Beha’alotkha is a huge hodge-podge of a parsha that covers much ritual and narrative terrain. And yet, in media res, we get a snippet of inconclusive dialogue between Moshe and his father in law Yitro.
Yitro is normally referred to in the Torah as ‘Yitro the Priest of Midian’. Hoever here he is referred to by one of his alternate descriptives , Hovav ben Reuel the Midianite father in law of Moshe חֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, (Bamidbar /Numbers 10)
כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-יְהוָה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ: כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ. לא וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנו כִּי עַל-כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ, חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ, לְעֵינָיִם.
29 And Moshe said to Hovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the LORD has promised good to Israel.” 30 But he said to him, “I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my birthplace.” 31 And he said, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. 32 And if you do go with us, whatever good the LORD will do to us, the same will we do to you.”
Clearly this conversation did not just happen. We can surmise that Yitro, having felt utterly marginalized since he arrived two years earlier, decides he has had enough, and comes to bid Moshe goodbye. After all, back in his native land Yitro was a force to be reckoned with, the high priest of a mighty society, and surely respected by one and all.
Moshe’s patronizing attempts to convince his father in law to stay are inappropriate. He thinks he can woo Yitro to remain by offering him a cut of the spoils that will eventually be given to the Israelites. And he attempts to flatter Yitro for his greater skills in maneuvering through the desert; as if telling him, you non-Jews are good at this sort of thing, and we can use an extra pair of eyes.
From the text itself it is unclear whether Yitro succumbs to Moshe’s entreaties. But one suspects that he does not. After all why would he? If anything Moshe’s words are insulting.
Interestingly, the very next piece of the parsha tells the story of the Israelites rising up against Moshe, complaining about the lack of hamburgers, steak and lamb chops in the desert. Acutely frustrated, and incapable of managing the howling mob, Moshe turns to G-d. (Bamidbar/Numbers 11)
12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.
And G-d replies:
טז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶסְפָה-לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, כִּי-הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו; וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ. יז וְיָרַדְתִּי, וְדִבַּרְתִּי עִמְּךָ שָׁם, וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ, וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם; וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתְּךָ בְּמַשָּׂא הָעָם, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא אַתָּה לְבַדֶּךָ.
16 “… Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17 And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.”
Now we have heard virtually the identical advice once before. Indeed, this was the very advice Yitro had given Moshe in his eponymously named Parsha, when Moshe was crashing under the burden of adjudicating all the lawsuits and legal cases of the entire Israelite nation. At that time G-d approved of Yitro’s advice, and this new system of delegating legal authority became the norm.
Here in Parshat Beha’alotkha G-d is clearly reprising Yitro’s earlier advice. Can it be that He is rebuking Moshe for the high-handed and condescending manner in which he had just spoken to his father in law – the very man who had bailed him out of a similarly tight spot but two years earlier?
Perhaps this is the reason why the brief dialogue between Moshe and Yitro is so inconclusive. Because until G-d rebukes Moshe by reminding him of just who Yitro is, the situation remains unresolved. And only now, a chastened Moshe can set things right with his righteous father in law.