Tolstoy wrote,” All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Modern psychologists and family therapists can debate the accuracy of the Russian novelist’s claim. Yet, I think the Torah might shed some light on the issue.
In the narrative describing Am Yisrael’s journey from the Exodus towards the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Torah surprisingly inserts a brief family story.
Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel his people, how that Hashem had brought Israel out of Egypt. Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, received Zipporah, Moshe’s wife after he had sent her away and her two sons. The name of one son was Gershom, for Moshe said, “have lived as foreigner in foreign land.” The name of the other was Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my help and delivered me from Pharaoh’s sword.” Yitro, Moshe’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe into the wilderness where he was encamped, at the Mountain of God. He said to Moshe, “, your father-in-law Yitro, have come to you with your wife, and her two sons with her.” Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed and kissed him. They asked each other of their welfare, and they came into the tent. Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had come on them on the way, and how Hashem delivered them. Yitro rejoiced for all the goodness which Hashem had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. (Exodus 18:1-9)
The Torah discusses Yitro to set up the next story where he instructs Moshe regarding judging the people. Yet, the description of Moshe’s wife Zipporah and their children sticks out. Why does the Torah introduce them if they don’t play a significant role in the story’s continuation? In fact, Moshe seems to ignore them completely, “Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law… Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done.” Furthermore, why does the Torah repeat the etymology of Gershom’s name, which was mentioned earlier in Exodus 2:22? Many of the commentators, based on Exodus Rabbah 5:8, suggest that Eliezer is the child of the brit mentioned in the mysterious passage at the end of chapter 4. Yet, the Torah first discusses his naming at this moment. And lastly, until now, the Torah remained silent regarding what happened to Zipporah. What does “Zipporah, Moshe’ wife, after he had sent her away” refer to?
Perhaps, all these questions can be answered by understanding the upcoming story where Yitro criticizes Moshe judging the people. The Torah informs us “that Moshe sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moshe from the morning to the evening.” Yitro suggests, “the thing that you do is not good. You will surely wear away, both you and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.” (18:17-18)
Here Moshe seems to be working himself to the bone day and night. He has no time for himself. Even from the perspective of the people, this managerial style won’t succeed. Moshe can’t do everything himself. Yitro omits to mention, perhaps strategically, the impact of this regimen on Moshe’s family. By bringing Zipporah and their sons to greet the camp, Yitro, Zipporah’s father, and Gershom and Eliezer’s grandfather might have been critiquing his son-in-law all along.
We don’t know when Moshe sent Zipporah and the children away. The Torah initially recounted that they were all four going to Egypt. A strange event happens on the way leading to Zipporah chastising Moshe for not having circumcised the child. And upon arrival, the rest of the family no longer appears in the story. Rashi (18:2) suggests that when Moshe appeared before his brother, Aharon warned Moshe to send the family away. R. Chaim Ibn Attar, in his Ohr HaChaim, goes further. Focusing on the word “sending her away,” he suggests that Moshe divorced his wife (compare Devarim 24:1). If this is indeed the case, then an ironic situation seems to have occurred. The Midrash at the beginning of Exodus suggests that upon hearing the decree of Pharaoh, Moshe’s father Amram divorced his mother Yocheved until Miriam corrected him of his error. Perhaps, Moshe, the son, also divorced his wife to avoid increasing the difficulty of the situation. Be that as it may, Zipporah and children disappear from the story of the events in Egypt.
Upon return, Yitro brings Moshe’s family back to him. He reminds him of his duty to Zipporah and even the joy of the birth of the children. The father, Yitro seems to suggest, has obligations he has ignored.
This would explain why the Torah brings up the etymology of the names now. It’s as if, Yitro is saying to Moshe, “here is your beloved wife, don’t you remember your love for her? Here are your precious sons. Don’t you recall how you named them to remind you of your roots? Here, Moshe, here is your family. They need you and you need them.”
And this leads to the problem of Moshe, the workaholic. Day and night, Moshe takes the burden of his people on his shoulders and ignores himself and, more importantly, for Yitro, his family. The father and grandfather can’t accept this situation. As a wise sage, he understands the complexity of family and personal dynamics. By immediately bringing Moshe’s wife and children, he delicately reminds Moshe of these obligations. When that doesn’t work, Yitro thoughtfully plots to relieve Moshe of some of his burdens. Moshe’s “do it all alone” approach harms everyone.
A former student told me that the best teachers are usually not the best parents and the best parents are not the best teachers. I’m not convinced this has to be so. Of course, this can be the case in any profession, from coding to banking to medicine and contracting. Parents often find the work-life-family balance difficult. As Moshe’s older and wiser mentor, Yitro steps in to say that not finding this balance can jeopardize everything.
In the end, Moshe acquiesces to this fatherly advice and delegates responsibility. While commentators debate the chronology of the story, following those such as Ramban (18:1), who understand that these events took place before the giving of the Torah, makes this discussion all the more powerful. Moshe’s realization of the need to balance comes on the eve of receiving the Torah, perhaps highlighting the need for making room for our families as a prerequisite for receiving the Divine command. How can we love, be faithful, and serve God if we aren’t prepared to do the same for our families as well?
Despite a slightly confusing linguistic history, many quote the phrase, “Derech Eretz Kadma LaTorah” (see the entry in Wikipedia), which has its basis in the words of our sages. In the Passover Haggadah, most interpret the phrase “Derech Eretz” to refer specifically to marital partnership and family life. Indeed, following the simple chronology of events, Yitro came at the right time, reminding Moshe that a balanced family life of love and care is indeed critical if we are to fulfill our religious aspirations.