This Dvar Torah on Parashat Yitro was adapted from one written by Jane Shapiro, co-founder of Orot.
My distinguished father-in-law Richard has been an important person in my life for almost fifty years. I was a very young freshman in college when we met. An ardent believer and lover of Torah, I was also not very skilled or self-confident about expressing my opinions.
This made it all the more challenging when the first thing he said to me after being introduced was: “I cannot fathom how anyone could believe in a God that would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.” This was not what I was expecting to hear as I stood next to my boyfriend and tried to smile sweetly.
Over the years, Abraham and Isaac came up over and over again. But as I matured and as he grew to know me, accept me, appreciate me and love me, our differences about theology and God seemed less and less important. Even today he asks me how the “God business” is going.
But in the context of grandchildren, family celebrations, and milestones what really has mattered most was what connects us. I will never forget how he and my mother-in-law rushed to comfort me when my own father died. He has been a source of wisdom and strength for me ever since…
And so to me it makes perfect sense that a parsha of the Torah would be named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro [Jethro]. And it makes sense that the first indication that we have of his character comes in the first word about him: Vayishma. In Biblical syntax the line (18:1) reads:
“And he heard [Vayishma], this Yitro a priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, all that had been done to Moses and to Israel, his nation, for the Lord had brought out Israel from Egypt.”
Yitro is a tuned-in person. To the news circulating around the desert community. To the events happening to his son-in-law. And now to what Moses’ God seems to be about…
When Yitro comes to Moses in the desert, bringing [Moses’] wife and children [who are Yitro’s daughter and grandchildren respectively] along so they can join their father, [the medieval French commentator] Rashi adds:
“We know that Moses is in the wilderness.
This is written to praise Jethro whose heart moved him to leave his position of glory in the world to go out to the barren wilderness in order to hear words of Torah.”
Aside from his desire to reconcile Moses to his family and the way he sees that Moses needs help delegating responsibility to others who might share the burden of applying law and justice for the people, I notice this interaction:
Shemot/ Exodus 18:7-12
Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.
Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.
And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the LORD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians.
“Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”
And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law.
What takes place in the tent? Moses begins to recount/narrate/tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and all of God’s great acts. And Yitro responds with Praise - Baruch Adonai! He then offers a meat offering, a zevah [sacrifice] to God.
Doesn’t this look and sound familiar? We usually assume that the Israelites did a ritual meal with telling and praise on the eve of departure [from Egypt] and then again as they enter the land [of Israel], but Yitro and Moses seem engaged in the same type of activity. This is a little Seder hidden in Exodus that we do not usually notice!
And perhaps Yitro is teaching Moses that his family must also become part of the ritual and the sacred transmission, even if they did not have the direct experience. Yitro seems to be the one to first enact the line "In every generation, a person must see her/himself as personally experiencing the events [of leaving Egypt].”
Whether he is drawing on some Midianite tent ritual or is a new convert to Moses’ faith, Yitro provides calm perspective about commemorating Egypt as well as how to distribute and teach God’s Torah to the people democratically. He is a true ally and friend. He is a true father-in-law.
So it is good to honor him this week and consider the people who parented our partners and spouses with new appreciation and respect. And maybe honor them too when we read commandment # 5 [Honor your father and mother...]
Spend a moment considering the family members
who have been sources of encouragement and wisdom over the years.
What have they taught you?
Have you acknowledged the role they play in your life for good?