Naomi Graetz

Reflections: My father and Yitro as fathers-in-law

I am dedicating this blog to my father, Yehezkel Lebowitz who died 49 years ago on the 18th of Shevat (February 9th, 1974). In the mid-eighties I started writing imaginary letters to him, excerpts of which I will include when relevant. Parshat Yitro begins when Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses.

And Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’s wife, after her being sent away אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ, and her two sons… And Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, and his sons and his wife with him, came to Moses, to the wilderness in which he was encamped, the mountain of God. And he said to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, … And it happened on the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood over Moses from the morning till the evening. And Moses’s father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, and he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why are you sitting alone while all the people are poised over you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “For the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have some matter, it comes to me and I judge between a man and his fellow and I make known God’s statutes and His teachings.” And Moses’s father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good לֹא טוֹב. You will surely wear yourself out—both you and this people that is with you—for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone לֹא תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ” (Exodus 18: 1-18). 

This is one of only two instances in the Torah in which the words lo tov, “not good,” appear. The other is in Genesis 2, where God says, לא טוב היות האדם לבדו.   We cannot sit alone, lead the nation alone, live alone. To be all alone is not good. At the end of the story, Moses sends Yitro off: And Moses sent off וַיְשַׁלַּח  his father-in-law, and he went away to his land (18:27). Note that the story begins with: And Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’s wife, after her being sent away אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ. What we have here is an inclusio, a frame, an envelop structure, which is a literary device. It is signaled by the root shalach at the beginning and the end of the story, giving a form of closure to the story. As Robert Alter noted (in the commentary to his translation which I am using): “The verb also neatly closes the episode in a ring structure, picking up the “being sent away” of verse 2.” Because of this we learn something about the human relations, between Moses, Zipporah, who is both wife and daughter and Yitro who is both father and father-in-law.

When I think of Yitro, I always think of my father.  Like Yitro, he only had daughters, my sister and myself.  Yitro had seven daughters and like my father he was delighted to have a son-in- law. I think that there is always a special relationship between fathers of daughters and their sons-in-law.  Finally there is a man in the family.  Someone you can give advice to, slip some money to in order to make life easier, someone who can help around the house with the heavy work (think Moses and the sheep) and someone to whom you can tell your jokes and with whom to share your anxieties. Yet, there are some fathers-in-law who don’t have such great relationships with their daughters’ husbands. For instance Laban, father-in- law of Jacob and Saul, father-in-law of David, whom he tried to kill. But Yitro, for whom this parsha is named, gave advice to Moses that saved him from himself.  He saw how Moses was working from the morning till the evening, מִן בֹּקֶר עַד עָרֶב, and how Yitro, seeing this and, speaking like a true father-in-law, says: “the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone ” כִּי כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר לֹא תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ.” Like a benevolent father-in-law, he told him how to organize the nation.

Yet when it came to giving Moses some marital advice he was at a loss.  Yitro did the right thing,  for he brought his daughter Zipporah and their sons back. However, Moses ignored them: He said to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” However, it says that Moses went out to meet his father-in-law וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה לִקְרַאת חֹתְנוֹ. Moses, had eyes only for his father-in-law. Rather than comment on this and give the couple some time together–to readjust and get used to each other, Yitro went off with Moses and left Zipporah and her two children to fend for themselves. This is something my father would never have done. He would have made sure we were comfortably settled before wandering off.

My father like Yitro had many different names. He was known as Edward or Eddie, Yehezkel, Yechezkiel, Heskele to our family, and he spelled his last name as Lebowitz (sometimes with an “e” and sometimes with an “ie”) and sometimes as Lebovics. When he was in Paris in 1920 he changed his last name to Lafayette!  Yitro also had many names, in fact, he had 7 different names. According to the midrash he was Reuel רעואל because he was God’s friend רעו של אלהים. Other names include Chever, Putiel, Yeter, Hovav and Keyni, each with their unique explanations (See Sifrei Zuta, Chapter 10 and the Mechilta).

If we compare, Yitro, Saul and Laban, we will see that Saul treated his daughters and sons-in- law abominably and treated them like objects and they ultimately rebelled against him. Yitro was a great father-in-law, but not such a good father. And Laban, though he tricked Jacob and mistreated him loved his daughters and wanted them near him and did everything in his power to keep them.  But when it was clear that he could not keep them, he sent Jacob off with his blessings, and a warning:  “Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31: 50).

When we came to Israel in August 1967, my father was very unhappy—he was old (67 years old) and we didn’t have children yet.  My sister who was 6 years older than me, wasn’t married yet, and he was concerned that he would never have grandchildren. But our first child was born in May 1968, 9 months later after we arrived. He was ecstatic and came for her birth and then later for my son’s birth in December, 1970.

My father, mother and oldest daughter in 1970.

He had a wonderful relationship with us and his grandchildren—giving us advice, helping us with money and fixing things around the house, until his death in February 1974.

During the Yom Kippur War he and my mother moved into our house, so that I wouldn’t be alone when my husband served in the army. Now that I am way past the age my father was when he died, I can appreciate the existential concerns that he had about the generations and think that although Yitro might have been a wonderful father-in-law, his daughter Zipporah needed him and when Moshe neglected her, he should have been there for her and said something.

My father would have been so proud of our children, our sons-in-law and of course our grandchildren. My father never got a chance to see his son-in-law become a respected figure in the community, nor see the kehillah he built and put on the map. It was sad that he died when our lives were in such a state of flux, against the background of the Yom Kippur war, when I was unable to mourn him properly. Our love was unspoken, unvoiced. He was not an articulate man, like Yitro. My father was a simple person, as he like to call himself, poshea yisroel, playing on the word pashut (simple, i.e. not a cohen or a levi) and the word poshea (sinner). His father was a revered rabbi in the border areas of Romania, Hungary and Slovakia and then left for a pulpit in Brooklyn in the 1920’s. My father rebelled against his very strict father, which I recalled from a 3-page single-spaced letter I wrote to my father 12 years after he died.

You were nostalgic about your Jewish background. I remember your telling us the perhaps apocryphal story about how you removed your peyot one by one, out of your respect for your father’s fanatic religious views. I wonder if you would have had mixed feelings about women’s participation in services. I like to think you would have been proud of us for reading the Torah at our sons and daughters bar/bat mitzvahs. I missed your being there on those occasions.

In this letter I also wrote:

I’ve started to write this year. I don’t know where it will take me, if it will make me rich or famous. I decided to put my feelings about you in print this year on your twelfth yahrzeit since I don’t know if the habit of writing will be with me next year.

Well, as you can see the “habit of writing” has stayed with me all these years. I started this blog because of my sense of mortality and hope that there will be many more years of teaching and writing. There are some advantages to dying at a relatively young age, about which I wrote in this letter:

Perhaps it is for the best that you are where you are. You no longer have to worry about our future, your health, the world our children will grow up in. You would have been 85 years old. Would you have been in good health? Would you have been as adventurous, as ready to go as always?  Probably not! So at least my memory of you as a generous, uncomplaining, caring person, will stay with me untarnished by the grosser reality of old age.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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