate.”

Verse 24 is ambiguous when it says, “Moshe listened to his father-in-law. He did all he had said.” That Moshe listened is clear. But who did all who had said? Rabbi Elazar Hamodai in the Mechilta suggests that after listening to Yitro, Moshe did all that G-d had said.

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When we examine what Moshe did, we see he did not do exactly as Yitro said. 

25. He chose capable men from all Israel,” also known as “anshei Chayil,” but he left out Yitro’s other criteria — “G-d fearing men of truth who hate injustice.” Either he could not find such men, or he felt the other criteria were too high a standard for judges. Yitro had suggested that “big cases” (hadavar hagadol) be brought to Moshe, while Moshe instructed that “difficult cases” (hadavar hakasheh) be brought to him.

In other words, Moshe takes the advice for what it is, knows it is good and comes out of love, and appreciates it. But he must do it his own way — in a way that works for him.

Finally, when the air is getting too stuffy, “27. Moshe sent his father-in-law on his way, and he went away to his homeland.”

Apparently, even for Moshe there is such a thing as an overextended visit.

May all fathers-in-law and sons-in-law have a courteous and respectful relationship. May all fathers-in-laws respect their sons-in-law’s choices in life and be as emotionally supportive as possible, with blessings when possible.

And may all sons-in-law see that the advice given by those who care for you (when warranted and in a setting that is appreciated) comes out of love, and that someone with a little more experience may have a perspective you do not share.

Then do it your way, and either fail or fly.

This column was previously published in 2010.