Charles E. Savenor

Moses and the missing hug

Was the biblical leader too busy at his job to make time for his family?

As a child, the Blizzard of 1978 was a dream come true. Forty years ago, the damage to power lines and the treacherous driving conditions in Boston meant that school was canceled for three weeks. This meant ample time for sledding, watching cartoons — “The Flinstones,” in particular, and continual shoveling.

The snow drifts were so high they were taller than my head, and the wind blew so hard it literally knocked me over. It was difficult even to walk outside.

Despite these dangerous conditions, my father, decided to go to work. On the second day after the snowfall, he set out by foot for Harvard Square to open his wine and cheese store, Joseph Savenor and Sons.

At the end of the fifth day, my father came home by train. Five days. This had been the longest time that I had been without my dad. Still unable to drive, my mom, Arnie, Marc, and I marched through the slush to greet him at the station. As the train pulled in, I remember bursting with excitement.

When my father got off the train, he kissed all of us. I will always remember how he picked me up and hugged me. You would’ve thought that we hadn’t seen each other for years.

In this week’s Torah portion we witness the reunion of Moses’ family. According to the midrashic work, Seder Olam, Moses had not seen his wife and children for one year. When Moses “left for work” to serve as God’s agent in the Exodus, he sent Zipporah, his wife, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to his father-in-law’s house.

Hearing about how Moses successfully led Israel out of Egyptian slavery and onto the road to the Promised Land, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, assumes that the time has come to for the family to be reunited.

The scene is set: Yitro, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer wait for Moses to meet them. We can imagine that Moses’s kids cannot wait to hear about their father’s adventures in Egypt and how their dad split the red sea.

The actual reunion is described as follows: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed and kissed him; each asked about the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.” In other words, with his wife and kids standing right there, Moses only greets his father-in-law. And these two men go off on their own.

Clearly something is missing from this biblical encounter. We hear about Moshe’s reunion with his father-in-law, but what happened with his wife and kids?

About this interaction, the Torah is silent.

Two explanations come to mind to deal with this silence. The first possibility may be that the Bible takes for granted that Moses greets his wife and kids, so it did not need to report on it.

The second solution takes a more literal approach to the text. Picking up on this subtle omission, Abraham Ibn Ezra, a medieval Spanish Bible commentator, gives an explanation that I find astounding. He explains that Moses goes out specifically to meet Yitro because he is a respected leader in his own right, not because he is his father-in-law. And according to this rationale, if it were not for Yitro, Moses would have not left his work at all to greet his family.

So Ibn Ezra concludes that no record exists of Moses greeting his wife and hugging his sons, because it simply did not happen!

Our knowledge of Moses’ daily schedule following the reunion serves as a clue that the attention Moses does not show to his family, what I call the “missing hug,” is not an oversight, but rather symptomatic of a larger problem. For, the very next verse after the reunion reads: “The next morning Moses sat down to judge the people, and the nation stood before Moses from the morning until the evening.”

Yitro, the concerned father-in-law, notices a problem with Moses serving as the sole judge for the nation. In an attempt to enlighten Moses to the fallacy of his ways, Yitro warns his son-in-law: “You will surely get burnt out — you and these people that with you.”

But the Hebrew word for burnt out, “naval,” has another meaning. In modern Hebrew “naval” can be translated as “scoundrel.” With this translation, Yitro’s words take on a stronger, harsher tone. They would sound something like this: “You are surely acting like a scoundrel to your family by staying out here all day long. And you’re making it that your people not only have to be away from their families to see you, but they are also exposed to your poor example.”

From Yitro’s own leadership experience as the head Midian, he tells Moses: You are doing a disservice to your people, your family, and yourself by not creating the necessary balance in your life.

It is not my intention to discredit Moses. On the contrary, I am relieved that the Bible contains portraits of our leaders and ancestors who are not perfect. I only want to show that Moses is caught in the same bind we face today, namely the conflict between family and work.

Aren’t we taught to work hard and to try to be the best? Shouldn’t we expect to make sacrifices to achieve our goals?

Is family one of those sacrifices?

When I first learned this text years ago I viewed it through the lens of a son. Today, I am a father of two boys and often struggle with the same time crunch that Moses faced.

Sigmund Freud once said that human beings are motivated by their desire “to love and to work.” Freud does not advocate one or the other, but rather a balance of the two. Maintaining balance between our personal and professional lives is an uphill climb, frequently an uphill battle. Yet balance is crucial because we do not get a second chance at life. Our kids will not remain young, our friends will not always live nearby, and our parents and spouses will not live forever.

With some extra time on our hands due to this snowy season, let us consider harnessing our energy into hugs. Hugs come in many shapes and sizes: physical hugs take the form of an embrace, verbal hugs are expressed through words of affirmation and appreciation, and silent hugs occur when we listen.

In light of my own experiences with my father’s meaningful embrace 40 years ago, I will always wonder whether Moses realized how much he sacrificed by holding back his hug.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor is the Executive Director of Civic Spirit. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education, and leadership. In addition to supporting IDF Lone Soldiers, he serves on the international boards of Leket Israel and Gesher. He is writing a book called "What My Father Couldn't Tell Me."
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