Guiding well is complicated. Sometimes the best guides share their wisdom, sometimes they provide space for trial and error on the path towards understanding. Which pedagogy do we seekers desire? And what kind of impact does a teacher’s choice have on our abilities to successfully traverse personal journeys?
As Moses and the Israelites are preparing to emerge from the base of Mount Sinai, we read of Moses approaching his father-in-law Chovav:
[Moses approached Chovav] saying ‘We are journeying unto the place of which God said: ‘I will give it you.’ Come with us, and we will be good to you, for God has spoken well concerning Israel.’ Chovav responded ‘I will not go. I will return to my own land, to my birthplace.’ Moses said: ‘Please don’t leave us! You know how we are to encamp in the wilderness. Be our eyes!'” (Num. 10:29-31)
Many questions arise from this text. Is Chovav the same person as Yitro in Exodus? According to many interpreters, Yitro had joined the Israelite people – why then does Moses intimate that “we” will be good to “you” – aren’t “we” and “you” one and the same? Why does Moses need his father-in-law so much? And perhaps most importantly, why doesn’t Chovav, who has witnessed first-hand the miraculous relationship between God and the Israelites, jump at the chance to be an integral part of the body of Israel – their eyes?
The Chovav/Yitro name difference is likely connected to various strands of sacred story within the Torah. This is mirrored in the very next chapter where Moses is said to have married a Cushite, though we know his wife Tzippora is a Middianite according to the text in Exodus. Confusion surrounding her identity and her father’s identity are reminders to every reader that we are each complicated enough to be known in at least two ways, by various names, during different life-moments.
Regarding Chovav’s being treated as “other”, there is an ancient question whether he joined the Children of Israel before the Sinai Revelation or afterwards (see Talmud Zevachim 116a). Moses’ language is puzzling, but perhaps also points to Chovav’s outsider perspective. He has, perhaps, joined this new family, this emerging people – but he was also once a Midianite priest. Hovav’s vision is that of a newcomer, a wisdom teacher from the outside world. Moses seems to need those kinds of eyes, ones which have not been forever changed by a fiery bush, eyes which didn’t witness the terrifying power of God’s power in Egypt, eyes which haven’t seen the brutality of family being tortured. No, Chovav isn’t only Moses’ wise father-in-law. Chovav’s eyes have some distance from the story. Moses sees in Chovav a clarity that is difficult to retain, especially while being Moses.
Chovav/Yitro’s clear thinking is first demonstrated in his (unsolicited) advice upon first observing his son-in-law at work:
“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.” 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. (Ex. 18:13-24)”
Yitro/Chovav is, perhaps, speaking from the experience of his work as a religious guide, priest of Midian, watching a younger colleague struggle under the burden of leadership, wishing to solve problems while forgetting to share the burden wherever possible. As Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky put it in their classic “Leadership on the Line” Yitro’s wisdom provides Moses an opportunity to “get on the balcony.” Said most simply: the dance floor is a poor place from which to observe the dance floor. The balcony’s distance provides a healthier perspective – a new set of eyes. No wonder Moses seeks his father-in-law’s counsel once again as the Sinai environment, suddenly familiar, is about to be replaced by the entrance to an unknown Promised Land. This is an ongoing exodus, consistently leaving behind that which is familiar, demanding adaptive skills from leaders with established procedures based on 400 years of slavery and 40 years of desert wandering. New eyes are hard to come by.
But what is most striking in our particular narrative is the fact that Chovav doesn’t instantaneously agree to remain upon Moses’ heartfelt request. In fact, the Biblical text makes no indication as to Chovav’s ultimate choice. Whereas the Book of Judges seems to indicate (Jud. 4:11) that Chovav’s descendants inherited portions of Ancient Israel, hinting at an affirmative answer to Moses’ request, our local text leaves the question unresolved.
Why, after learning of God’s gifts to Israel, experiencing the wonder of Divine Fire and Cloud, after sharing in the reunion of his daughter and grandchildren with Moses, after gaining widespread respect as Moses’ organizational and spiritual mentor, would Chovav not agree to serve as the Israelites’ guide?
An answer might be suggested just a bit ahead in the narrative, where God is chastising Aaron and Miriam for questioning Moses’ unique relationship with God:
God came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, ‘Aaron and Miriam!’ The two of them came forward and God said, ‘Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Adonai. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’” (Num. 12:4-8)
Moses might think he needs someone else’s eyes to see, but God attests to Moses’ singularly clear vision. Rabbinic commentary emphasizes this concept by suggesting that “while all the other prophets saw through a clouded lens, but Moshe saw through a clear lens.” (TB Yevamot 49b) When Chovav first observes his son-in-law, he offers unsolicited advice. Here, he is asked for his wisdom and declines. Forty years of leadership have intervened in the relationship between Moses and Chovav. Moses knows he still has much to learn, and Chovav never suggests that he couldn’t serve as Moses’ eyes. And this is the greatness of Chovav – not offering advice.
Moses had implemented his father-in-law’s recommended system of delegation and would, in the very next chapter, say to God in light of yet another heavy encounter with life:
Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to this entire people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry this entire people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!'” (Num. 11:11-15)
Intense. And that is the point, is it not? The distance implied in Moses’ reliance upon his father-in-law’s observations would, in some sense, be a denial of the unique conduit-role he was called to be. It is no easy task to serve as a conduit. No wonder Chovav is so dear to Moses. But while having partners with which to unburden is crucial, those partners are there as “presences”, similar to the role Jewish tradition teaches us to assume in a Shiva home. Partners do not serve as eyes or mouths, filling the space in an effort to answer a palpable need – partners serve as ears and shoulders, granting the space for healing, processing, and self-expression. To be intimately involved in the struggles of life is hard. And correct. And worth sharing with awareness and sensitivity.
Rabbi Chanin taught two thousand years ago that a “judge only has that which [she] sees with [her] own eyes. (TB Sanhedrin 6b)” When we are the ones struggling, we need to find our own path. We must have confidence that we can own our mistakes. And when we are in the position to offer advice, we must remember that we can’t always make it better – we simply show up and care. To try to traverse someone else’s journey for them is to forget what it was to be on our own. Holding back wisdom can also be a rare and precious gift, the gift of self-regulation and self-reliance.
The Haftarah for BeHa’alotecha offers a fitting testimony to this idea. It speaks of the prophet Zecharia’s vision of a Menorah. In it, we read:
“And the angel that spoke with me returned, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And the angel said unto me: ‘What did you see?’ And I said: ‘I saw a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps; there are seven pipes to the lamps which are upon the top; and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side.’ And I answered and spoke to the angel that spoke with me, saying: ‘What does this mean, my lord?’ Then the angel that spoke with me answered and said unto me: ‘Do you not know what these mean?’ And I said: ‘No, my lord.’ (Zech. 4:1-5)
The prophet awakens with clear vision as to what he saw, but does not understand what it means. What is the illumination of the Menorah for? he asks the Angel. And the angel hesitates before answering. This holy hesitation is the beginning of wisdom, as we read just five verses later of the branches of the Menorah, that “these seven are the eyes of Adonai that run to and fro through the whole earth. (Zech. 4:10)”
The radiance of the world itself is God’s very eyes, encouraging every one of us to seek our particular path by its light.