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Naomi Graetz

Should We Listen to our Elder’s Advice: Parshat Yitro

This week’s parsha is Yitro. It starts when Yitro, who is identified as the priest of Midian and the father-in-law of Moses, hears all that God has done for Moses and his people Israel. What does he do? He takes his daughter Zipporah, Moses’s wife whom he had sent away (אחר שלוחיה) and also HER two boys Gershom and Eliezer. He brings the three of them to Moses. One would think that Moses would be overjoyed at seeing his wife and children. But no, it is his father-in-law that Moses bows down to and kisses and warmly greets before going into the tent for serious male-to-male discussions. The rest of the story is just about them. I always wondered how Zipporah and her two boys felt. No kisses from daddy and hubbie!  The neglect will be obvious when we get to Numbers 12, when Miriam and Aaron will complain to Moses about this neglect. And Miriam will be punished by God for her criticism. It would seem that leaders of the nation get a pass when they neglect their family and/or behave inappropriately. Moses tells Yitro about everything that has happened, emphasizing the good that God had bestowed on the people. And Yitro is truly impressed, which we can see by his response:

“Blessed be יהוה,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that יהוה is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 18:10-12).

The next day Moses goes to work: his backbreaking job is judging the people; he deals with them from early morning to late evening, apparently without taking a break. His father-in-law observes this and asks him:

“What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses explains that he has to not only serve as a judge, but he also has to be a teacher to the people to “make known the laws and teachings of God.”

Yitro criticizes him and tells him he will suffer burnout if he continues to do everything by himself; he suggests an alternative:

“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out, from among all the people, capable individuals who fear God—trustworthy ones who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses does as Yitro suggests and we can all thank Yitro for the beginnings of bureaucracy! After following Yitro’s advice, Moses sends his father-in-law on his way.

COMMON SENSE FOR US MORTALS

When I became a mother-in-law, and then a few years later, a grandmother, the advice by my friends and elders was to listen, smile, and be supportive. If I didn’t like what I saw, or thought my children were re-inventing the wheel, they told me to keep my mouth shut; not to interfere or offer advice; to intervene only if asked. I’ve been pretty good about this over the years, but the other day I found myself breaking the rule with my grandson, who, after three and a half months in Gaza, just got out of the army. He noticed that the jacket of my phone, which is held together with masking tape, is falling apart and that I should buy a new one. I pointed to the inside where there is an insert for all my credit and other identity cards. He told me that his cards are in his phone and explained that he doesn’t use physical cards for any transactions. He added that it’s very safe, because only he can open his phone. When I asked, what if something happens to you? Is there any way someone else can access his phone in an emergency?  His answer, was “Grandma, I’m young, what can happen to me?”  This from someone who spent three months in Gaza. I looked at him and made some sort of ironic comment, but he didn’t really get it. I did suggest that he gets comprehensive travel insurance before going off to see the world. That, of course he did. My daughter directed and wrote a movie called “London” in which she based the interfering mother character on me, since I always am asking her to write a will, “just in case”! Oh, the hubris of the young, laughing at their elders when we offer legitimate advice!  When I told this to a close friend on a zoom call, we laughed together and I said, this is great material for my blog.  I would like to think that he has left his vital information with his parents, but I’m not going to intervene.  I am not a Yitro.

ALTERNATIVE HAFTARA

If I were choosing the haftarah for this week’s parsha, and wanted to make connections about giving and taking advice, I would start with Solomon’s downfall in 1 Kings 11. As most of us know, Solomon loved women and supposedly had 1,000 wives in his harem, many of whom were foreigners who worshipped other gods. In his old age, his wives turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods.

And GOD said to Solomon, “Because you are guilty of this —you have not kept My covenant and the laws that I enjoined upon you—I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But, for the sake of your father David, I will not do it in your lifetime; I will tear it away from your son. However, I will not tear away the whole kingdom; I will give your son one tribe, for the sake of My servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.”

The person God chose for this role was the very capable Jeroboam son of Nebat who Solomon appointed over “the forced labor of the House of Joseph”. When Solomon heard this he tried to have Jeroboam killed, but the latter fled to Egypt and remained there until Solomon died.

REHOBOAM: ON NOT LISTENING TO YOUR ELDERS

For some reason Solomon’s son Rehoboam decided to be inaugurated as king in Shechem, which is in Northern Israel—a place asking for trouble then and now, given its past history. The people, who apparently were not very happy with Rehoboam, sent for Jeroboam who as spokesperson for the people said to the new king: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke that your father laid on us, and we will serve you.” The young king asked for three days’ time to make a decision.

The young new King Rehoboam took counsel with the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. He said, “What answer do you advise [me] to give to this people?” They [wisely] answered him, “If you will be a servant to those people today and serve them, and if you respond to them with kind words, they will be your servants always.”

But he ignored the advice that the elders gave him, and took counsel with the young men [literally the children הַיְלָדִים֙]  who had grown up with him and were serving him. And what was the advice these arrogant young men gave him?

 “Speak thus to the people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, now you make it lighter for us.’ Say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. My father imposed a heavy yoke on you, and I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions.’”

And Rehoboam made a big mistake and listened to them. When the people came back after three days, not only did Rehoboam reject their requests, he added salt to their wounds and answered the people harshly, ignoring the advice that the elders had given him.  He spoke to them and repeated the advice of the young men about flogging them with scorpions. What ensued was a rebellion:

When all Israel saw that the king had not listened to them, the people answered the king: “We have no portion in David, No share in Jesse’s son! To your tents, O Israel! Now look to your own House, O David.” The Israelites returned to their homes.

The people had no trust in the government that was imposed upon them. This had the potential to lead to a civil war. Stones were thrown at the throne and the king fled south to the capital city. The Northern citizens made Jeroboam king.

On his return to Jerusalem, Rehoboam mustered all the House of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin, 180,000 of the best warriors, to fight against the House of Israel, in order to restore the kingship to Rehoboam son of Solomon.

They were on the way to a Civil War until God intervened in the form of a prophet who told Rehoboam:

Thus said GOD: You shall not set out to make war on your kindred the Israelites. Return to your homes, for this thing has been brought about by Me.” They heeded the word of GOD and turned back, in accordance with the word of GOD.

Unlike 1860 the war between the North and South of Israel never took place and the kingdom of Israel seceded peacefully from the kingdom of Judah.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Is there a lesson to be learned from this for us in Israel? First of all, let’s look at the names of the two major characters. Jeroboam’s name in Hebrew is ירבעם which could mean the one who starts fights and is responsible for separation of the nation into two. Since the narrator is Judean, Jeroboam is depicted as causing the rebellion among the people against Judah and its king. He will be the one to go down in infamy for causing a rift in the kingdom. Ironically, Rehoboam’s father was Solomon שלמה:  associations with peace שלום , or ארץ ישראל שלמה – the entire and united land belonged to his father. His name in Hebrew רחבעם means to enlarge the nation. His name implies potential, the potential to build up, enlarge, restore freedom to the taxpayers who worked so hard under Solomon’s reign. Instead, he was influenced by the wrong advisers.

CIVIL WAR AND AN UNCIVIL SOCIETY

Second, we don’t have a God to intervene and make decisions for us. Our leaders, if and when they accept advice, do it out of self-interest. Unfortunately there are not too many models of leadership to choose from. It’s not Rehoboam vs. Jeroboam! We are a bifurcated society. It’s not just the “right” vs. the “left” or the “secular” vs. the “religious” or the “peace lovers” vs. the “warmongers”. Caught in between are those who are demanding the return of their loved ones. The unity that we experienced after October 7th has dissipated. For a few weeks, every official or unofficial meeting, ending with עם ישראל חי. We don’t hear it anymore. Or perhaps I’m not paying that much attention. There are demonstrations both demanding the return of the hostages, stopping the war and doing anything to get their loved ones back. Their are counter-demonstrations trying to stop food and fuel from going into Gaza to help the people there.. There are those who advocate giving in to whatever Hamas demands—even if it means that almost 3000 murderers/terrorists will be set free from our prisons. They are adamant that the government is responsible for what happened and that the government now has to do whatever it takes to getting the hostages back. But there are those who are bitterly opposed to exchanging the hostages for most, if not all, of the Hamas prisoners and stopping the war. The extremists among them even want to resettle Gaza . They are threatening to leave the government if they don’t get their way. They see no way out of the quandary we are in and are definitely opposed to Palestinian statehood. They are so set in their ways that nothing can convince them to moderate their demands. They want to restore the entire biblical land of Israel and will not back down. Where is God when we need a deity, to intervene. Not only is there no God to intervene, there is a leader who speaks with “forked tongue”. On the one hand he says: “We will not end the war, we will not remove the IDF from the Gaza Strip, and we will not release thousands of terrorists.” On the other hand, he says, “We are working to obtain another outline for the release of our hostages, but I emphasize: Not at any cost.” He goes on, trying to appease everyone: “We are constantly working for the release of our hostages and the achievement of the other goals of the war: the elimination of Hamas and the promise that Gaza will no longer pose a threat.  We are working on all three together and will not give up on any of them.”

In this week’s parsha and in my imaginary haftarah, there was Yitro with his sound advice and the elders. Moses listened to Yitro and reorganized his work place so that he would not be overburdened. Rehoboam listened to his cronies and only because of God’s intervention there wasn’t a civil war. But the country ended up being split into two kingdoms. Sometimes it seems to me that in the present state we are in Israel, we have two states: not North vs, South. It seems as if we are all at odds with each other: those who are interested in occupying more and more territory (to the East and to the South) and those who would like to find an equitable solution which does not include deporting the non-Jewish population. Despite all the screaming and yelling and demonstrations, it is not clear what is the vox populi—and even if , despite the polls, there is a clear demand for change in the present government. Nothing is going to happen overnight. I tremble at the days ahead and do not envy any of the people who have to make difficult decisions. All decisions will be painful and will cause pain. There will be no winners at the end of the day.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote that ‘We Are Not Very Far From an Explosion’. He asked whether the gyre of slaughter can be broken, a third intifada averted and something new emerge from the West Bank’s disintegration and Israel’s invasion of Gaza  I wondered as I read this if he was thinking of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats which is a perfect description of what is happening today in our world:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst /  Are full of passionate intensity.

 

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 from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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