Here come the in-laws! Choosing your relatives

Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard everything that God had done to Moses, and to Israel, His people…” (Exodus 18:1)

With these words, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we are re-introduced to Yitro, eponymous father-in-law of Moses, who appears on the scene with Moses’s wife and sons. We are also once again presented with a rare biblical word, choten, meaning “father-in-law.” The word is used only in reference to Yitro. Nowhere else, in all of Tanach, is anyone referred to as a choten, despite the fact that there are many fathers-in-law in the Biblical narratives.  Also, interestingly, the title is used in connection with Yitro 13 different times! In fact, it accompanies his name almost every time that Yitro is mentioned in the Torah.

So, let’s talk about “in-laws.” Just saying those words conjures up “in-law” jokes, usually about the difficult and meddling mother-in-law. Biblically, of course, we know of one of the most beautiful mother/daughter-in-law relationships of all time, that of Naomi and Ruth. What pledge of love and loyalty can compare with “Whither thou goest, I shall go…?” Unfortunately, in the Talmud, more problematic relationships are presented, having difficult halachic implications.

In general, fathers-in-law fare better, both in reputation and humor, as well as in halacha. Yet we have at least two examples of difficult father/son-in-law relationships. There is Lavan, whose scheming ways are characterized in the Haggada as being more evil and more threatening than those of Pharaoh.  Ultimately, his son-in-law Jacob has to flee with his family and belongings in the middle of the night in order to extricate himself from Lavan’s greed and avariciousness. Similarly, King Saul spends much of the First Book of Samuel, pursuing his son-in-law, David, in an attempt to kill him! Still, neither of these is granted the appellation of choten, possibly due to their rather un-fatherly behaviors.

We might note that these stereotypes have not changed greatly over the millennia. In an interview in the New York Times, Dr. Geoffrey Greif, co-author of a new book, “In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers, and Sons” is asked what about his research surprised him most. He answers that it was that so little has changed in his lifetime despite the huge social and familial changes having taken place during that period.

All of which brings us back to Yitro, identified as choten Moshe, which seems to be more an honorific than simply a name for a relationship. What is the central quality that appears to characterize the relationship between the two, father-in-law and son-in-law? It would seem to be mutual honor, respect, and appreciation. When Yitro arrives, we are told that Moses went out to meet him, bowed before him and kissed him. Then they exchanged warm words of greeting.

Later, Yitro attends a feast in his honor. According to Rashi, Moses does not sit down at the table. Rather he stands and serves his father-in-law throughout the meal. According to the Mechilta, an important midrashic source, we learn the Torah obligation of honoring one’s in-laws from the behavior, herein described, of Moses towards Yitro. It is also clear that the honor and respect is mutual.

Furthermore, both Yitro and Moses exhibit appreciation towards God and towards the other. After Moshe gives a detailed and grateful account of all the miracles that God has wrought in saving Israel, Yitro responds with joyful praise of and appreciation for all that God had done. Moses’s sense of gratitude to Yitro had earlier been expressed by his unwillingness to depart from Midian at God’s behest until he first asked leave of Yitro, who had taken him in when he was a fugitive.

Further in the parsha, when Yitro sees Moses sitting in judgement of the people “from the morning until the evening,” he remonstrates with him saying “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out…this matter is too difficult for you…” (Exodus 18: 17-18) He then makes suggestions for a graduated judicial process that would remove a good part of the burden from Moses’s shoulders. What could be perceived as “in-law meddling” is received well by Moses and we are told “Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law, and did everything that he had said.” (18:24) Perhaps Moses realized that Yitro truly had his interests at heart and his suggestions came from a place of respect and affection.

A beautiful explanation for the obligation of honoring one’s mother and father-in-law is suggested by the Pele Yoetz, an important 19th century work on ethics. He writes that the obligation of honoring one’s in-laws derives from the debt of gratitude owed them for the years of nurture, education, and resources expended in caring for and raising the spouse that one is now marrying.

“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family” is a line from Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In-laws fall somewhere in the murky area between chosen friends and imposed relatives. Dr. Greif optimistically points out that the relations between in-laws is generally better than popularly portrayed, notwithstanding the ongoing difficulties and conflicts. Still, the stereotypes and jokes endure as they are nurtured often by reality.

However, the example of Moses and Yitro exemplifies a healthy and respectful relationship based on deference, appreciation, and esteem. While we can’t, perhaps, choose our families, not even our in-law relations, we can choose how we relate to those who’ve been brought into our most intimate circles. You can still tell the jokes. After all, some of them really are funny. Just don’t take them too seriously.

About the Author
Chaya Passow, a graduate of Stern College, majoring in English literature, taught English at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem. A lecturer and teacher of Jewish studies both in formal and informal settings, she is one of the founders of Lomdot and Melamdot, a program for advanced women's Torah learning. Since 2002 she has been living her dream of residing in Jerusalem, together with her husband, Eli, and enjoying being savta to a large cohort of beautiful grandchildren. Her new book, 'Letters from Planet Corona' was published in 2020.
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