Friday, June 8, 2001 | return to: torah


How’s an in-law to behave? Follow example of Jethro

by Rabbi Stephen Pearce

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Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

A young Jewish woman brought her fiancé home to meet her parents. In a private after-dinner conversation, her father asked the young man about his plans.

"I am a Torah scholar," he replied.

"A Torah scholar," the father responded, "that is very admirable, but how do you intend to support my daughter?"

"I will study," the young man replied, and then he added, "and God will provide for us."

Said the father: "And how will you be able to afford an engagement ring?"

"I will concentrate on my studies and God will provide," the young man once again replied.

"And if you have children, how will you support them?" the anxious father inquired.

"Don't worry sir, God will provide," the fiancé confidently assured the man.

And so it went. To each inquiry, the scholar insisted that God would provide.

Later, when the mother asked how the conversation went, the father replied, "Quite well. Although he has no job, plans or visible means of support, nevertheless, he thinks I am God!"

This humorous story is tame compared to most jokes and media portrayals of in-laws. Most often they are cruel and mocking, picturing fathers- and mothers-in-law as manipulative, pushy, stupid, intrusive, conniving, overbearing know-it-alls. Paradoxically, these same despised people somehow managed to raise children who are wonderful human beings.

Biblical tradition provides examples of "nightmare in-laws," most notably Lot, who cheated, abused and robbed his not-so-perfect nephew and son-in-law, Jacob. However, other examples provide illustrations of in-laws who knew just the right balance between offering advice and keeping silent.

Consider Naomi who inspired such devotion in her daughter-in-law Ruth that Ruth declared, "Entreat me not to leave you, and to return to following after you; for where you go I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).

Naomi, exemplary mother-in-law, has a biblical male counterpart, Jethro, known in Hebrew as Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, featured in this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotkha, as well as in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). Jethro provided his son-in-law, Moses, with employment after he fled Egypt; he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage; Jethro cared for his daughter and grandsons when Moses returned to Egypt.

When Moses was overwhelmed with administrative and judicial tasks, Jethro offered him organizational advice, suggesting that he appoint subordinate judges to deal with straightforward cases, leaving Moses to deal with more complicated proceedings. Furthermore, Jethro also declared the power of Moses' God, "Yahweh is greater than all the gods" (Exodus 18:11).

Just who this exemplary father-in-law was is shrouded in mystery. He is referred to by a variety of names, including Reuel (Exodus 2:18, Numbers 10:29), Jether (Exodus 4:18), Hobab (Judges 4:11, Numbers 10:29), Heber (Judges 4:11), Keni (Judges 1:16, 4:11) and Putiel (Exodus 6:25). The text suggests that he may have been a priest of the Kenite clan of Midianites who migrated from the southeast Sinai Peninsula with the Israelites to the Promised Land (I Samuel 15:6).

Some scholars suggest that it was Jethro who provided the inspiration for the Mosaic knowledge and service of Yahweh (Exodus 18:19), an unproven theory referred to as the "Kenite Hypothesis." Little is known about Kenites except that they were thought to be metalworkers and musicians (Genesis 4:20-22).

Given the warm, loving relationship between Moses and Jethro, it is no wonder that Moses pleaded with his father-in-law to remain with him as the Israelites prepared to continue their search for the Promised Land: "We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, 'I will give it to you.' Come with us" (Numbers 10:29). But Jethro turned down the invitation.

In a moving moment, Moses pleaded with his father-in-law, "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and you can be our eyes" (Numbers 10:31). But Jethro did not respond and a reader may infer that Jethro understood the delicate balance between giving advice and knowing when to be silent. It was time for Moses to assert his leadership without the assistance of his father-in-law.

The devotion between this son- and father-in-law is a wonderful model. Those who keep it in mind may find that they are able to prevent an in-law from becoming an outlaw.

The writer is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.


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