In a year of paradigm shifts, I underwent one this year that — blessedly — had nothing to do with COVID-19. This past summer, baruch Hashem, I went from being a son-in-law to being a father-in-law as well. This new relationship has made me reflect on the wonderful connection I have with my wife’s father and made me think about how to foster such warmth with my daughter’s husband.
The Torah tells the stories of two fathers-in-law. One is Lavan, who married off two daughters to Yaakov back in parashat Vayetze. He then for years mistreated his son-in-law, thereby enshrining himself in the unofficial canon of “bad guys” of the Torah. The second father-in-law who appears (and who is identified as such thirteen times in this week’s parasha, which is then named for him) is Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro.
The Torah emphasizes the warm relationship between Moshe and Yitro. Dr. Leon Kass notes that we read that Moshe kissed Yitro when the older man arrived with Moshe’s wife Tzipporah and their sons Eliezer and Gershom in tow, yet we know nothing of how Moshe greeted his wife and sons. Moshe and Yitro had something special. Indeed, according to Rashi, their relationship was a mutual lovefest: after Moshe’s success taking the people of Israel out of Egypt, Yitro proudly told people “I’m Moshe’s father-in-law;” before he became famous on his own, Moshe would tell people “Yitro is my father-in-law.”
Lavan clearly loved his daughters. He made sure that his older daughter Leah had a husband, even if he had to resort to trickery to do so. Yitro, who had seven daughters, loved his daughters too. After they left Moshe at the well of Midian, Yitro asked his daughters lama zeh azavten et ha-ish? “Why did you abandon this guy?” As Dads, Yitro and Lavan were great; but in their in-law relationships, Yitro succeeded where Lavan failed.
Yitro offered Moshe key advice, telling him to set up a system of higher and lower courts so that Moshe himself would not have to sit in judgment each day from morning till night. But Yitro did not force this advice on Moshe: rather, he first asked Moshe what he was doing. Then he listened to Moshe’s response. And then — only then — did Yitro tell Moshe, lo tov ha-davar asher ata oseh, “what you’re doing isn’t a good thing.” Yitro could then give Moshe his opinion.
Dr. Kass, in the wonderful close reading he offers in his Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, points out that the phrase of va-yavo Yitro, “Yitro approached,” echoes the words of va-yavo Amalek that appeared at the end of last week’s Torah reading. Both Yitro and Amalek were outsiders who approached the people of Israel. One came to do battle; the other came to offer support, a listening ear, and, ultimately, good advice. We in-laws come from the outside. We want to connect. And the key to a close and warm relationship is the asking and the listening, not the telling or the giving of advice — and definitely not the battles. This is true for us as in-laws, but also works for any other important relationships that we seek to cultivate.
With God’s help, maybe we can all be a little like Yitro.