This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 1/25/2019 by Abbē Neumann
This parsha, especially in comparison to the previous parsha, is actually fairly short in length while the events depicted are incredibly powerful and important. In this parsha we read about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, learning of the miracles that God performed to help free the Israelites. We read about how Jethro is so in awe by these events that he travels to the Israelite people, meets with Moses and even extends advice to Moses out of genuine love and concern for the Israelite people and their future. We then read about the gathering at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the 10 Commandments, an incredibly dramatic and awesome scene where God speaks not just to Moses but to all of the Israelite people.
While reading this parsha, I found the dynamic between Jethro and Moses to be incredibly interesting. First, we have here the leader of the Midian people that, when he hears about the miracles that God has performed to help the Israelites, is so moved that he takes Zipporah, Moses wife, and their two children and ventures out to meet Moses and speak with him personally. His excitement for the development of the people and their relationship with God is passionate and inspiring. I think it’s important to remember that Jethro was not monotheistic but admits:
“Blessed be the LORD,” 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 the LORD is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”
We then read that Jethro brings burnt offerings and sacrifices for God. Jethro’s words and actions are significant not just because he recognizes the power of God but that he expresses genuine respect for God and his chosen people. This is antithetical to Pharaoh who embodied smugness, conceit and refused to accept God’s plan for the Israelites. Pharaoh thought that he was more powerful than God whereas Jethro is humble before God and the people.
Later in the parsha, Jethro comes across a scene that puzzles and concerns him. He watches as lines of people gather morning into night, just to bring their problems before Moses and wait for his judgements and wisdom. Jethro reaches out to Moses and asks:
“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?”
After Moses explains his role in this process, Jethro responds with:
“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.
Again we hear from Jethro a genuine concern for Moses, the people and their future. Perhaps this was something that only a neutral third party could see, perhaps it was something that Moses and the Israelite people have been thinking about this whole time but didn’t want to admit out loud. Whatever the reason was, Jethro had the love and compassion to extend his concern to Moses directly. Moses, a man who has been speaking to and fulfilling the commands directly from God! What’s even more amazing is that Moses immediately gets to work on following through with that advice.
I find the relationship between these two leaders fascinating. They both inspire each other, they greatly respect each other and they trust each other. There aren’t many words in this parsha that really go into detail about their relationship but the actions that they take speak louder than words. Jethro didn’t come to Moses to impart selfish demands or to show off his power, he came out of the sheer excitement and beauty of the chosen people. Moses didn’t brush off Jethro’s advice or feel threatened by him, he took his advice to heart and followed through. This is a really beautiful moment in Torah, in my opinion. Moses is often depicted as kind of alone, tired, doubtful of himself and exasperated but here we see him with a level of comfort and mutual respect. Moses doesn’t doubt himself, he just does it.
Now maybe this was just the way father/son-in-law relationships were during this time period but I have to wonder because Moses isn’t just “some guy,” this is a man speaks to God and gets his orders from God. Maybe Moses and Jethro felt a connection with one another because they’re both people who are considered “others” or “outsiders.” Moses was raised as an Egyptian, not as a Jew. Jethro was a Midian priest, not even Jewish at all. Both of these men were living in foreign places; they were not living in a world that matched who they really were on the inside. Both men developed into the people and the leaders that they are at this point in the narrative, with the inspiration and strength from God. Maybe they felt as if they each uniquely understood the challenges of being a leader who was an “other” and therefore trusted in one another.
Regardless, I think we take this moment to reflect on our own lives and relationships. Often times when we are trying to do good work that helps others, we sometimes lose ourselves in the process. We find it difficult to see out of the narrow lens we’re looking through and find it more difficult to empathize with others when we feel overwhelmed and bogged down. This can risk us to lose sight of what is really important in the work that we do and can eventually unravel the hard work we’ve already put in. Hopefully we all have a Jethro in our lives that can recognize when we’ve lost our way and feel comfortable and confident enough to reach out and speak up. If we do not have people we feel we can trust in and if we cannot let ourselves relinquish all of the power, we end up doing the opposite of good and begin to do harm to ourselves, our communities and our future. So instead of isolating ourselves, let’s all think about how we can be a little bit more like Jethro and Moses in our own relationships.