Is it merely coincidence that both Yosef and Moshe, having become leaders in their respective societies, cut themselves off totally from their families? Yosef made zero attempt to contact Yaakov his father, let alone his brothers. Likewise, Moshe seems to have forgotten that he had a wife and children languishing in Midian. In both cases this preferred silence is both inexplicable and inexcusable. In both cases, their hermetic alienation is broken only by circumstances and the initiatives of others.
Any explanations I can possibly give will likely result in my windows being (literally or figuratively) smashed by my more fundamentalist friends and relatives, so I will keep them to myself. But I welcome any offers of clarification from my readers
* * *
The concept of אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה (Torah narratives are not necessarily in chronological order) is nowhere more glaringly apparent than in Parshat Yitro. In this parsha the two main narrative elements appear in reverse order.
The parsha opens with Yitro’s arrival and his criticism of the manner in which Moshe is singlehandedly adjudicating the entire legal caseload of the Bnei Israel. This is followed by Matan Torah, the receiving of the Law on Sinai. Clearly Matan Torah had to precede the adjudication process, as it was on Sinai that Moshe first received the Law by which to adjudicate in the first place.
Prior to Yitro’s arrival on the scene, Moshes’ father-in-law had been acting in loco parentis to his grandsons Gershom and Eliezer. Apparently they has been abandoned by their father Moshe, along with their mother Tzipporah who was Yitro’s daughter. After sending them back to Midian, Moshe seemed to have forgotten about them entirely. Not a postcard, not a phone call, not an email, not even a message via Pony Express.
Indeed, Yitro first “hears about all that God has done for Moshe and Israel his people…” (Shemot 18:1).
וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן משֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָֹ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
It is unclear whether “his people” refers to G-d’s people or to Moshe’s people. But the news that reaches Yitro is somewhat stale. The Exodus is by now history, and much has transpired since then.
Indeed, so estranged has Moshe become from his family that, upon arriving at Moshe’s tent – with Zipporah and grandsons in tow – Yitro rather sarcastically, declares ; “I am your father-in-law Yitro coming to you, along with your wife and her two sons with her” (18:6)
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֲנִ֛י חֹֽתֶנְךָ֥ יִתְר֖וֹ בָּ֣א אֵלֶ֑יךָ וְאִ֨שְׁתְּךָ֔ וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנֶ֖יהָ עִמָּֽהּ
The subsequent verse seems out of place here both in time and tenor. “And Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked concerning each other’s welfare; and they came into the tent.” (18:7)
וַיֵּצֵ֨א משֶׁ֜ה לִקְרַ֣את חֹֽתְנ֗וֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֨חוּ֙ וַיִּשַּׁק־ל֔וֹ וַיִּשְׁאֲל֥וּ אִֽישׁ־לְרֵעֵ֖הוּ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ הָאֹֽהֱלָה
Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of softening the rebuke, or an attempt to spin the story so that Moshe does not appear in such an unfavorable light. More likely it was the correct etiquette regardless of how Moshe may have felt. It is highly unlikely that Moshe enjoyed being put on the spot so publicly and without warning. And this seems borne out by the fact that, at the first opportunity Moshe sends Yitro packing (18:27)
וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח משֶׁ֖ה אֶת־חֹֽתְנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ ל֖וֹ אֶל־אַרְצֽוֹ
And Moshe dispatched his father-in-law, and he went off to his land
Nevertheless, Yitro is hardly ready to include his daughter and grandsons among the nation that has been redeemed by God; “And Yitro said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of Pharaoh; who has rescued the Nation from under the hand of Egypt.” (18:10)
וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם:
Neither “you” nor “the Nation” would appear to include Tzipporah, and her sons Gershom and Eliezer. And why should it include Tzipporah and the boys? Moshe himself didn’t seem to feel it necessary to include them either.
* * *
In one of the remarkable sub-stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, we have Yitro now virtually dictating to Moshe how he should structure a functional judicial system. Thus far this project has been limited to Moshe himself – a rather daunting task for one man among 600,000 argumentative, stiff-necked, whining and litigious people.
“The thing you are doing is not good” (18:17) Yitro tells Moshe before outlining a method of delegating responsibility; “… from the entire Nation you should select able men who fear God; honest men who loath unfair profit; and appoint over (Israel), leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens” (18:21).
וַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן משֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה
וְאַתָּ֣ה תֶֽחֱזֶ֣ה מִכָּל־הָ֠עָ֠ם אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֜יִל יִרְאֵ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אַנְשֵׁ֥י אֱמֶ֖ת שׂ֣נְאֵי בָ֑צַע וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת
It is astonishing, to say the least, that Moshe hadn’t thought of this himself. Assuming even that God had not instructed him how to structure a judicial system. Even if it had not occurred to Moshe to ask God how to manage such an insurmountable challenge, surely Moshe knew the שבע מצוות בני נח , the Seven Noahide Laws, one of which is to establish courts of law and a judicial system. Yet, to Moshe’s ears this all seems to be new, and originates with Yitro.
(On the other hand, it is quite possible that Moshe knew all this already. Yet, having been burned by experience, he didn’t trust his own people, and did not believe there were any among them to whom he could delegate judicial responsibility.)
Nevertheless, Moshe listens to Yitro (18:24)
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע משֶׁ֖ה לְק֣וֹל חֹֽתְנ֑וֹ וַיַּ֕עַשׂ כֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָמָֽר
And Moshe listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said
Yet no sooner had Moshe done so and he unceremoniously sends Yitro on his way (18:27)
וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח משֶׁ֖ה אֶת־חֹֽתְנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ ל֖וֹ אֶל־אַרְצֽוֹ
And Moshe dispatched his father-in-law, and he went off to his land.
Here, too, Moshe is behaving like Yosef. As soon as he could, Yosef shipped his father and brothers off to the remote Goshen, while Moshe ships his father-in-law back to Midian
It happens all the time: A CEO is given a great idea by a more junior executive. Immediately after implementing this fine innovation, the CEO fires the underling. Moshe was human after all, and likely he was still smarting from the embarrassment of Yitro’s chastising manner.
An echo from Bereishit
And yet there is something vastly more significant in verse 27, an echo from Bereishit where God tells Avraham לך לך מארצך which is eerily paralleled here when it says here וילך לו לארצו for indeed the מארצך of Avraham is the same country (Midian) as the אל ארצו of Yitro. And the curious and unnecessary addition of Leha -לך and Lo– לו cannot be mere coincidence.
Perhaps what the Torah is trying to say is that each nation has its own land and its own destiny. Yes, for the progeny of Avraham it is the Land of Israel. But this does not make the Land of Midian, for example, any less important for the progeny of Yitro. Indeed, there is something exemplary and important about loyalty to one’s own people and place. And it is only in their national habitat that a people can flourish and make their unique contribution to the world as a whole.
About the Tenth Commandment
It is worth noting that the Commandments 6,7,8 and 9 are very perfunctory (20:13)
לֹ֖א תִּרְצָֽח: לֹ֖א תִּנְאָֽף: לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹֽב: לֹֽא־תַֽעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר
‘Do not murder’. ‘Do not commit adultery’. ‘Do not steal’. ‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbor’.
Yet suddenly when it comes to lust, God becomes rather verbose and very specific (20:14):
לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַֽאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַֽחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ |
Do not lust for your neighbor’s house. Do not lust for your neighbor’s wife. Do not lust for your neighbor’s slave. Do not lust for your neighbor’s ox. Do not lust for your neighbor’s ass. And for all that belongs to your neighbor.
One might think that a simple לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד “Do not lust” would suffice. Or perhaps “Do not lust for your neighbor’s ass”, and we would understand קל וחומר a fortiori that we may not lust after his ox, or slave, or wife.
The need to drive the message home six different ways is significant because it recognizes the power of jealousy that lurks in the human psyche.
One might think that only the have-nots are, understandably, jealous of the haves. But for the rich to be jealous at all, let alone of someone with who has less seems counterintuitive. And yet, in real life, one often sees that jealousy and greed are far more prevalent among those who have more than among those who have far less. And often this jealousy is not only of those who have even more, but surprisingly – if not especially – for those who have much less.
The pursuit of money and property and expensive toys and baubles is less about one’s natural desire, or personal preference, or taste. More often it is a function of what someone else has, what someone else receives, what someone else drives, what someone else owns.
The Tenth Commandment is obsessed with this aspect of the human condition, not because of the harm it might do to another person (as is the case in Commandments 6-9) but rather because of the damage it does to oneself. Envy is poison and its victim is, first and foremost, the one whom we see in the mirror.